The naysayers are wrong about Europe (again), by Kevin O’Brien.
Public displays of optimism in Europe are often discounted like faux pas or symptoms of a brain parasite. The continent’s history is long and bloody, and although it has enjoyed 70 years of relative tranquility, it’s best to keep your exuberance in check.
So perhaps it is fitting that an American who’s lived for more than two decades in Germany is arguing why Europe won’t just survive but will thrive despite its perfect storm of financial and currency troubles, demographic woes, right-wing resurgence and refugee chaos.
I know what you’re thinking. I’m going to dish out that old upbeat, can-do mumbo jumbo you’ve heard before. Even many Americans, stuck in their own economic funk and captives of a gridlocked, unresponsive political system, don’t believe it anymore, you might argue.
That may be true. But I’m not here to sing “Happy Days Are Here Again.” Sure, it would be easy to take the opposite tack, don the continent’s traditional black street garb and fall into a pessimistic, bohemian funk. There are many reasons to be worried.
Right-wing nationalists may take control of France.
Britain, always ambivalent toward the European Union, may leave and go rogue.
The dark side of the force is on the march on the continent, awakened by refugees. Poland and Hungary are rediscovering their inner Soviet child, talking trash again to the West.
The euro has been patched like an old tire. The financial mechanics on the continent say the roadside repair will hold, but not everyone believes them. On the eastern edge of Europe in Ukraine, Russia is gnawing on the principles of European liberal democracy, again.
Most troubling, the refugee crisis is exposing the design flaws of the European Union, a 28-nation bloc that drapes itself in the terminology of American federal control and member“states,’’ but in reality is often an opt-in, self-service club without active members.
So here, in the face of all that bad karma, is my argument for why Europe will prevail.
A big reason, perhaps the biggest, is that Germany won’t let it fail. It’s one of the big reasons why bank accounts here, 16 years on, are still denominated in euros. World-famous economists have predicted the currency’s demise since its birth. Each time, they have erred.
If Europe fails, Germany, the world’s third-largest exporter, would seize up. Given its history, Germany can’t win by going it alone. It needs open borders, foreign consumers and economic partners more than its European neighbors. It needs the European Union.
Deep down, Germans and especially German businesses, know this. The public flogging of Angela Merkel over the refugee crisis will eventually ease as footpaths to Germany are closed. Wounded politically, Merkel will finish her term, and if she wants, win again in 2017.
If not, there are able candidates to replace her, all committed Europeans: Wolfgang Schäuble, confined to a wheelchair since 1990 after being shot by a deranged man at a campaign rally; Ursula von der Leyen, the defense minister, a physician and mother of seven with a nearWagnerian biography, and a moderate, measured policy wonk named Friedrich Merz.
But Germany alone won’t keep Europe alive. Those uncooperative, bickering EU member neighbors will stare into the abyss of the refugee crisis, weigh up the trade lost by resurrecting internal borders, and bite the bullet to repair some of the EU’s structural flaws. Turkey may even help them, expediting its long-awaited entry into the bloc and European respectability. The first signs of progress may be joint control of the EU’s outer perimeter.
Emboldened by their ability to actually do something together, EU countries may move on to tackle other thorny issues, such as better coordinating the anti-terror police effort, developing a more coherent immigration strategy, and even, God forbid, taking in refugees.
Sure, you say, that’s just optimistic palaver -- the equivalent of baloney in Germany -- the view of someone unfamiliar with military setback and total destruction. That is true.
But nearly 20 years ago, I saw how Europe can work.
It was in 1998 before the birth of the euro currency, when I was a journalist babysitting the high-stakes, closed-door meeting in Brussels where the first batch of euro countries were haggling over setting exchange rates for their old currencies.
National pride and national fortunes were on the line.
As big meetings often do in Europe, this one ran late, and rumors flew. Midnight passed, and by 3 a.m., the doubters seemed to be winning the day. But close to dawn, French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl emerged to face the press, a little red-eyed and weary, but ready to prove the pessimists wrong once again.
Kevin O‘Brien is the editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global Edition.