Back in 1991 I was being taught aspects of the history of European integration by an enthusiastic Europhile postgraduate student fond of quoting Jean Monnet, one of the architects of the postwar integration project: "Rien n'est possible sans les hommes, rien n'est durable sans les institutions" (nothing is possible without men, nothing is durable without institutions).
Looking back, I suspect my tutor was caught up in the idea that Europe could face the new challenges of the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe by reminding itself of the noble sentiments that had started the European integration project. The latest instalment on Greece makes me wonder if there has been, for some time now, a reverse logic at work; that the institutions are deemed to come first.
Of course the EU institutions have changed in terms of scope, size and power since Monnet’s time, but it is surely valid, given the extent of the malaise affecting the EU, to think about what happened to the original vision and how its distortion affects those coldly labelled “peripheral” members of the euro zone.
Monnet was vocal about the idea of building union among people, not just co-operation between states, while Dean Acheson, US secretary of state in the late 1940s, saw him as having "a pragmatic view of Europe's need to escape its historical parochialism".
Ironically, the current domination of EU by German fiscal priorities encourages reawakening of powerful national or "parochial" sentiment. When Spanish citizens became angry with the scale of the crisis affecting their country, thousands of them – los indignados as they were known – occupied Madrid's Puerta del Sol square and chanted, "Don't make so much noise, you'll wake up the Greeks!" It was an invitation the Greeks responded to as they built their own version of los indignados by camping in Constitution Square in Athens; a Greek adjective aganaktismenos (indignant) was used to describe their infuriation.
opted for docile obedience that has now turned to smugness; earlier this week, Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan boasted that the Irish were “now the pride of Europe . . . everywhere I go I accept plaudits for the economic growth”. But the pride of what kind of Europe? And what has this pride been built on but bullying and acceptance of a perversion of true European integration and equality? Flanagan’s comments suggest a greater preoccupation with external validation than with interrogating the failures of the EU and the culpability of German and French banks in contributing to Europe’s current fiscal woes.
There is also the extent to which the debt crisis was prompted not just by domestic failures in individual countries but by a political imperative to ignore the degree to which some countries joining the euro zone were not economically integrated enough to be part of a currency union, with blind eyes deliberately turned to membership criteria when it came to stability and growth, such was the need to trumpet the “political” achievement of creating a euro zone without political union.
The Irish Government’s smugness is an indication of just how little appetite there is for debating or analysing the European project and indeed, the extent to which the historic assertions about Ireland’s place and status in Europe have proven hollow. Former taoiseach Garret FitzGerald frequently insisted that joining the EEC would enable
“to enter the European Community as one of Europe’s ancient nations, rejoining once again the Europe from which for so many centuries she was cut off by the imposition of British rule. We shall negotiate our entry as a sovereign state . . . The voice of Ireland will be heard in Europe in the decades ahead. But for the sacrifices of those who won our freedom, none of this could have been.”
The following decade, FitzGerald was minister for foreign affairs and suggested Ireland’s 1975 presidency of the EEC represented psychological liberation: “For those of us who have . . . the task of representing Ireland’s interests in the Community, there is the exhilaration of finding ourselves, at last, participating fully and on an equal footing with our partners in efforts to organise, run and develop the Economic Community itself.” There seems a bitter irony to those assertions now.
In 2011, leading historian of Irish foreign policy Patrick Keatinge, in the context of Irish bankruptcy and the EU response, referred to "negotiations of a highly technical nature, conducted in terms of a grotesque mix of euphemism, denial and apocalyptic threat . . . It is a sobering realisation that in such an environment, the European Union itself is on the defensive."
For Greece, and the EU generally, that assessment is still valid; our current Government might ignore it in favour of deluded self-congratulations, but the more that indignant people are slighted in favour of the institutions, the more danger there is that the parochialism so feared by Monnet will persist and harden.