Why Europe?

PRINCETON – What is the point of Europe? The threat of an explosive disintegration of the eurozone – and with it of the European Union – is receding. But the confused outcome of Italy’s recent parliamentary election, with an upper house dominated by a party that campaigned on an anti-EU platform and a pro-European majority in the Chamber of Deputies, has revived the fundamental debate about the purpose of European integration.

Europeans find it hard to find a positive way of describing the exercise in which they have been engaged for the past six decades. One common interpretation is that integration makes people better off. Unity is supposed to be a foundation of prosperity. The Common Market was defended at the outset in terms of the gains that would follow from increased trade. The case for capital-market integration, and then for a single currency, was similar.

All of this recalls some powerful arguments that were made in the nineteenth century about national integration and unification. In particular, the two countries whose problems drove much of the need for twentieth-century European integration – Germany and Italy – were culturally and politically highly diverse. In both countries, early-nineteenth-century romantic nationalism gave way to a sober obsession with economic forces after the failed revolutions of 1848.

The influential German journalist Ludwig von Rochau, who coined the term Realpolitik, described the new German mood on the eve of Otto von Bismarck’s last war of unification. German unity was not a question of the heart’s desire; it was “a mundane business transaction, in which no one should lose, but everyone should grab as much as they could for themselves.”