The Problem With a Small Europe

NEW YORK – News headlines notwithstanding, the fundamental challenge facing Europe today extends far beyond Greece. The real question is what kind of European Union Greece’s creditors want: a “small” one, comprising only the countries that are prepared to live by their exacting standards, or a “big” one that heeds the Treaty of Rome’s call for “ever-closer union.”

The German leader Otto von Bismarck confronted a similar dilemma when he presided over German unification in the nineteenth century. Best remembered for his commitment to Realpolitik (the view, as Lord Palmerston put it, that “nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests”), Bismarck had to address whether unified Germany should be big or small – with or without Austria, and led jointly or by Prussia alone. It took two wars, against Austria and France, for the “small Germany” solution to prevail.

Some blame Bismarck for Germany’s slide toward fascism in the twentieth century. That is a stretch. What he did do was demonstrate how to use crises to force his preferred outcome – a practice that the leaders of Europe’s creditor countries seem to be emulating today. Indeed, in pushing for a small Europe, they have asserted, using the sober rhetoric of Realpolitik, that Europe’s integration path is necessarily shaped by the crises that arise along the way.

For Europe’s creditor countries, like Bismarck in the nineteenth century, crises are an acceptable price to pay for a more stable future. They seem not to recognize that, with their current approach, they will also end up sacrificing the EU’s fundamental principles.