December 28, 1998
LONDON - Writing in 1751 Voltaire described Europe as "a kind of great republic, divided into several states, some monarchical, the others mixed but all corresponding with one another. They have all the same religious foundation, even if divided into several confessions. They all have the same principles of public law and politics unknown in other parts of the world."
At 11.30 pm. Central European Time, on December 31st, European Union central bankers will send their currency rates versus the dollar to the central bank of Belgium. The "Big Bang" of currency union can then be set underway as midnight strikes. In a way that Charlemagne, Voltaire, William Penn and Gladstone, the early advocates of European unity, could only dream, a united Europe becomes an almighty reality. A single currency is the most dramatic of the steps taken so far towards what surely one day will be a single political entity.
War, time and time again, has interrupted the pursuit of that objective. Continued civil war across the continent, across the centuries, has pitted French against Germans, British against Italians, Czechs against Poles, Spaniards against Spaniards, Gentiles against Jews, reaching its dreadful climax in World War 2. As Jan Morris has written in her "Fifty Years of Europe", "great cities lay in ruin, bridges were broken, roads and railways were in chaos. Conquerors from East and West flew their ensigns above the seats of old authority, and proud populations would do almost anything for a pack of cigarettes or some nylon stockings. Europe was in shock, powerless, discredited and degraded".
Many, if not most, of that generation wondered in 1945 if they'd ever see Europe again in any state of grace or glory much less unified.
The fact that the urge to bury the hatchet and forge common institutions has come so far in such a short time against such a background is arguably the twentieth century's greatest political achievement. (Following the Declaration of Independence it took the U.S. nearly 90 years to establish a fully mature common currency; Europe has travelled the same course in 40 years.)
Yet, this astonishing triumphal moment--only slightly tarnished by Britain, Sweden and Denmark choosing to sit it out--begs the question, what is the glue that holds it all together? After all what is Europe? Geographically, it is no more than a peninsula protruding from the land mass of Asia. Culturally, it has always been a potage of languages, peoples and traditions. Politically, it is a moveable feast; of the 35 sovereign states in post Iron Curtain Europe, nine have been created or resurrected since World War 2.
Indeed it is religion, not politics nor economic and monetary union that through the ages has made Europe one, held it together through its vicissitudes (many, tragically, of religious origin) and provided the common morality and common identity that makes a single currency possible today and political union a tangible, if still hotly debated, goal tomorrow.
Broadcasting to a defeated Germany in 1945, the poet T.S. Elliot reminded his audience that despite the war and "the closing of Europe's mental frontiers because of an excess of nationalism" "it is in Christianity that our arts have developed; it is in Christianity that the laws of Europe--until recently--have been rooted. An individual European may not believe the Christian faith is true; and yet what he says, and makes, and does, will depend on the Christian heritage for its meaning."
Of course, today one can ask what do the contemporary cults of finance, sports, TV, pop culture and eroticism have to do with a Christian heritage? Nevertheless, despite all, the fact is through changing fashions, through wars big and small, the idea of Europe that persists is essentially Christian. On its own, economic self-interest never would have created monetary union. Economic and monetary union has been driven all along by men and women who were essentially idealistic and visionary. From Jean Monnet, the founder of modern Europe to Helmut Schmidt, Valery Giscard D'Estaing and Helmut Kohl, the founders and creators of the Euro, the urge to remove the causes of belligerency and to form institutions that would further the development of a common democracy have been a central purpose.
Europe is not, as midnight strikes on Thursday, first and foremost a political concept or a financial convenience. It is an ideal. Thus it will never be complete. We will work at it all our lives, as will future generations. But January 1, 1999, will always be seen, I believe, as one of its great defining moments.
Copyright © 1998 By JONATHAN POWER
Note: I can be reached by phone +44 385 351172 and e-mail: JonatPower@aol.com
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