Welcome to Europe’s Painful New Normal

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In case you haven’t noticed, the great European crisis is the biggest political game changer in postwar history.

Although declaratory history (“These are outstanding times,” “Historians will look back on these momentous days”) is always a bit silly, it is not silly at all to say that the foundations for the new, postcrisis Europe have already been laid, and that no matter how the crisis unfolds, a return to the status quo ante will be impossible. There is no going back to “normal” because “normal” for Europe is not what it used to be.

Welcome to the new normal: a hugely inconvenient state of affairs for this lovely continent.

Europe’s new normal is a state of affairs in which the postwar integrationist zeal and sense of togetherness is gone. The institutions that were built on that enthusiasm, most notably EU and NATO, are entering a phase of tedious small-scale internal haggling with no hope of a great leap forward. They will survive, as they are both still needed, but their internal workings will be endlessly more difficult than in the past and their output much harder fought for.

Europe has become a continent in which the temptation of nationalism is back, in both its mild and its more robust forms. The long, almost idyllic postwar period in which Europe was largely immune to this standard feature of political discourse is over. And again, it is the EU institutions that will suffer, as they require a modicum of postnational thinking to fulfill their core functions.

The return of nationalist tendencies clashes with another aspect of the new normal. European integration is now progressing at stellar speed—at least in the eurozone—with bailouts, stability mechanisms, and fiscal and banking unions creating a new and practically irreversible form of integrated economic governance in Europe. This new system will require new sources of legitimacy, which no one is inclined to create. Europe will henceforth be characterized by the conflict between the search for this rare political commodity and the old ghosts of nationalism, who stand firmly opposed.

The new normal also means that the presence of Europe’s great external postwar balancer, the United States, will be less strongly felt in Europe’s politics. But Europeans still yearn for the great subsidizer. Eastern Europeans long for protection, Southern Europeans for support for their Keynesian ideas, the UK for a special partner, France for a friendly foe, Denmark for a call to arms, and Germany for a redeemer to make its postmodern dreams come true.

In addition, all Europeans share the hope that America will continue to keep the world at bay so they can benefit from stability and open sea lanes. But they all hope in vain. Because Europe’s new state of affairs also means that European countries will have to become normal nations in foreign policy. After two generations of lavish subsidies, they will finally be forced to foot a larger part of the bill. This will likely be the most painful element of the new normal.

What’s more, Europe’s three traditional outliers—the UK, Russia, and Turkey—are now less drawn to the center and instead prefer to stay on the margins of the political continent. Russia has already made that decision. Turkey is deeply torn over the issue. Britain clings to an idea of geopolitical eminence that no longer exists. The centrifugalists might even prevail in driving Mother England away from the continent; some say they have already done so.

For Europe, that is very bad news. The new normal means the EU’s geopolitical attraction is too weak not only to lure distant partners like the United States, but also for key players in Europe’s immediate neighborhood.

In the new Europe, Germany has returned to its naturally dominant role, which it derives from its sheer size and location. But normal in the German case is never quite normal. Today, it means a country that is at once a grown-up democracy and a deeply afflicted society with lingering self-doubts and a refusal to define its role in the world. Germany, which is not an instinctively Western nation, will have to fight harder than ever to be integrated into the West, and its partners will have to remind it more firmly of its need to do so.

Berlin’s natural tendency is not to succumb to some Eastern (read Russian) temptation, as some strategic forecasters keep claiming, but to feel it can manage on its own. Nothing would be more dangerous for peace and stability in Europe than a Germany outside the family of Western nations. There will be an increased struggle to prevent this from happening.

The new normal need not be a horror scenario. Like no other continent in the world, Europe is used to confronting its ghosts and its temptations. It is a generally hardworking, innovative, tolerant, and well-educated place. But during its sixty-year sabbatical from history, it has adopted a few practices it will find hard to unlearn.

The new normal will be brutal in its judgment. Either Europe discards its bad habits quickly and finds new ones fast, or the next decades will be a period of turmoil and decline. History is back for Europe. And that is the most normal thing in the world.



Comments (3)

  • K Bledowski
    A smart set of diverse ideas.

    One deserves immediate attention. The EU is building a Lego-block type of structure, with ad-hoc additions, and largely uncoordinated. Jan names the examples: centralized bank regulation, a synthetic treasury (ESM), and stiff fiscal rules, to name a few. They are there because the EU thinks it should integrate whatever it can. But these are second- or third-best alternatives because first-best won’t cut the political test. Europe is building a third-best house because it can’t afford to deploy first-class political engineering.

    If politics need to be re-nationalized, then this calls for a wholesale aggiornamento of existing institutions, starting with the EP and ending with the Commission. Few admit that pedaling back from the center is the right way to go but that’s what the people of Europe want. When domestic political change forces this in a disorderly way, the costs could be high. The EU should start debating decentralization sooner rather than later.
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  • HD Jopp
    Being borne in 1948 I grew up with the beautiful ideas of a new Europe by his founding fathers. The changes for the better could be done because some politician leaders were willing to give away a part of sovereignty to the comming European Union.
    Jan Techau put the finger in the right wounds. But the better way will not be to go back to nationalism. Do we really believe in European Member States like Hungry, Italy etc.?
    No, the way ahead in a globalized world can only be a way out of the normal as Jan described it. But to make this happen we nead a Germany willing to lead, thinking and acting with a common strategy.
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  • Dr. Makni

    Bledowsk: you summed up very well, 'A smart set of diverse ideas.'

    I clearly see some worry about European nationalism catching up again and EU trying to jump over to lower options in bid to integrate Europe with all kinds of available institutional instruments. The crop is so thick that some observers note, EU is caught in the soup of alphabets. Jan sees New Normal as brutal and perhaps similar are the apprehension of some EU members within. UK may be the case in point.   
    I perceive, EU thrust to embrace entire Europe is triggered by its divisive history when Empires ruled the Europe with war and alliances so frequent that even at times it was labeled as bar.... Europe. When violence persisted for centuries, Europe stood divided not because of territories but more because of the psychological gulf that had been ripping it apart ever since. It is true that if EU continues its pace and manages to absorb the peripheries without potent military muscles, its act would go deep in the annals of history. The success would however, mean more responsibility when EU would be expected to play role out of Europe. That would be the stage when the traction on its erstwhile non-European allies relationship would be felt conspicuously. More EU is seen inclined to pursue its path on merit, added would be the glimpses of, as some may call, European nationalism. Iraq may be cited. EU, like US is expected to play a role in an arena that is capable of catapulting the traditional alliances, the Black Sea Region where, all agree that its chances of success are far more than non-European mediator or at least I saw that way in my brief research paper titled, "Will the Black Sea Blow Up (http://www.eurasiareview.com/04072013-will-the-black-sea-blow-up-analysis)                        or
    Therefore I tend to agree with the EU charter as well its pursuits that are in right direction. Europe is however threatened by yet far neighbors who might export violence, drugs, weapons and irregular immigrants but then the menace is in EU notice and it is focused on it. Thanks and yes, Dr. Makni is my acronym.
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