Reis naar het continent – Mathieu Segers (2013)

This is a very well researched account of the creation of Europe, from World War II to the present day, with quite some technical details. Nevertheless, Segers never loses his general thread. He starts with stressing that the unification of Europe was a strongly held wish from the United States (“building Europe”) and that there was only one real combination driving this process forward: the axis France-Germany.

Those two countries, however, had different motives: the French wanted to keep Germany in check, with the horrors of both World Wars still fresh in mind, and saw at the same time a huge opportunity to profit from Germany’s strong economy. The Germans wanted to be recognized as member of the European family.

Really fascinating was to read that France, already back then, refused to seriously reform its economy (in spite of the German pressure) and always opted for political solutions, protecting its own market. The Netherlands held quite the opposite view: our interest was economic and our approach technocratic. It is one of the most dividing differences running through Europe – then and now: what comes first, economical or political deepening?

France has its own special role according to Segers; a country always striving for dominance and fiercely anti-American. When ‘Bretton Woods’ failed and the dollar was swapped for the D-Mark as the monetary sun around which all other countries revolved, France saw its wish for a more continental, a more political union getting closer. The Germans were on their turn willing to bring great sacrifices to reconcile with their neighbors. Because the French were (and are) of the opinion that employment and growth are as important as price stability (the central German axiom) a lot of money was needed to make this possible. And it goes without saying that this was German money.

A good reminder for those who are fearsome of the popular support Eurosceptic political parties currently generate is that a skeptical, sometimes even hostile, attitude toward European integration is nothing new – from the very start of the European project a lot of people were against, up to the highest political level. But the men in charge managed the integration process very well, giving it a somewhat unavoidable energy. Each step European leaders took, secretly or overtly, automatically led to the following one. To give an example: creating a common agricultural policy led to the ‘necessity’ of seriously considering a EMU zone. As it was, Europe was mainly driven by idealism, leaving little room for rational considerations.

An important thread in the book is the EMU’s trilemma (which is still relevant): of the holy trinity 1) free flow of capital 2) fixed exchange rates and 3) independent monetary policy only two could be realized at the same time. One always has to be given up. This is one of the core problems of the currency union, since countries have different priorities.

It is striking to what extent (political) friendships, and not democratic processes, are decisive in shaping the European Union. Kohl and Mitterrand forged a strong bond that lasted until the latter died; Kohl has at several occasions bypassed his cabinet and the Bundesbank in favor of his friend, and for that matter giving way to French wishes. Which in the end always meant more money. Combined with European Commission President Delors’ passionate and relentless work for the European cause, this gave a enormous boost to the process of integration. Many countries were too late in realizing what they were singing for or missed the opportunity to put forward their second thoughts at all.
Europe had become a purely political process, with at its core the premise that the two Germanies were permitted to become one if Europe would unify as well.

The story of the Dutch, however, is different. The Frech-German tactics were overwhelming, in a negative sense. We were sidelined at defining moments – at least twice: in the fifties with the launch Schuman plan for the ECSC when Holland, still focused on the Atlantic alliance, had to follow the Germans since the two neighbors were economically completely interwoven. The Netherlands had no other choice than, albeit contrecoeur, to join.
The second time was in ’89-’91 with the de facto creation of the EMU. An important lesson I learn from this is that the Dutch are sandwiched between European high politics and our wish for monetary prudence. In our attempts to keep both separated we lose the option to lead and have to settle for a role in the back seat. And this is a back seat of an Europe that, with a diminishing role for Great Britain, has become increasingly ‘continental’, driven by political interest rather than economic considerations. One of the best examples is how fiscal discipline is made subject of political horse-trading, with the current Greek crisis as exemplary case.

The Netherlands were too focused on the Americans and the Britons in the beginning, had little interest for, or vision on Europe in the 70’s and didn’t really understand the way European politics was played in the decades thereafter. We have just been too late (or too stubborn) in realizing that Europe has been for long an German-French affair.
Things have changed quite a bit since 2003 in Holland, the year the European climate took a negative turn. Larger parts of the Dutch population became suspicious of Europe. One of the main reasons is that our position is a difficult one: as a virtual economic province of Germany Europe has always been highly profitable, but as a plaything of great powers the story of European integration has also a very confusing, overwhelming and uncontrollable side to it. Many crises have come along since the 1950’s during which Holland has had its fair deal of sufferance, but every time something valuable, something intangible, refrained us from giving up.
As a sort of last advice, Segers sees a great role for the Netherlands in shaping the European future if only it would learn to act in a more European way, acknowledging the indsiputable facts and relying less on its ‘magic realism’.