Guests include Professor Jeff Anderson, Director of the BMW Centre for German-American Studies at Georgetown University and Klaus Larres, professor of European Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
(Adapted from the broadcast audio segment; use the audio player to listen to the story in its entirety.)
Post World War II Europe was in turmoil. The bitter winter in Europe and devastating floods came on top of wartime destruction. Ruined farmlands, wrecked transportation, and destroyed factories pock-marked the land. Less than a decade later, the raw materials behind all that devastation, coal and steel, were beginning to rumble across borders.
The customs barriers to coal and steel were abolished. Currency restrictions were swept away. Quota restrictions were lifted. The picture was becoming clearer. The picture of a dynamic forward-looking idea. This was a new Europe. No longer a battlefield, but a single market.
JEFF ANDERSON: “Even though the negotiations centered on economic factors as sort of common market for coal and steel in Europe, the impetus was political. It was not by accident that these sectors were chosen. These sectors had proven to be, in some sense, the engine of war over the past 50 years. And so to render these subjects a kind of collective decision-making at some basic level would be to take a very dramatic step toward a more peaceful and stable future for Europe.”
Everyone wanted economic cooperation, but how to deal with Germany? An economic powerhouse, and a feared military power, Germany was the key question back then.
KLAUS LARRES: “So much mistrust was around. So much skepticism about the Germans was around that everyone expected the Germans to rise again within a short period of time. Perhaps develop another Hitler. The whole story of war and enmity would begin all over again. That had to be prevented.”
By the end of the 1950’s, a brighter future had arrived. It was called the European Economic Community.
KLAUS LARRES: “There was a lot of dynamism, a lot of hope, a lot of optimism around, that Europe was really getting its act together. That peace was really guaranteed after ten years. That it was impossible that the Germans and the French would go to war against each other, and not least, that Europe was becoming ever more prosperous because that was important.”
JEFF ANDERSON: “The typical European citizen is feeling much more prosperous in the 1960s relative to the ‘50s, or certainly the ‘40s – feeling like horizons are much more open for his or her children: in terms of educational opportunities, in terms of being a member of the working class, training opportunities, abilities to get decent paying jobs in the manufacturing sector. Perhaps a lot of that is a function of European integration – the common market, but the average person isn’t necessarily going to make that connection.”
But the elites did make that connection. For them, the European Economic Community, or EEC, was a major reason for the continent’s rejuvenation.
JEFF ANDERSON: “So elites see Europe as being a vital part of this prosperity narrative and this peace narrative since the end of World War II. There’s been nary an inkling of any kind of repeat of history. The EEC must be doing something right.”
The EEC was doing so much right that it began to attract new members. England, Ireland and Denmark all joined up in 1973. However, it was around that time that a global economic downturn would test this burgeoning union.
JEFF ANDERSON: “I think there’s a growing sense that Europe is a place where things don’t happen. There’s stasis. There’s bureaucracy. There’s an inability apparently to get moving on a common agenda. That’s what the ‘80s reveal in such an important way. There’s a sense that Europe needs to do something if it’s to survive in this changing international environment. The solution is a collective one.”
European leaders forged ahead with plans to streamline and invigorate the European Economic Community and even more deeply integrate their respective economies. In 1989, the ‘Iron Curtain’ that divided Europe was unexpectedly lifted and that changed everything.
KLAUS LARRES: “I switched on the television set and suddenly I saw what's happening there – the breaching of the wall in Berlin! Of course, everyone who was utterly surprised was in a way also pleased and exhilarated. But at the same time, we were also very skeptical. We all remembered the awful crimes committed by Hitler. Immediately our minds flashed back to the past and we feared what is going to happen? Will the German politicians of the future be able to contain their ambitions and aspirations?”
Throughout Europe there was a concern that with the wall down and German reunification becoming a reality, a dangerous nationalism would return to Berlin.
In the winter of 1991, European leaders gathered in the Dutch city of Maastricht for a critical meeting.
Germany’s Chancellor Helmut Kohl had to contend with nationalism at home and concern about the possibility of a powerful united Germany abroad. He struck a deal with French President Francois Mitterand that would change the future of the continent.
KLAUS LARRES: “The idea Mitterrand came up with – and Kohl agreed to – was that Germany had to be even more firmly integrated into Europe. That way, even a strong German economic superpower could be tamed. The idea was a common European currency should be drawn up. That meant the Germans would have to give up their strong currency, the Deutschemark, and adopt a new European currency.”
The meeting in Maastricht laid the foundation for what would become the Euro Zone, a common currency for Europe, and the EEC received a new name – the European Union.
It took a decade for that “Euro” to go into the pockets of Europeans. That happened on New Year’s Eve 2001.
In 2004, the European Union ambitiously expanded to include former Eastern Bloc countries, like Poland and the Czech republic. Ten new countries then joined. Today the EU includes 27 member states and nearly half a billion people. It has the largest GDP in the world.
The EU’s achievements are remarkable. It helped bring wealth and peace to a continent that had been the battleground for two world wars.
Today the union is being tested once again. It’s beset by financial and political woes that have many wondering whether the EU’s history of expansion and integration will continue.