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Published:May 29th, 2007 10:36 EST

Is There Any Captain On European Ship?

By Krzys Wasilewski

For decades, Europe seemed to have had luck on her side as far as her leaders were concerned. Be Winston Churchill who first coined the idea of the United States of Europe, or Charles de Gaulle, father of the French Fifth Republic, big both in his posture and political vision. East of the Rhine, the first chancellor of West Germany, Konrad Adenauer not only steered his wounded nation towards democracy, but also turned the concept of European integration into flesh. Half a century later, however, the ship called Europe is in desperate need of a new captain.

By the end of World War II, Europe was teetering on the brink of collapse. In 1945, the continent, which in the previous centuries had firmly stood as the world's beacon of enlightenment, development, and innovation, in 1945 appeared to be a barren land stained with mutilated corpses. Theodor Adorno, the German philosophical thinker, remarked, “After Auschwitz writing poetry is barbaric.” Numbers spoke for themselves: almost six million people gassed in concentration camps, due to a well-planned and coldly carried out politics; 66 million of soldiers and civilians killed on dozens of fronts, under the falling buildings, or by hunger; countless with physical and mental scarves never be healed. Those who did survive asked themselves if this continent could ever rise again after such madness.

The answer came surprisingly quickly. Stripped of all hope for a better future, with no funds nor other means, Europe was bound to land on the ash heap of history. However, only 20 years later, the continent was enjoying the greatest period of welfare in its history, competing with America as equal but at the same time cultivating its own form of social market economy. It is true that the lion's share of this unheard of ever before miracle Europe owed to the United States and the Marshall Plan, but had it not been for such individuals as Germany's Konrad Adenauer and Ludwig Erhard, France's Charles de Gaulle and Robert Schuman, among others, the old continent might have never freed itself from its own ossified shell.

Adenauer became the first German chancellor after WW II, at 74. He was born in 1876, five years after Wilhelm I crowned himself as emperor of the Second Reich in the lavish corridors of France's Versailles. When Hitler came to power in 1933, Adenauer (a long-term Mayor of Cologne at that time) did not follow the majority of his countrymen and chose inner emigration. His comeback to mainstream politics was possible due to the American occupiers who quickly recognized in Adenauer a tough and faithful politician capable of holding Germans in reins. In addition, Adenauer was also a formidable opponent of communism, which drew dangerously close to Western Europe. The Red Army stationed east of Berlin, with Moscow-sent communists forming governments in Central and Eastern Europe. Adenauer sensed that only tightly controlled democracy combined with strong economy – that is everything what Germany of the 1920s lacked – could allow Germans to return to the family of civilized nations and save them from falling into Stalin's hands. Moreover, which country would be the best help to achieve this goal than the former mortal foe – France?

France survived the Second World War but only just. Her centuries-long empire lay in ruins; the military calamity of 1940 abolished the myth of French bravery whereas the collaboration with the Nazis completely discredited the country's political elites. The period urgently called for a new Napoleon who could restore the old virtues and pride, and Charles de Gaulle appeared to be that very man. Like Napoleon, de Gaulle was a general, one of the few in the French army who dared to oppose Hitler's aggression. Like Napoleon, de Gaulle could establish a direct contact with his soldiers, continuously telling them that to die for France is the highest virtue a man can make. When the war was over, the great commander was able to turn the militaristic fever of his faithful disciples into the force, which catapulted France to the world's top economic league. However, stronger and more assertive France was becoming, in the post WW II realities it stood no chance against such giants as the United States and the Soviet Union. Being aware of this brutal truth as well as of Germany's growing power, de Gaulle extended his hand to Adenauer, 14 years his senior, in what was to become the beginning of European integration. What a remarkable and epoch-making change it was, is testified by the fact that only ten years earlier both countries were at each other's throats. In 1951, the Treaty of Paris signed by West Germany, France, Italy, Holland, Belgium, and Luxembourg, which constituted the formation of the European Coal and Steel Community – the prototype of the European Union as it is nowadays. The new organization not only accelerated economic growth in the whole of Western Europe, but also laid the foundation for political unification among the member states. Had it not been for de Gaulle (the general became president in 1959, but it was an open secret that he had been pulling all the strings in France's politics long before that date), as well as Adenauer, and their ministers: Robert Schuman, Jean Monnet, Ludwig Erhard; the history of the continent could have steered in a completely different direction.

Observing Europe today, one may ask what happened to this once strong and self-assured continent. If, in the 1960s and 1970s it acted like an unbreakable unity, unanimously opposing the threats of communism from the east and absolute capitalism from the west, then it entered the 21st century divided by mutual accusations and revived nationalisms. Although the European Union has grown to 27 countries - its outer borders now spread from the Atlantic Ocean to the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, forming the biggest economical market in the world with almost half a billion customers - politically, the EU is a colossus on feet of clay. The brainchild of Adenauer and de Gaulle's successors – the European Constitution -- was univocally rejected by the people of France and Holland that is by the two countries, which up until then had been considered the backbone of the integration. The Constitution in the trash, member states submerged themselves in a swamp of nationalisms, magnified by uncontrolled immigration and terrorist threat from within.

Unlike half a century ago, none of contemporary European politicians looks up to the hard times. President Jacques Chirac of France, one of the fathers of the European Constitution, locked himself in the Versailles and counted days to his political retirement, following the Constitution's failure. Nicholas Sarkozy – the man who replaced Chirac – despite promising declarations seems neither strong nor self-assured enough to take over European steerage. Although he likes to compare himself to Napoleon - two most visible things Sarkozy has in common with the Emperor of the French are the height and unfaithful women. On the other hand, Angela Merkel (an aid to another German great chancellor, Helmut Kohl) has managed to stabilize Germany and restore optimism in economical circles; yet the former physicist from East Germany apparently lacks Adenauer's great vision and Kohl's charisma to truly change European course. For many years, it was Prime Minister Tony Blair of Great Britain who in opinion of many had all the necessary characteristics to fill the shoes of his great predecessors: Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. Nevertheless, his great vision to reshape continental Europe into an Anglo-Saxon model lost its priority when Blair got his country bogged down in the war in Iraq. The Commission on Africa and plans to write off Africa's debt turned out to be his swan song, with his political friends across Europe refusing to meet with him. In many pan-European opinion polls, Blair was surpassed only by President Bush as the world's most hated politician. It is doubtful that, painted as the next British prime minister, Gordon Brown – a Scotsman and intellectual – could inspire the continent as much as Tony Blair tried and hoped for. Two other of Europe's big players – Spain's Prime Minister Zapatero and his Italian counterpart, Romano Prodi – are too controversial in their socialist policies to take over the steering of the continent. The former one, discredited himself visiting such great democratic leaders as Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Fidel Castro of Cuba; Prodi, on the other hand, has been struggling to keep his wide coalition in one piece, with communists and Catholics who form his government restlessly fighting for more power.

Is, then, Europe heading for catastrophe? Not necessarily. The hope may be found in the area, which for over half a century, was not even considered to be Europe: Central and Eastern Europe. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, countries of the region have been experiencing unimpeded growth, which surprises even the biggest of optimists. The Czech Republic has already exceeded Portugal and is approaching Greece in the national income. The Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, being now in the forefront of European integration, have permanently cut off their ties with Russia. Larger countries, such as Poland and Hungary constantly remind Old Europe that their opinions must be taken into account when important political decisions are made. What is more important, all of these new member states have shown a great zeal in instigating European debates.

Old Europe seems to have dropped off. It has achieved almost everything that was to achieve: they are among the world's most prosperous countries; social services really work, with terrorism being seemingly far away. On the other hand, the New Europe is in the place where Germany, France, or Italy was 40 years ago. The have a lot to gain, and are not afraid to risk pursuing their dreams of welfare. Who knows - maybe the next Adenauer and de Gaulle will come from Prague or Bucharest?

 

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