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Uniting Europeans, If Any Can Be Found

detail of the European Union flag, the Quadriga of Brabant in the background
photo by Rock Cohen

I don’t consider myself a globe-trotter, but I have made my share of trips across the pond. I can say in all honesty that I have never met a European that I didn’t like.

On the other hand, I haven’t met any that I liked, either.

Don’t get me wrong. I have met many lovely, sweet people in France, England, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland and Austria, which as far as I can recall are all the European nations I have visited thus far. I have also met a few that rubbed me the wrong way, and I imagine the feeling was mutual. But I never heard any of these individuals, regardless of how I felt about them, describe themselves as “European.” When asked their nationality, they told me they were French, or Italian, or British (or maybe specifically English), or Spanish (or Catalan, in the case of one nationalist shopkeeper in Barcelona). You get the picture.

French President Francois Hollande wants to change that picture.

Hollande labored with all his might during the most recent Greek financial crisis to keep Greece in the eurozone. From all appearances, the prospect of a member of the currency bloc going its own way is one he wishes never to see again. So Hollande wants the eurozone to be more than a currency bloc; in effect, he wants it to become a federal nation, with its own government and treasury as well as its own money.

In an opinion piece published by the Journal du Dimanche, Hollande bluntly called for such a change. The text, written in honor of his mentor Jacques Delors’ 90th birthday, drew on Delors’ own ideas about European integration. Delors was a key architect of the euro and a former European Commission chief. Hollande suggested that countries in favor of closer political ties, presumably including France, should form an “avant-garde” and move ahead.

“The European spirit prevailed,” Hollande wrote. “But we cannot stop there. I have proposed taking up Jacques Delors’ idea of the eurozone government, with the addition of a specific budget, as well as a parliament to ensure democratic control.”

From Hollande’s perspective, making the eurozone into a true political entity is a pretty good way to fund French political priorities - above all, the preservation of an increasingly united Europe (with a big dose of French leadership, of course) - and French spending priorities, which tend toward higher social and public sector outlays (using German money). I do not expect the Germans to see Hollande’s vision benignly, however.

The proposal from France’s president calls into question the European Union’s founding principle of uniting the member nations in “an ever closer union.” What about the nine EU member states that are not part of the eurozone: Are they a lower class of EU member? It would seem Hollande believes this is already true, and that it ought to be. If other eurozone nations agreed, it would be a pretty strong incentive for non-euro Britain, for one, to vote to leave the EU entirely in the referendum that Prime Minister David Cameron has promised to conduct sometime in the next two years.

And what about the Germans? They were promised when they gave up the mighty and beloved deutsche mark that a monetary union would not turn them into the bankers for poorer, less productive members on the eurozone’s periphery. Rather than join the union Hollande describes, at least some elements of Germany’s political and business community would probably rather consider pulling out of the eurozone itself, or at least trimming the currency bloc’s membership to a more like-minded group of constituents.

Instead of ensuring the integrity of the eurozone, Hollande’s proposal - were it to get any traction - might encourage its rapid disintegration.

For that matter, if Germany were no longer the largest economy in the eurozone, France would be next - and it would likely step into the role as banker to the rest of the proposed confederacy. I wonder whether French are themselves willing to play the role they want the Germans to take in the ever-closer union. I doubt it.

But I may just be talking to the wrong people. If I want to know how a united Europe would actually work, I should talk to some Europeans. I'll do that, as soon as I can find some.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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