Back in the 9th century, the Empire of Charles the Great, known as Charlemagne, included France, Northern Spain, most of Italy, Germany, and parts of modern day Yugoslavia and Hungary. In the course of his forty-seven year reign, the French-born leader who became Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, implemented sweeping economic, educational, military and administrative reforms, which prefigure twentieth century efforts to achieve a united Europe. The division of his empire among his heir’s children returned Europe to a microcosm of relatively small, warring states.
Eight hundred years after Charlemagne’s death, the Ottoman Turks took over the eastern half of Europe, creating a multinational, multilingual empire that stretched from the southern borders of today’s Germany to the outskirts of Vienna, from modern Slovakia and Greece in the south to the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth in the north; from Algeria in the west to Azerbaijan and modern-day Yemen and Eritrea in the east.
The countries of Central and Eastern Europe did not retrieve their independence until 1923, when the Ottoman Empire collapsed, and then it was short-lived. Soviet domination after the Second World War brought modernity to an area that five hundred years of Ottoman rule had kept in a near-feudal state. After the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the countries of Eastern Europe were gradually welcomed into the European Union after meeting stringent political and economic criteria.
The twenty-seven member European Union, officialized by the Treaty of Maastricht in 1993, is the culmination of decades of incremental steps to tame the nationalism of Europe’s individual states which had been the cause of so many wars. In 2002, the union introduced a common currency, the Euro in twelve of its member states. Today the Euro is used in seventeen countries and is the second largest reserve currency after the dollar. But the world financial crisis of 2008 hit the countries of southern Europe with a vengeance, and now there is a very real possibility that Greece will have to abandon the common currency, causing turmoil in the rest of the Euro zone, with knock-on consequences worldwide.
There is more than one irony in this tale. The main incentive to 20th century European integration was the desire, especially on the part of France, to prevent Germany from ever attacking its neighbors again. Subsuming Germany within a larger economic community has worked admirably until now. But no one considered what would happen when Germany-as-economic-powerhouse would insist on dictating conditions to less disciplined neighbors.
The administrative center of the European Union is Brussels, not far from where Charlemagne is thought to have been born, but Frankfurt is its economic capital. And although France has a new European champion in Francois Hollande, when Germany calls the shots, it inevitably revives memories of its military occupation. Regrettably, one has to wonder whether Charlemagne’s dream can no more become a permanent reality now than it could 1200 years ago.