For Americans used to referring to other countries as simply ‘over there’, the genesis of the European Union is hazy at best. Most probably think it came into being with the flash of a magic wand, like the UN or the Atlantic Alliance.
But that’s far from the truth: impressed by the repeated carnage of World War I and II (the former led to the slogan “Never again!”), in 1951, France and Germany put an end to nearly a century of strife by uniting around coal and steel, whose production was centered in the oft-disputed Ruhr Valley. They were joined by Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands and Luxembourg in the European Coal and Steel Community. After a successful six year run, this first integrated organization led to the formation of the European Economic Community, in 1957. Denmark, Ireland, Norway and, after some back and forth the United Kingdom were added in the 1960s.
Between the late sixties and the nineties, the leaders of Western Europe dithered over how far the take their union, mainly whether an economic treaty should be accompanied by some form of political union. Many prominent political figures campaigned for a federal Europe, but they remained a minority. At last, the Treaty of Maastricht was signed in 1992, giving the European Parliament more power, and paving the way for the adoption of a single currency, the Euro, in 2000.
The most impactful event in the Union’s history was undoubtedly the admission of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. East Germany was absorbed into the German Republic in October, 1990, just one year later, but it was not until 2004 that the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia were allowed to join. Of these, to date, only Slovakia is also a member of the Euro zone.
The primary aim of the European project being to avoid war among its members, it has, from the beginning, been secular, its Charter of Fundamental Rights including every conceivable human right, as exemplified in the following articles:
<blockquote> Article 18
Right to asylum
The right to asylum shall be guaranteed with due respect for the rules of the Geneva Convention of 28 July 1951 and the Protocol of 31 January 1967 relating to the status of refugees and in accordance with the Treaty establishing the European Community.
Protection in the event of removal, expulsion or extradition
1. Collective expulsions are prohibited.
2. No one may be removed, expelled or extradited to a State where there is a serious risk that he or she would be subjected to the death penalty, torture or other inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
Right to good administration
1. Every person has the right to have his or her affairs handled impartially, fairly and within a reasonable time by the institutions and bodies of the Union.
2. This right includes:
The right of every person to be heard, before any individual measure which would affect him or her adversely is taken; to have access to his or her file, while respecting the legitimate interests of confidentiality and of professional and business secrecy; the obligation of the administration to give reasons for its decisions.
3. Every person has the right to have the community make good any damage caused by its institutions or by its servants in the performance of their duties, in accordance with the general principles common to the laws of the Member States.
4. Every person may write to the institutions of the Union in one of the languages of the Treaties and must have an answer in the same language.</blockquote>
Some of these articles may seem a bit quaint to Americans, but they were inspired by the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights promoted by Eleanor Roosevelt and adopted by the General Assembly in 1948. Both the French President, Francois Hollande, and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel have leaned heavily on this foundational document to justify their decision to welcome thousands of refugees flooding into Europe from war-torn Africa and the Middle East. With an unemployment rate of less than 5% (signaling full employment), Germany is known to need workers, while France faces over 10% without jobs. Yet both countries feel compelled to welcome similarly large numbers of migrants in the name of the European Union’s basic commitment to solidarity.
It is this commitment that has been revealed as wanting in the countries of Eastern Europe: following upon four decades of socialist rule as part of the Soviet bloc, its ‘democratic’ governments have tended to be more often right-wing than those of Western Europe. The NYTimes published an excellent analysis of the situation http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/13/world/europe/eastern-europe-migrant-refugee-crisis.html?_r=0.
Most worrying, some of the countries of the ex-Yugoslavia are squabbling among themselves and with Hungary, with whom they share borders, over who is being most inconvenienced by the throng of immigrants pressing onward toward Germany from Greece, reviving ancient enmities.
As someone who lived mainly in Europe starting in the nineteen fifties, I witnessed the arduous work that has gone into the construction of the European Union, year after year, decade after decade, by a political class, whether from the right or the left, that was basically committed to the idea of a peaceful continent.
The inability of Europe’s leaders of both east and west to agree on policies vis a vis Muslim immigrants is partly due to the fact that Europe’s humanitarian values are opposed an increasingly violent right wing. France’s National Front was founded in 1972 by a former intelligence officer in the war against Algerian independence, whose allies, according to Wikipedia, were “former nostalgics of Vichy France, neo-Nazi pagans, Traditionalist Catholics, and others,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean-Marie_Le_Pen Although his daughter, Marine Le Pen has been largely successful in steering the populist party away from open fascism, thereby recruiting many disaffected Communists, it has right wing allies in every other European country and in the European parliament.
The growing presence of Muslim immigrants in Europe since the fifties has helped relatively small neo-fascist parties grow. Now, as thousands of Muslims surge into Europe, these parties can only be emboldened by the presence in Ukraine, on Europe’s eastern border, of well-trained fascist militias that helped overthrow that country’s democratically elected government last year and if anything have grown more powerful since then. This reality implies that the danger facing Europe is not limited to the presence of Muslim immigrants.