A Miraculous Project--Derailed by Statism

Resident Fellow David Frum
Resident Fellow
David Frum
The European Union is one of the most successful organizations in the history of the human race. And that of course is exactly its problem.

The EU traces its origins to the Treaty of Rome, signed March 25, 1957. The second World War had ended barely a dozen years before. A dozen years before--think of it!

How long ago was 1995? Yesterday, right? Suppose somebody had killed your son, your father, your brother in 1995--how ready would you be to bury the hatchet today? Suppose you had emerged from a slave labor camp or been liberated from occupation a dozen years ago--how ready would you be to pledge perpetual union with your enslaver or occupier?

The continent that waged humanity's most devastating wars now enjoys profound peace. Once ruined cities gleam with prosperity.

And yet pledge they did. Or sort of did. That first treaty was not really so very ambitious a document. The signatories from West Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg committed themselves gradually to extinguish their tariffs and to cooperate in the development of civilian nuclear technology.

Drab and mundane as those founding commitments were, everything about the event bespoke a larger ambition. Consider just the location: Michelangelo's Campidoglio Palace, atop Rome's Capitoline Hill--the spiritual center of the Roman Empire. You don't need to come to the Campidoglio to haggle over the terms of trade. You come here to connect Europe to its deepest roots as a single civilization.

The original six grew to 12 and ultimately to today's 27, extending all the way to Finland and Bulgaria. The EU now boasts free internal movement of people and nearly free investment; a common currency; a vast and growing body of law supervised by Europe-wide courts; the beginnings of a common military and foreign policy. Last year, it very nearly acquired a constitution.

The continent that waged humanity's most devastating wars now enjoys profound peace. Once ruined cities gleam with prosperity.

Radicalism and extremism have been absorbed into consensus and stability.

The result can only be described as a triumphant success, and North Americans should join with the peoples of Europe in celebration. So take out your noisemakers and blow a merry toot. Done? OK, good. Now it's time to ask: so what has the EU done for us lately?

The same Euro-institutions that once achieved such great results are today badly failing the peoples of the continent. Unemployment, economic stagnation, civil disorder, unaffordable welfare systems, unpayable pensions--all haunt the continent.

The nations of western Europe have created not one single net new private sector job in two decades.

No wonder Europe's mood on this 50th anniversary is so bleak and gloomy.

A Financial Times poll released this week measured the continent's pessimism. Barely 20 percent of Germans said that life had improved since Germany had joined the EU; more than 40 percent said that life had become worse. The EU polled even worse in Italy and France, and worse still in Britain. Only the Spanish give a consistently positive verdict to their EU experience.

The Treaty of Rome, signed to open markets, has become a bulwark for protectionists and statists--for vast new regulatory codes, for centralized decision-making, for subsidized agriculture, for higher taxes, for insiders locking out outsiders.

Sadly, most of the bright ideas you hear in Europe for making things better will instead make things worse. Elites in France and Germany want to revive the rejected Euro constitution--a document that would move even more power to unelected bureaucracies.

The Treaty of Rome was supposed to open the continent to mutual investment. Yet only last fall, the French government forced a merger of two French utilities to avert a takeover bid by an Italian company, Enel.

European elites have tried to use the institutions of the EU to drive a wedge between Europe and North America. The Treaty of Rome promised "to confirm the solidarity which binds" Europe and North America closer together.

European politicians have spent a decade railing against "savage capitalism" and "Anglo-Saxon liberalism." Yet it is their statism and bureaucracy that savagely deny opportunity to the continent's young and its outsiders.

American journalist John O'Sullivan has aptly called the European Union a cartel of governments. Compare the first words of the Constitution of the United States ("We the people of the United States. . . .") to the first words of the draft EU Constitution ("His Majesty the King of the Belgians. . . .").

The clever thing to say in Europe is that the Union can only survive by going forward. But when you have crashed into a brick wall, there is no forward in which to go. This golden anniversary is an opportunity to reflect--to correct mistakes--and to return to the main highway of free markets and trans-Atlantic cooperation.

David Frum is a resident fellow at AEI.

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About the Author


  • David Frum is the author of six books, most recently, Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again (Doubleday, 2007). While at AEI, he studied recent political, generational, and demographic trends. In 2007, the British newspaper Daily Telegraph named him one of America's fifty most influential conservatives. Mr. Frum is a regular commentator on public radio's Marketplace and a columnist for The Week and Canada's National Post.

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