What pageantry America staged for Europe this week. First Emmanuel Macron, a French Jupiter abroad if not at home, dazzled Donald Trump and all Washington. Now Angela Merkel is flying in, not quite dazzling but still impressive in her sobriety, so rare around the White House these days.
Macron and Merkel are on a common mission. Meeting in Berlin a week earlier, they had coordinated their agenda vis-à-vis Trump. One goal was to talk him out of nixing the nuclear deal with Iran. Brokered largely by the Europeans, it is considered a triumph of EU diplomacy, however imperfect. But Mr. Trump appears bent on killing the deal by May 12. His reimposing of sanctions could push Iran toward a nuclear “breakout” akin to North Korea’s. That might provoke Saudi Arabia to build nukes, or even prompt preemptive strikes by Israel or America. If Trump still backs away from this perilous course, it will be thanks to Franco-German diplomacy this week.
Macron and Merkel are on a common mission.
A similar dynamic may yet temper Mr. Trump on trade. He has been rattling his protectionist saber mainly at China, but also at Europe. But on trade the EU28 negotiate as one, and Mr. Trump understands that kind of strength. During their visits, Macron (bad cop) and Merkel (good cop) subtly reminded him that a fight with Europe is a bad one to pick. That may not prevent Trump from slapping tariffs on the EU. But it frames the haggling that will follow.
So this is a good occasion to ponder when European integration makes sense — and when it does not. In trade policy, ceding national sovereignty to Brussels was the best move Europe ever made. In foreign policy, even if member states retain sovereignty, the benefits of speaking with one voice are now obvious. In both areas, the more Europe, the better.
But the EU has over the years spent vastly more energy on a different, inward-facing, integration project: currency union. This has not gone well, because national economies, like their inhabitants, have stubbornly refused “to converge” as instructed. This caused the euro crisis, which is now a latent but chronic condition.
Macron, as he reminded Merkel last week, now wants the “fiscal union” (a common budget for the euro zone) he deems necessary to complete the monetary one. In that he speaks for the EU’s south. But Merkel, speaking for the north, is balking, because Germans fear a “transfer union” in which they would permanently subsidize southerners.
Integrating Europe’s money has thus brought neither strength nor harmony but permanent conflict, sometimes sublimated, sometimes open. Old and ugly stereotypes have returned: about austere and haughty Germans, about dissolute and profligate southerners. When “more Europe” means discord, in the long run, less is more.
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