We built the wrong Europe

Our leaders set the wrong priorities; we fiddled in Maastricht while Sarajevo began to burn
IN KOSOVO, our troops try to end a war. Meanwhile, the European elections meet with a giant yawn across the whole of the EU. This is the simultaneous theatre of Europe in our time. But what is the deeper historical lesson? One lesson, I believe, is that the leaders of Western Europe set the wrong priorities 10 years ago. Instead of seizing the opportunities, and preparing to confront the dangers, that would arise from the end of Communism in half of Europe, they set about trying to perfect the internal arrangements of an already well-functioning, peaceful and prosperous community of states in Western Europe.

We were like people who for 40 years had lived in a large, ramshackle house, divided down the middle by a concrete wall. In the western half we had rebuilt, mended the roof, knocked several rooms together, redecorated and installed new plumbing and electric wiring, while the eastern half fell into dangerous decay. Then the wall came down. What did we do? We decided that what the whole house needed was a superb, computer-controlled air-conditioning system in the western half. While we prepared to install it, the eastern half of the house began to fall apart and even to catch fire. We fiddled in Maastricht, while Sarajevo began to burn.

Now, of course I cannot prove the causal connection that I'm suggesting. You can never prove "what would have happened if..." But make a thought experiment. Suppose that, after the wall came down, the leaders of the European Community had concentrated their efforts on responding to the challenge in the east. They launched something like a Marshall Plan for the transformation of the post-Communist economies. They supported the build-up of civil society, political parties and independent media - including, for example, the amazing piece of peaceful Albanian self-organisation led by Ibrahim Rugova in Kosovo in the early Nineties. They began the specific reforms of the EC's decision-making and budgets that would obviously be necessary for a rapid enlargement; slimmed down the CAP; changed the way commissioners were appointed; streamlined decision-making in the Council of Ministers, and so on.

They moved towards a closer coordination of foreign and security policies, appointing, early in 1990, a single EC foreign policy representative. Recognising that post-Communist nationalisms could lead to armed conflict, they used the post-Cold War restructuring of armed forces to build up a substantial rapid reaction force, having full compatibility of equipment and joint training with each other and with Nato. A common army, rather than a common currency.

Needless to say, when Milosevic's forces besieged the Croatian city of Vukovar two months before the planned Maastricht EC summit of December 1991, they took decisive action to stop him - with the approval of President Gorbachev, and a UN mandate. The Maastricht meeting was devoted to what to do about former Yugoslavia, European foreign and defence policy and preparations for eastward enlargement.

I am far from suggesting that this would have solved everything. The problem of how to turn poor, undemocratic multi-ethnic states into stable, democratic ones, without bloodshed or a tyranny of the ethnic majority, would have remained intractable. But if West European leaders and officials had devoted to these matters even half the vast amount of time and energy that they expended on Maastricht and momentary union, we should surely be in a better position today. Who can seriously doubt it? And Kosovo gives the lie to those who suggest that none of these difficulties could really have been foreseen. In my new book about Europe in the Nineties, History of the Present, I have compiled a detailed chronology linking the essays and reportage, and one of the very first entries reads "January- February 1990, Albanians in Kosovo protest against their province being stripped of its autonomy by Slobodan Milosevic". The Kosovo crisis was already there.

And talking of time scales and priorities, would it really have done so much harm to have worked for another 10 years to achieve a solid convergence between the economies in the single market, before deciding whether to complete it with a single currency?

So why did our West European leaders chose this course? Naturally, the project was already to hand - the Delors report on economic and monetary union was presented in April 1989 - and there was a certain momentum behind it in the counsels of the EC. But the decisive impulse came from one particular aspect of the end of the Cold War. Crudely put, it was the price Francois Mitterrand demanded for agreeing to German unification: "half the Deutschmark for Mitterrand, the whole of Deutschland for Kohl", as one German wit put it. Yet this was a price that Kohl was quite ready to pay, although he did insist that there should be something described as a "political union" to complement the economic and monetary one. As "Adenauer's grandson", he wanted to see Germany tied firmly to the European mast, like Odysseus, so it would resist the siren calls of the country's terrible past..

So much of what has happened in Europe in the Nineties flows from this moment in 1990, when two individual statesman reached an understanding that was based on their historically informed judgements of their countries' long-term national interests. It was another example of the importance of individuals in history.

There are many ironies in this story. Helmut Kohl argued repeatedly that the cause of European integration, and specifically the Maastricht process, with monetary union at its core, was "a question of war and peace". By clear implication, we needed the euro to stop us fighting each other again.

Why on earth stable, mature liberal democracies, already closely intertwined in the European Community and Nato, should go to war with each other was not entirely clear. Nor was it clear how a common currency would stop them if they wanted to. While EMU was being prepared, no fewer than three European federations with common currencies fell apart - the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia - two of them with accompanying bloodshed. Then, within three months of the euro being launched, we were directly involved in a war in Europe. And, the final irony: the euro not yet in your pocket was worth about 70p at its launch in January; it is worth about 65p today. One of the reasons given for its weakness is the markets' fears about... the war in Europe. Not only did the euro not prevent war in Europe; it became one of its first casualties.

One or two writers have gone a step further and argued that monetary union itself brings an increased danger of war between participating countries. While I wouldn't underestimate the tensions it may cause, this seems to me far-fetched. If the worst comes to the worst, EMU will simply break up, as currency unions have before. If the Czechs and Slovaks, amidst all the nationalist hysteria of post-Communism, were capable of a velvet divorce, surely the French and Germans would be.

But the question is: what would then remain of the EU, and the sense of a "European project" that sustains it? At the moment that project seems to stand or fall with EMU. That's why it's so important that the EU has other major undertakings as well. At the Cologne summit, under the impact of the Kosovo crisis, our leaders finally decided upon the outline of a common defence force and appointed Nato's secretary general, Javier Solana, as its foreign and security policy representative. The Kosovo war has made us start to do at the end of the decade what we should have done at the beginning. But will we finish the job? I wouldn't count on it

This article is based on an essay in July's `Prospect' and the author's `History of the Present: Essays, Sketches and Despatches from Europe in the 1990s' (Penguin Press)