“The Old Ills Are Forgotten”: Must the European Union’s Success Be Its Undoing?

It is true that some problems can be solved, some ills cured, in both individual and social life . . . but any study of society shows that every solution creates a new situation which breeds its own new needs and problems, new demands. The children have obtained what their parents and grandparents longed for—greater freedom, greater material welfare, a juster society; but the old ills are forgotten, and the children face new problems, brought about by the very solutions of the old ones, and these, even if they can in turn be solved, generate new situations, and with them new requirements—and so on, forever—and unpredictably.

–Isaiah Berlin, The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas, ed. Henry Hardy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990), 14.

In the autumn of 1945, Konrad Adenauer, the future Chancellor of West Germany, found himself brooding on the fate of his country and of Europe. The Second World War had just drawn to a bloody close. Germany, having nearly torn the Continent apart, was a shattered wreck, occupied by foreign powers, universally despised and feared. Something had gone horribly wrong—of that, Adenauer was certain. His countrymen, infatuated with power and blinded by raison d’état, were partly to blame. Yet he also sensed that some grander and more terrible process was at play. As a Great Power, the German state had terrified its neighbors for a hundred years. Now it lay prostrate before them, they held its fate in their hands, and this was still not enough to make them feel secure. And why should they? After all, “[p]olitical history has shown that nothing ever stands still and that political circumstances can change very rapidly.”[1]

This last comment points to the tragic flaw in the Westphalian states system: its chronic and violent instability. The history of modern Europe was defined before 1945 by cruel, costly, and near-perpetual civil war between the Great Powers. The diplomats who convened at Vienna in 1815 tried to force peace and order upon this fractious Continental order; so too, during the eighteen eighties, did Bismarck; but doing so involved engaging in political maneuvers so delicate and complex that they have been famously compared, in Bismarck’s case, to juggling glass balls. No juggler could keep the balls in the air forever, and when they finally fell in July 1914, peace and order gave way to World Wars of stupefying savagery.

Such was the Europe Adenauer had known: an armed camp, wracked by fierce geopolitical rivalries, crisscrossed by ever-shifting alliances. It was, in other words, the Security Dilemma incarnate. Resolving the German Question and the greater European problem naturally meant transcending the Dilemma. It meant European Union. “In a future United States of Europe,” Adenauer recalled in his memoirs, “I saw the greatest and most lasting security for Germany’s western neighbors.”[2]

The road along which this utopian vision of peace-through-unity advanced towards realization, by way of Rome, Maastricht, and Lisbon, has been long and tortuous, and the EU of 2017 is far from being a finished product. What is remarkable, though, is how well it has fulfilled its founding mission: warfare, once the scourge of the Continent, has become a nonissue within the Union. A single example suffices to illustrate just how extraordinary this development is. Between 1870 and 1945, Germany and France clashed three times over Alsace; that region’s metropolis, Strasbourg, is now home to the European Parliament. To suggest that the Hemicycle of the Louise Weiss building might one day be invaded by stormtroopers surging across the Rhine—this would seem to us absurd, even laughable if it were not in such poor taste.

And herein, paradoxically, lies the greatest threat to the contemporary European order. For by eliminating the Continent’s greatest evil, the EU has helped reorder the priorities of its citizens in ways that soft-pedal its success as a peacekeeping mechanism. The data collected in the most recent (November–December 2016) Eurobarometer opinion survey are telling. “Peace among the Member States” was widely regarded as one of the Union’s greatest achievements, but the survey respondents do not seem to have been preoccupied with the health of the European concert. Immigration, terrorism, unemployment—these were the things that loomed large in their minds. It is not just that European institutions have been forced to grapple with new questions of identity, security, and economic welfare. They are now understood to exist in order to grapple with them. This is unfortunate, for they were never designed to do so, and sometimes they do so poorly. During the lean year of 2013, Bill Lee of the Harvard Business Review went so far as to declare the Union a “failed experiment,” submitting as evidence the Eurozone’s failings as an economic unit. Such an assessment would have baffled Adenauer, for whom an integrated economy—“the healthiest and most lasting foundation for good political relations between peoples”—was but a means to an end.[3]

The end has been attained; on both sides of the Atlantic, peace is today the status quo. For this, we ought to thank Adenauer and his Europhile contemporaries. But we do not. Instead, we take the gift they have given us for granted. For what do we know of the old, dead sort of war, of trenches and sieges, of Blitzes and Holocausts? It is not that these things no longer pose a threat to human beings the world over, but crucially, they no longer pose a threat to us. We whose governments live at peace with one another instinctively, unthinkingly, are in this sense a privileged bunch. The political order that undergirds our society is far from perfect: its worst features function in ways that seem callous, even cruel, and it is certainly capable of inflicting violence upon the most vulnerable among us. But even these problems, real though they may be, are the problems of the fortunate. We are free to worry about our long-term economic prospects, to debate improvements to our internal security apparatus, to promote social justice, because we do not have to strain our ears to pick up the whistle of artillery shells or the wail of air-raid sirens.

So when we bemoan Europe’s problems and propose solutions to them, we must be wary of destroying those structures that quietly keep us safe. After all, “[p]olitical history has shown that nothing ever stands still and that political circumstances can change very rapidly.”


John Gleb



[1] Konrad Adenauer, Memoirs 1945–53, trans. Beate Ruhm von Oppen (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1965), 36 –39.

[2] Ibid., 37.

[3] Ibid., 36–37.

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