An ‘Unwieldy’ EU: Amid challenges, Cohen looks to Europe’s uncertain future

Europe faces political and economic hurdles that threaten the continuation of the European Union, New York Times columnist Roger Cohen said.

Cohen’s morning lecture Monday in the Amphitheater kicked off Week Seven’s theme, “Redefining Europe.” He is the son of South African immigrants and covered Europe for the Times from 1990 until 2001, when he became foreign editor.

By all measures, Europe is at a turning point, Cohen said. Youth unemployment is as high as 50 percent in Spain and Greece. One of the most popular names for children is Muhammed. An immigrant crisis has led to 2,000 deaths of refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean this year. Last year, Scotland almost left the United Kingdom and, now, the U.K. is considering doing the same to the EU.

Despite these troubles, he stressed against alarmist rhetoric. The situation is a far cry from the tribulations of 1930s Europe, and the circumstances are not as dire. But Cohen warned against historical amnesia lest the bloodshed that brought about Europe’s communion post-World War II be forgotten.

“The 20th century is a long-gone century to many millennials,” he said.

One of the most impressive feats the EU accomplished was to overcome a continent-spanning era of trauma, which Cohen defined as the years between 1914 and 1945. In that period, 36.5 million Europeans, mostly civilians, were killed. By the middle of the century, countries such as France, Italy and Germany were in ruins.

Seventy years later, Cohen said he has traversed the near-borderless EU — a monumental achievement, he said.

“At this time, when the European edifice built from the devastation [of the early 20th century] seems more vulnerable than at any time since reconstruction began, I always try to recall the road traveled since 1945,” Cohen said. 

It began with such visionaries as French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman, who first proposed intertwining the coal and steel industries in France and Germany in order to “make war not only unthinkable but materially impossible.” The international organization became the European Steel and Coal Community and was formally established by the Treaty of Paris in 1951. The community laid the supranational foundation for the future EU, Cohen said.

He referenced Winston Churchill’s Zurich speech delivered Sept. 19, 1946, wherein he called for the creation of “a kind of United States of Europe” in order “to recreate the European fabric — or as much of it as we can — and to provide it with a structure under which it can dwell in peace, safety and freedom.”

“History is full of the unexpected,” Cohen said. “When you listen to all these pontificators on TV, whether they’re talking about the U.S. election, the future of Europe, the Iran accord, ISIS, just remember in the corner of your mind the fact that history produces the unexpected.”

He cited the Soviet Union dissolution in December 1991 that brought with it the end of the Cold War. Some hyperbolically called it the “end of history.” Cohen said the Yugoslav War between 1991 and 2001, which he covered extensively, put an end to that thinking.

Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, otherwise known as NATO, defines an attack on any member as an attack on all. According to Cohen, to have excluded Baltic States such as Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia would have put them at threat by the current expansionist policies of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The inclusion of Central European countries, such as Poland, in the expanding EU post-Cold War was a necessary move on Europe’s part, Cohen said. In addition, most Baltic States are also members of NATO. Both NATO and the EU currently have 28 members.

“I believe, fervently, that this was the right decision,” he said. “I think Western Europe had a debt to Central and Eastern Europe. These peoples had been sold into the totalitarian hell of the Soviet imperium. They wanted to rejoin the European family, and I believe the West owed them that debt.”

No matter the intention, Cohen said, there was a price to pay for the growing interconnectedness of sovereign Europe. The EU of today has become “unwieldy.” It is ripe for friction by uniting disparate parts of Europe that have little in common, such as France and Bulgaria.

The EU’s current problem with the euro, its independent form of currency, is emblematic of the larger issues with the union itself. Cohen said the euro is a “political idea above all,” a “currency union” without true political or fiscal union.

Without the substantive framework he listed, Cohen said Greece’s democracy has been undermined. The country elected Alexis Tsipras and his leftist party into office, but they remain beholden to EU and its leader, Germany. While the austerity crisis there continues, Cohen said at some point there will have to be a measure of debt forgiveness for Greece. The euro itself must be preserved.

“Yes, the German question is back: Is German domination compatible with further European integration?” he said. “Or will it prove a fracturing force?”

Cohen, who lived in Germany from 1998 until 2001, said Germans still grapple with their leadership role. Current Chancellor Angela Merkel is treading a “fine line” between keeping the euro afloat and satisfying rightist elements in Germany that want to abandon Greece to its financial devices. He loosely likened this situation to Congress being asked to bail out Mexico.

With the internal strife fraying the edges of the EU, Putin has added external pressure with his annexation of Crimea and war in Ukraine. Cohen described the world leader’s actions as “unconscionable.” In his view, Putin, who has exploited right-wing nationalism at home to whip up support against the West, seeks to do the same in the EU, to undermine it from within. 

The rising tide of Islam in the EU also represents a change from the traditionally Christian and secular views Europeans have. Cohen said it represented a “profound adjustment,” especially as the need for confrontation with radical organizations like ISIS in Iraq and Syria grows.

“Europe must rediscover its voice, values, meaning and idea — the ideas that came out of 1945 and out of a need for a free Europe,” he said.