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The debate: Has the European experiment failed? Add to ...

On Friday night, four influential European thinkers will argue whether the European Union is doomed to failure or whether there is hope for renewal.

Niall Ferguson, a professor of history at Harvard University, will argue in favour of the resolution that “the European experiment has failed.”

Peter Mandelson, a member of Britain's House of Lords, will argue against.

Mr. Ferguson will be joined by Josef Joffe, publisher-editor of Die Zeit, a German weekly. Lord Mandelson will be siding with Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a leader of the famous French student revolts in the sixties. These are their main arguments.

Pro: Niall Ferguson calls European experiment a failure

“For more than 10 years, it has been the case that Europe has conducted an experiment in the impossible.”

  1. Mr. Ferguson takes no joy in the fact that he essentially predicted the euro zone’s current crisis 10 years ago. “There is no great merit in just saying I told you so,” he says. An academic who holds posts at Harvard, Stanford and Oxford, he has just returned from a trip to Spain, where he saw the failures of the “European experiment” first-hand: 50-per-cent youth unemployment and Spaniards shifting their savings to Germany. Mr. Ferguson believes the emergence of two Europes – rich and poor – is the most profound sign of failure. Economic integration was supposed to create “peace and harmony,” he says. Instead it has resulted in acrimony and resentment. “The European core, which is really Germany, reaps the benefits of the weak euro. But in the less productive periphery, austerity is being inflicted. This is nothing less than the disintegration of Europe,” he argues.
  2. It’s not just an economic experiment that has failed, Mr. Ferguson says. We are also witnessing a political collapse. He describes economic integration as an elitist project that has been forced upon the general population of Europe. “Ultimately it was a conspiracy by the European elite against their electorates,” he says. The result, years later, is a crisis of democracy signalled by the breakdown of major political parties and the emergence of populist parties on both sides of the political spectrum. “Europe has become a government-destroying machine. There are no two-term presidents because nobody can possibly deliver what the electorate wants. This is producing something more serious than a democratic deficit. This is actually a crisis in which Europeans are beginning to lose faith in the democratic process.”
  3. Another failure of the European experiment is that it never lived up to one of its core propositions – that it would provide a significant counterweight to other world superpowers. “Who do I call if I want to speak to Europe?” Henry Kissinger once famously said. Some historians claim he never actually said it and that the quote was misattributed. Regardless, Mr. Ferguson says there has never been a satisfactory answer to that question, and that’s a problem. “Every now and then the Americans try to whip Europe into shape via NATO, but over all, Europe has an enormously invisible presence in the international arena,” Mr. Ferguson argues. “That’s a massive failure.”

Con: Peter Mandelson argues for patience

“European leaders are getting there and they need to not lose any further time because the world is very impatient.”

  1. Lord Mandelson, who has three times served British government and also was the EU commissioner for trade, feels the European experiment is only half-finished and should be allowed to play out before being written off. He believes the European Union can’t just be viewed through the lens of its struggling single currency. Politically, he says, the European integration is a success story. “Politically, [it]has transformed the way European states relate to each other immeasurably for the better. It has transformed European commerce and economic life by creating the world’s largest single economic space.”
  2. Lord Mandelson also takes the long view. The European Union is currently “road-testing” the idea that sovereign states can successfully practice collective decision-making, but hasn’t reached the finish line. This experiment, he believes, has made Europe a better place, and even defines modern European life. “Most Europeans have things about the EU that they do not like. But few would revert to life before it. If it did not exist we would be trying to come up with something like it.”
  3. Lord Mandelson believes his opponents in this debate should be careful where they assign blame. He says the currency union, in isolation, is destined to fail because it was badly designed and implemented. Europe, he says, should concentrate on creating political support so it can thrive. “Europe’s big failure, as far as the monetary union is concerned, was trying to run economically before it could walk politically.” Perhaps, he concedes, Europe was too ambitious, but it shouldn’t be punished by financial markets for that. “[This]experience may actually forge a new political will to make the euro zone the kernel of something much more like a United States of Europe,” he says, suggesting that such a process might take 50 years to realize. In the end though, he says, it will be worth the wait.

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