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Expert Comment: The European Debt Crisis in Historical Perspective

Davos_200_x_120 Wednesday 25 April 2012

Dr. Bryce Evans, Lecturer in Modern History at Liverpool Hope University

Speakers at the annual World Economic Forum in the Swiss resort of Davos are fond of using hammy yet upbeat skiing metaphors. This year, however, the heavy alpine snowfall is inviting an all-too-easy alternative symbolism for the media. ‘Avalanche’ is a dramatic substitute for economists’ cant perhaps, but the euro zone’s prospective demise signals the swallowing up of a project with greater historical pedigree than most people realise.

The euro’s history is ostensibly short. As historian Alan Milward wrote, monetary union emerged from ‘the gaps in the Berlin Wall’. The 1986 Single European Act bolstered the federalist dream of one market, one currency, one central bank. After the Soviet Union withdrew protection from the German Democratic Republic that dream became reality. The 1992 Maastricht Treaty, which led to the euro, also fulfilled the key geopolitical condition in the history of European integration: German containment within the framework.

But Europe had, in fact, been there long before. In 1950 American officials thought that a Western European central bank would be up and running within two years. Likewise, in adopting the Werner Plan in 1969, the European Community looked forward to a single currency. The euro zone as an idea is certainly not a new one.

The ‘age’ of European monetary union could therefore be placed at 60+ rather than a tender 13. If this does not temper any lingering British schadenfreude about the project’s current woes, then take a quick browse around the online British cartoon archive - a free database of 140,000 images at www.cartoons.ac.uk - using ‘European monetary union’ as a search term. Far from ‘low art’ echoing the Europhobic howls of the daily press, British political caricature has often provided a more nuanced reflection on the European project from the late 1940s on.

While many of these images anticipate Europe’s current political and economic crisis, they also lampoon the many previous examples in recent history of destructively narrow national self-interest. In today’s globalised economy, this is no longer a sensible option. Yet it remains a most powerful force - imperilling broader supranational cooperation both from inside and outside the euro zone and, in all likelihood, ultimately determining its current fate.

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