The European Catch 22: Why Americans Should Care
Since the beginning of the twentieth century, Europe has undergone a plethora of fundamental changes that have significantly altered the way the continent functions in the world today. Europe has developed and metamorphosed primarily through involvement in world events, financial tenacity, and an innovative shift in governmental thinking. These events directly led to changes in political, historical, and economic realms. Consequently, these rapid developments have resulted in a paradigm shift that has necessitated a thorough study of Europe for both American students. Crucial events such as the establishment of the European Union, participation in numerous world wars, and endurance through tough financial times have all served as important occurrences that collectively illustrate the importance of European Union study to American and international students.
At the conclusion of the First World War Europe was in turmoil; the country had been devastated by numerous bombings and the defeated countries were forced to finance the costs incurred through heavy reparations paid to the victors. These costs, primarily passed to Germany, were allowed through the Treaty of Versailles. This allowed for the framework that eventually led to World War II. The war itself brought many costs to the world. Specifically, these came in the form of heavy casualties for both axis and allied powers, and the period of history known as the Holocaust. Ultimately, this period of history serves as both a chilling reminder of the atrocities that humans are able to commit, and also as a place in time whereby valuable lessons can be learned that will prevent these events from occurring in the future.
In terms of relevance to American students, it is impossible to understand how these events came to fruition without first taking the time to understand the history behind them. As demonstrated by a visit to the Nazi Documentation Center in Nuremberg, Germany, Hitler was only able to control his people as a direct result of the Treaty of Versailles. He gave Germans a sense of identity through disillusionment that allowed for the blind obedience that permeated Germany during the period before and during World War II. This identity was facilitated both by the Nazi parade grounds though grandeur in architecture and also through propaganda that depicted Hitler as a supreme being capable of doing no wrong. Ultimately, these manipulative tools, in addition to complacency by the US and Europe, Hitler was able to slowly permeate Germany and start a World War. Consequently, it is clear that study of Europe is absolutely necessary in order to understand how key events in history have occurred.
Continually, following the aftermath of World War II, important political events transpired that significantly altered the governmental functioning of the world today. One of the most significant of these was the formation of the European Union. With roots in the European Coal and Steel Community created by the Treaty of Paris, the EU resulted from the eventual evolution of this organization through a series of important treaties (CVRIA 1-4). One of these important documents consisted of the Treaty of Maastricht that developed the three pillar construction of government and allowed for the official establishment of the European Union. Additionally, the Treaty of Lisbon, which was established in December of 2009 allowed for a more streamlined governmental processing and a legal guarantee of citizen’s individual rights (GAMEU). Taken together, these important treaties and the ECSC allowed for the development of an extremely important governmental institution that was important at its inception, and vital to the functioning of Europe today.
The establishment and development of the European Union is tremendously important and is vital for American students to understand because it provides a framework that illustrates how Europe is able to exist today in its present state through the unification of twenty-seven individual countries and a governmental structure based on shared sovereignty. Prior to the unification of these countries, Europe previously existed as a divided set of individual countries that were collectively insignificant compared to the strength of the United States. However, the development of the EU caused a tremendous shift in political power that allowed for the countries of Europe to function as a whole and significantly influence political decision making both in the past and also in the present today. Additionally, the development of the EU allowed for the creation of several government institutions, namely, the European Commission, Council, and Parliament. The Commission is a delegation of twenty-seven elected officials, one from each EU country. The Council comprises the Presidents and Prime Ministers of the member countries. Finally, the Parliament is a collection of political parties comprised of 754 individuals that represent the interests of the European people. The Commission proposes legislation and the Parliament and the Council together pass legislation through a qualified majority. Taken together, these individual entities combine together to make a functional and innovative governmental system not seen before in the modern world. As a result, it is becoming increasingly important for American students to understand the EU political structure and the EU as a whole because of its widespread relevance specifically as a major decision making power in the world today.
Following the creation of the EU, one of the most significant and life-altering changes that occurred in Europe consisted of the deployment of a single nationwide currency. This new monetary device, the Euro, came into circulation in 2002 and exists today as one of the strongest units of exchange within the world today (Fontaine 12-13). Since the inception of the Euro, numerous US firms and corporations have invested heavily into Europe as a whole, which has resulted in a nearly inseparable connection between the two world powers. This investment demonstrates the acceptance of the Euro as a top currency within the world market. However, with this acceptance stems newfound expectations of the European market. For example, when Greece was holding the vote on whether or not to accept a bailout, the attention of the American investors was on Greece. When the news broke that suggested a possibility of the rejection of bailout funds, the US markets immediately reacted in a negative manner, which demonstrates the close knit relationships present between the US and EU markets (WSJ). As a result, both the creation of the Euro and confidence through US investment, have helped to contribute to the development of the EU as a chief economic power.
The importance of the Euro and the relationship that is present between the economies of the EU and the US shows that it is critically important for American students to understand the EU because it provides insight into how the EU rose to become a major and arguably world leading financial entity. This is evidenced by the idea that the US dollar may soon be usurped from the throne of world reserve currency. Without studying how the EU works, it is impossible to comprehend how a previously divided set of countries was able to pool resources together to achieve a cohesive whole that is represented by the current European economy. Additionally, in order to understand the US financial market, a level of competency is needed within the EU markets as well, chiefly because of the interconnected world economies that exist today. Ultimately, understanding the EU is critical in order to comprehend the complex interactions that exist today between the world financial markets.
As demonstrated previously, study of the EU remains an issue of vital importance to the upcoming generation of US students. Fluency within the historical components of the EU provides an understanding of how historical events led to the formation of the union, why it exists today, and also lends insight into possible future directions of the EU as well. Additionally, a sound understanding of the political and economic aspects allows US students to understand the EU political system comprised of three separate pillars, and also to comprehend the vast complexities that exist within the world economies today. Taken together, these individual issues equate into a comprehensive and rational explanation for the importance of study of the EU by American students.
CVRIA. 2007. The court of justice of the European communities: historic landmarks, buildings and symbols. European Union Publications, 1:1-4.
Fontaine P. 2010. Europe in 12 lessons. European Union Publications, 1:1-79.
Who cares about the EU?
History has shown that the lack of economic and political cooperation between the various European countries creates an environment that is less stable and more likely to devolve into a state of war. In the past century, there have been numerous unsuccessful attempts to unify Europe, both economically and politically, but the European Union has created the most sustainable union between many of the European countries to this day. Though they are not directly involved in the European Union, American students need to understand the similarities between the governing bodies, and how a successful union can directly affect their future interactions with Europe.
Robert Schumann, the Prime Minister of France, first discussed the concept of the European Union in 1951. He saw the need to unify the coal and steel industries of six countries (France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, and Luxembourg) so that they could rebuild after WWII. On April 18th 1951, these six founding countries signed the Treaty of Paris, followed by the European Coal and Steel Committee (ECSC). Subsequently, the four treaties (Treaty of Rome, Merger Treaty, the Single European Act, and the Treaty on the European Union) were signed, three amendments were added (Treaties of Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon respectively), and the European Union started to resemble what it is today.
Though the government of the European Union looks foreign to American students, it is actually very similar to the United States Government. The European Union has three main institutions: the Council of the European Union, the European Parliament, and the European Commission. The Council is similar to the legislative branch of the United States, as it is the primary lawmaking institution of the European Union. Since the Lisbon Treaty, the Parliament has been granted more legislative rights, and is now also comparable to the legislation, but on a reduced level. The Commission is similar to the executive branch, however unlike the President of the United States, he is mainly a figurehead, and does not decide foreign policy. Students can learn about the impact that American government has on foreign countries.
The success of the European Union directly effects how Americans, and people around the world, interact with Europe, and with specific countries. The European Union creates an efficient environment for representatives to make agreements with Europe as a whole, as opposed to spending much more time and money making the same agreement with each individual country. American students studying the European Union need to realize that the cultures and customs of the different countries in European Union can sometimes create obstacles that don’t exist in the United States, but the European Union still works.
The economic situation is also a very interesting learning experience for American students. While building a unified government, the European Union is also trying to form a single market under a unified currency. With this said, switching to the Euro has not been a smooth transition for some countries. While dealing with the formation of a foundation of laws for the EU, countries such as Greece have not had an easy year economically. The Euro-Crisis has affected all twenty-seven countries by enabling them to make more decisions about unprecedented issues.
Our class visiting major institutions such as the ECB, Parliament, and the Commission has further educated us about the state of the EU and how it is still being developed. Our class asked many questions about the foundations of the European Union and to many of the questions we received the response of “we are in the process of deciding this.” We feel that our experience in these institutions has helped enhance our knowledge the evolving Union. It shows how these countries are changing a lot of their policies to cooperate with other member nations.
The European Union is making history with the drastic changes that are occurring everyday. If American students do not intently follow the foundations being built, they would be missing out on something the world has never before seen. Similar to the formation of the United States, the development of the European union is an excellent learning instrument for students that show how different cultures and governing bodies come together under one central authority. By giving students the opportunity to study how the European Union functions as a whole, students will understand how to overcome their differences in order to work together to achieve a common goal.
Bethany Neeb, Janice Spearbeck, Hunt Cable and Spencer Ross
Of all the places to study….
Elon’s student population of over five thousand students is offered multiple opportunities to study abroad across the world for varying amounts of time, 71% of which take advantage of these opportunities by the time they graduate. Just this January alone, 600 students from Elon are travelling to six different continents while participating in 24 various courses of study. Elon University is just one of the numerous schools that offers the chance to study abroad, and with so many options, why should American students choose to study the European Union? American students would benefit from learning the function and relevance of the phenomenon that is the European Union.
The current European Union, consisting of 27 member states, has seven governing institutions as opposed to the United States’ three branches of government. American students need to explore the possibility of countries coming together voluntarily rather than by military force. While often times American’s are frustrated by government’s slow pace, the structure of the EU allows for specialized delegation within multiple institutions. These institutions are then able to focus on more specific issues, goals, and solutions. For example, the EU is able to pass laws for all member states, multiple, or individual states. While its large structure may at first seem overwhelming having multiple institutions allows for participation from large states and small states, ensuring that every voice is heard. For example, within the Council of Ministers the presidency will rotate every six months. The EU has created a system that can easily adapt to change and is not always bound by traditional and cultural government norms. America does not often make amendments to alter the duties of government branches but with the Lisbon Treaty the EU was flexible and realized it would benefit from giving more power to the Parliament. American students taking time to truly understand the strengths and weaknesses of the unprecedented EU structure will help them learn to constructively criticize their own government.
American students could describe the differences between American citizens in California and New York City. With 27 member states and over 20 official languages these European Union countries strive to become “United in Diversity” and this remains an ever constant struggle. American students identify themselves first as American, then second from their respect states or regions. This is not always the case in the European Union due to each countries different history spanning thousands of years. The EU’s ultimate goal is for citizens to proudly identify themselves as Europeans but with healing wounds from World War II and USSR occupation this is still difficult. Despite being “united” member states still had to check passports at every border, which is something American students would have never experienced, traveling from state to state. The Schengen Agreement created a huge leap forward in the EU unification process by creating a borderless zone covering a population of over 400 million people. It allows people to travel freely to different countries and embrace the experience of other EU cultures. American students who have always experienced free travel from state to state would benefit in learning about free travel from country to country, truly discovering what it means to be “United in Diversity.”
It is imperative for American students to understand how globalization has created an intertwined economy where the economic conditions in one country can affect those of other countries. The EU is in the midst of a sovereign debt crisis that is affecting the entire world, especially the United States. Since the global economic meltdown of 2008, the U.S. has been heavily involved in aiding EU policy makers mitigate the euro crisis and has experienced negative implications in its own markets. An example of U.S. involvement in helping EU policy makers is President Obama’s participation in the G20 Summits. One example of a negative impact on the U.S. is the failure of MF Global, who filed for bankruptcy in the fall of 2011 because of significant leveraged investments in bad European government bonds. The unsustainable debt levels of countries such as Italy, Greece and Portugal have resulted in a crisis of confidence and the subsequent downgrade of their government bonds and steep increase of bond yields. This has created volatility in U.S. markets due to decreased confidence in European countries as investing and lending opportunities. While walking through the “Occupy Frankfurt” movement, we learned that Frankfurt will have a public showing of an American documentary about how the U.S. economic collapse unfolded, which demonstrates their curiosity about foreign economies. Similarly, American students should show this same desire to understand how the European Union’s economy functions and its daily effects on our lives.
The European Union also holds significance to the United States in the sense of international relations. American students need to establish a global awareness about surrounding countries, including those in the EU. As a part of the global community, the U.S. has a certain role in maintaining stability in foreign countries. Another part of our global awareness includes the national identity that countries have established. European Union countries and the United States have an intertwined history, with World War II being a major example. In the late 1930’s, the U.S. isolated themselves from Europe and the arising tensions that were brewing. Ultimately these tensions resulted in the Second World War, including the Holocaust. Because of events like this in our history, American students should understand our connection to European countries. For example, our current learning about the Jobbik Party demonstrates the importance of constantly being aware of what is happening in the world all around us. The unsettling reality that a modern-day anti-Semetic, right-wing party, is gradually gaining power proves that American students should understand the relevance of global awareness to prevent events like the Holocaust from happening again.
Today Americans are linked culturally and economically with other countries across the globe. The European Union contains a plethora of these countries and in order to maintain effective relationships American students need to study the European Union. By taking a constructive look at their structure, policy implementation, economics, international policies, and overall culture American students will benefit. It will help restore and prevent relationship issues, allow students to criticize and implement changes within the American system of government, and effectively navigate our economic dependencies with one another. While a national American identity exists many forget that we were kept together as a country by military force. Never has there been such a unification on a voluntary basis and it is time that American students take notice.