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Which Is the Real Europe?

Over the course of its 30-year history, the European Union has sometimes embraced two fundamentally different identities, only one of which can possibly be sustained over the long term. At some point, Europeans will need to decide whether their shared project is more than just a marriage of economic convenience.

CAMBRIDGE – This year marks the 30th anniversary of the European Union. When the Maastricht Treaty took effect in 1993, Europeans embarked on a historically unique experiment in supranational governance and shared sovereignty. The EU’s single market allows for the free movement of goods, services, and capital among 27 member states; and, critically, its Schengen Area means open borders between member states (and free movement rights even in non-Schengen member states), granting more than 400 million people an unprecedented form of citizenship that transcends national territories. While free trade is an old idea, the free movement of people on this scale is entirely novel.

But to what extent is the EU more than just a glorified trade bloc? It is instructive to consider two recent occasions when Europeans confronted divorce: the Greek debt crisis and Brexit, each of which illuminated the conflicting forces struggling for control of the continent. In the Greek case, the EU played the role of the villainous oppressor, wielding the threat of a break-up to exact concessions from a member state. In the United Kingdom’s case, Brussels was the hero, stoically enduring an act of betrayal as it stood up for the principles of multilateralism and openness. Which of these episodes comes closer to capturing the EU’s core character?

At times, Europe’s guiding philosophy seems to be based on “home economics.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel invoked the image of the thrifty Swabian housewife to justify her hardline position during the Greek crisis, and the policy the EU ended up adopting on that occasion had about as much of a scientific basis as an old wives’ tale.