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Books or articles on the history of the EU?
October 18, 2012 12:22 PM   Subscribe

Looking for a great book/article/essay on the history of the European Union and the current economic crisis there.

I'm writing a play set in Southern Europe and would like to read something on the history of the European Union, and especially on how that history led to the current crisis in Greece/the Euro/etc., if indeed it has.

I'm interested in something readable (not too dry) and prefer narrative to statistics. If you know a great long article or essay that would work too.
posted by crookedneighbor to Law & Government (2 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The wikipedia articles on this are not too bad, actually, if you just want an overview.
History of the EU (expands into deeper articles)
European Sovereign Debt Crisis

Briefly narrativized and vastly over-simplified, the basic story is this:

In the ashes of WWII much of Western Europe is in ruins, and the economic and human toll of two world wars which brough unprecedented destruction in just 30 years is starkly clear. Even more so than in 1918, the feeling is that this must never be allowed to happen again. German industry has been partly dismantled and the country is divided into zones adminstered by the victorious allies, but West German leaders like Adenauer search for a path that allows for eventual German independence without rekindling the fears of its neighbors.

The spectre of the Soviet Union is another spur to cooperation (this was also one of the motivations behind continued US involvement in Europe, e.g. the continued existence of NATO after the war, and aid given the Marshall Plan).

In 1950 French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman proposes unifying European heavy industry, in part to prevent any one country being able to start an arms race. In practice this means French and German heavy industry, and the European Coal and Steel Community is created by the Treaty of Paris in 1951 and includes France, West Germany, Italy, and the Benelux countries (Belgium, Luxemburg, Netherlands). Efforts at integration bumble along for a bit but nobody can agree on political or defence cooperation. However, in 1957 the treaties of Rome create the European Economic Community, the first step towards a common market for Europe, to facilitate trade.

Also notable is the creation of the Common Agricultural Policy in 1960, which sought to unify the agricultural markets within the EEC while at the same time protecting European agriculture from outside competition. Another motivating factor was the desire to never again allow famine in Europe, like those which followed the world wars. It may be explained as a compromise, where Germany agreed to subsidize French farmers and France agreed to allow German industrial goods access to French markets. The CAP is contentious today, particularly in EU countries with small agricultural sectors.

The EEC eventually became the European Community and then, with the Maastricht Treaty in 1993 became the European Union. Membership expanded along the way. In 1999 the Euro went into circulation although not all EU members use the Euro (The UK being the most notable holdout).

Now to the most recent crisis. There are several causes for the sovereign debt crisis, and not everyone agrees about them. It's worth noting that part of the problem is arguably due to the Eurozone being a common currency with no common fiscal policy. If the United States thinks it needs to manipulate its currency to respond to some economic problem it can. Greece, or for that matter France, can't. Some have suggested that this was an accident waiting to happen.

That said, the short version is several European countries' national governments have, for various reasons, run up huge debts and some are at the point of defaulting on them. These include the so-called "PIIGS" Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain. Spain and Italy, in particular, are huge economies whose collapse would have huge repercussions for Europe and the world economy as a whole. Greece is particularly problematic, as its government basically tricked the EU into allowing Greece membership by playing games with its budget numbers to make it look like it was playing by the EU debt rules. (Greece wasn't alone in this but it was one of the worst offenders.) As an aside, Greece and other European governments were helped in their budget games by big US and European investment banks who designed financial tools to obscure government debt.

So today the Eurozone (remember, not all EU countries are on the Euro) has to decide if European taxpayers (especially in Germany) will foot the bill to bail out all this government debt. This is leading to austerity budgets and cuts in social spending across Europe, which has in turn been rejected by voters in many countries, causing governments to fall faced with the no-win problem that EU bailout money is usually dependent on those austerity budgets passing. This is a contentious issue, and the Euro may yet collapse and cease to exist as a currency, although that seems unlikely so long as France and Germany are publicly committed to holding the thing together. A broad economic recovery would be the best solution, since it would presumably improve tax revenues, raise consumer confidence, and ease the debt burden on governments but the ongoing crisis has a negative effect on the economy of the countries effected, creating a vicious feedback loop.

Whew! That turned into a novel... EU experts please forgive my oversimplifications!

fun fact: The Council of Europe, European Council, and Council of the European Union are all DIFFERENT organizational bodies. This fact alone goes a long way to explaining why some Europeans are so skeptical about all this.
posted by Wretch729 at 2:16 PM on October 18, 2012

A bit more about Germany I forgot to include:

Germany's economy is the 4th or 5th biggest in the world (depending on if you count by nominal or PPP GDP) and also one of the healthiest right now, with solid growth in 2012. Consequently any EU bailout is going to be funded principally by Germany, and to a lesser extent France, and then all the rest of the EU members. The German government has the tought job of convincing voters that rather than spending the taxes resulting from their relatively good economic position on programs to benefit German workers in Germany, it should instead be used to bail out countries who ran up huge unsustainable debts. This is, understandbaly, a tough sell. It's further complicated by the fact that many of those debtor governments are in hock in large part to big German banks, meaning that SOME Germans especially the bankers, are actually pretty eager to ensure that bailouts happen, the alternative being huge debt defaults that crash the German banking sector.

Another thing haunting Germany is how uncomfortable the rest of Europe gets any time Germany is seen as being in a position of power over the rest of the continent. This is the whole thing the EU is set up to avoid, yet now you see nationalists in the debtor countries muttering about Germany accomplishing by predatory lending what it never could by military force. The ghosts of the past never go away, and Europe has a lot of history.

In the same vein, one solution to debt is inflation: print more money! But that wouldn't be so good for relatively healthy economies like Germany's. In addition many Germans have an almost pathological fear of inflation, remembering back to the hyperinflation that destroyed the German economy following WWI, and are reluctant to try and pursue that as a strategy with the Euro. PlanetMoney did a good show about this.
posted by Wretch729 at 2:30 PM on October 18, 2012

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