Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel is not the only European convinced that the European crisis, now a political as well as economic crisis, can only be solved by pressing forward — ever forward! — to an ever more closely unified European Union, with ever-strengthened institutions of federalism and centralized authority.

This is the formula insistently put forward not only in Germany but also in EU staff circles and the EU administration, and in the academic and other professional groups concerned with the EU’s future.

What about going backward rather than forward?

I would argue that nearly every step in the federalist direction has produced unnecessary complication and strain in the EU. The fiasco of an unneeded and unwanted European constitution was the best proof of this. The reason is simple. Nearly every step towards total union has revealed still more of the inherent factors of disunity in Europe and has dramatized how distant “Europe” has become from the simple and lucid ambitions of its origins.

The fundamental motive animating Robert Schuman, Jean Monnet and Konrad Adenauer (when the project was offered to him), was to create a new relationship between France and Germany that would make a third world war impossible. The actual proposal was simple: to place the war-making industries of the two countries under a common authority. That was the Coal and Steel Community created in 1951. All that has followed, up to the European credit crisis of 2012, results from that.

Germany and France, together with Italy and the Benelux countries that joined them in the original community, were historically and culturally the foundation of West European civilization, and had been so since the Visigoths, a migrant German people, sacked Rome, breaking the political spell exercised in nearly all of Europe by the Roman Empire.

The fall of Rome, and its political replacement in the 8th century by the Holy Roman Empire, originally the Carolingian kingdom associated with Charlemagne — an alliance of German feudal entities — and the emergent Merovingian French monarchy, interacting with Burgundy, then a major power, formed the Western Europe we know. Together with the brilliant Italian city-states, and those North Sea provinces which liberated themselves from Spain to become cultural appendages of Germany and France, these made up the core of continental Western Europe.

The French (after 1066) occupied England, and the two kingdoms fought the Hundred Years’ War (which in some respects is not even finished now). The Coal and Steel Community was an expression of the determination of the core European civilization not to permit a third attempt to commit suicide — as had happened in 1914 and 1940.

Since then, the Union has added members so as to encompass nearly all of Europe except a part of the Balkans. It created a common market, and then a free trade zone, and turned that into the Schengen Treaty Zone of free circulation.

It has become a complex system of concentric and overlapping circles of action and influence, each providing a function necessary or desirable to the whole. But this was not enough. It decided to create a common currency, without the institutions necessary for such a currency.

The documents will eventually provide historians with the complete story, but my own conviction is that the influence of the American example, very powerful since the war ended in 1945, had a damaging influence on the political perceptions and imagination of Europeans, above all on the increasing number of idealistic, political people and professionals who joined in this great effort to unify Europe. They said too often to themselves, and to others, that Europe would eventually become the counterpart and counterbalance to the United States.

This it cannot do. David Cameron said on Tuesday that there has to be a Europe of different speeds. Germans already talk about a euro zone north and a Mediterranean euro zone, because of the radically different cultures and political habits of Italians, Spaniards, Portuguese and Greeks on the one hand, and on the other Germans, Swedes, Dutch, Danes and Britons.

Portugal is not Iowa. Italy cannot become California. There are hundreds of languages in Europe. America speaks English, and its government is the product of English, Scottish and French thought.

Take another example. The only European countries with substantial military forces today are Britain and France. Both have powerful military traditions. They are willing to spend money on armed forces. France prides itself on military self-sufficiency: its navy, air force and ground forces make up a self-contained force, which can intervene anywhere with a complete compliment of arms and services, ships and combat aircraft of France’s own manufacture, and its own independent command and administration.

For many years after the war, Britain could do the same (as in the Falklands War). Since, for economic reasons, it has allowed itself to become dependent upon and auxiliary to U.S. forces. But it could make itself independent again. Elsewhere in Europe, there are splendid military capabilities, but limited ones, subordinate to NATO in most cases.

Why is this so? History. Britain and France were great imperial powers. So once was Spain, but that ended in the 19th century. Spain, the Netherlands and Italy in the past were great naval powers. (Greece today still has the largest merchant fleet in the entire world.) All have declined for political reasons — the United States insisted on its unique oversight of military matters — and changing cultural outlook. The Europeans increasingly believe that cultural power, “soft” power, economic power and diplomacy will be the most important instruments of future world influence.

The point I argue is that all this kind of power and influence can more effectively be exercised by a Europe of concentric, creative and cooperative circles of nations, than by that imitation United States to which Europeans now are committed.

Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at

© 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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