Thanksgiving as we know it dates not to Colonial days but to the middle of the Civil War, when Abraham Lincoln made it a federal holiday. It is, in other words, a celebration of national unity. And our national unity is indeed something to be thankful for.
To see why, consider the slow-motion disaster overtaking the European project on multiple fronts.
For those not familiar with the term, the “European project” has a very specific meaning. It refers to the long-term effort to foster a peaceful, prosperous Europe through ever-closer economic and social integration, an effort that began more than 60 years ago with the formation of the Coal and Steel Community.
The effort continued with the creation of the Common Market in 1959; the expansion of that market to include newly democratic nations in southern Europe; the Single European Act, assuring free movement of people as well as goods; further extension of the European Union to former communist nations; the Schengen agreement, which removed many border controls within the Continent; and, of course, the creation of a common European currency.
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One way to think about all these moves is that they were attempts to give Europe many of the attributes of a single nation without formal political union – at least not yet. The more or less explicit hope of many in the European elite was that technical and economic integration would gradually foster psychological unification, and eventually pave the way for a United States of Europe.
And for a long time the project worked very well, as Europe grew steadily more prosperous, peaceful, and free. But how would the process deal with setbacks? After all, the European project was creating ever-growing interdependence without creating either the institutions or, despite elite hopes, the sense of political legitimacy that would be needed to manage that interdependence if things went wrong.
Which brings me to the disasters.
At first sight, the financial crisis, the refugee crisis, and the terrorist attacks might not seem to have anything in common. But in each case Europe’s ability to protect itself turns out to have been undermined by its imperfect union.
On the financial crisis: There’s widespread consensus among economists (though not, alas, among politicians) that Europe’s woes were mainly caused by mood swings among private investors, who recklessly poured money into southern Europe after the creation of the euro, then abruptly reversed course a decade later.
Yet something similar happened in America, too, where money first poured into mortgage lending in the “sand states” – Florida, Arizona, Nevada, California – then took flight. In the U.S., however, the pain of that reversal was limited by federal institutions, ranging from Social Security to deposit insurance. In Europe, unfortunately, the cost of bank bailouts and much more fell on national governments, so that private-sector overreach soon spilled over into fiscal crisis.
On refugees: The politics of immigration in general, and refugees in particular, are nasty everywhere – just listen to Donald Trump or Ted Cruz. But Europe is also trying to maintain open internal borders while leaving the management of external borders to national governments like that of impoverished, austerity-ravaged Greece. No wonder, then, that border controls are making a comeback.
And on terrorism: No free society can ever be perfectly secure from attack. But think about how much harder it gets when anti-terrorism is pretty much left up to national governments, whose capacity for policing varies greatly. Imagine how New Yorkers would feel if political paralysis in New Jersey were getting in the way of any effective anti-terrorist policy there, and you have a good idea of the problems Belgium has created for France.
Ideally, Europe would respond to these setbacks by strengthening its union, creating more of the institutions it needs to manage interdependence. But the political will for that kind of move forward seems lacking, even for the most obvious steps. For example, on Tuesday the European Commission proposed the gradual phase-in of a Europe-wide system of deposit insurance, which is the bare minimum needed to maintain stable banks within a currency union. Yet the plan faces furious opposition within Germany, which sees it as a giveaway to its spendthrift neighbors.
The alternative is to take a step back, which is already happening on border controls. European leaders are, rightly, concerned that each such move damages the whole European project. But what is the realistic alternative?
The truth is that I don’t know the answer. I’m just thankful that America has the kind of unity Europe can only dream of – at least for now. I guess we’ll see what’s left after President Trump gets done with it.