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Nichols: Evolution of united Europe years in the making

POSTED: June 7, 2010 1:00 a.m.

After the American colonies of Great Britain revolted against the older monarchy of George III and gained independence, our first order of business was to decide on what type of country we would create for ourselves.
We tried to become a confederate state for 10 years. Each former colony had both independence and self sovereignty. The central government lacked enforcement power.

When some states made treaties with native Indian tribes or printed their own money (both prohibited by the Articles of Confederation treaty) the weak central government could not force the wayward states to stop doing illegal acts. Some states even refused to pay their assessed taxes to the center.

We were the first republic (no king) state in modern times. We dropped the Articles of Confederation and created our federal form of government with a constitution which governs us today, as interpreted by our Supreme Court.

We left behind a Europe with many small countries and a few large ones. Wars over territory and religion were frequent. Some countries like Germany and Italy were divided up into many small principalities until the end of the 19th century.

True Napoleon had united Europe by conquest, and he introduced ideas of modern civil service to many conquered states. However, after Napoleon was defeated and exiled, Europe reverted back to small and large states much like before Napoleon arrived on the scene.

Observers like Ben Franklin and Dante suggested a Europe united would be less militant than one carved up into many states of varying sizes.

However, the idea of a united Europe did not take shape until World War II. Ships brought military supplies from America to England and other allies, but were mostly empty returning to the U.S. The Allies put their ships under one shipping commander and the ships were able to carry more shipping with careful planning.

Winston Churchill noted the results of cooperation and suggested a union of cooperating European states when the war was over. His idea did not immediately take root. On the continent, led by France, the European Coal and Steel Community was organized in 1960. The ECSC treaty dropped internal restrictions on the sale and transfer of coal and steel and provided a common tax or tariff. Ultimately, this project had the vision of members giving up some sovereign control and forming a European state to compete with the U.S. and Russia.

The U.K. did not want to give up its control over its own economy, so it helped create the Outer Seven, or European Free Trade Association, which did not envision giving up sovereignty. Members agreed to lower taxes on interstate trade with each other, but planned no common tariff on goods from states outside of the seven. The Outer Seven proved ineffective so the U.K. left it and joined the Inner Six, or ECSC. Today, the Outer Seven has only four members: Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Lichtenstein.

The successful Inner Six became the European Economic Community, and then the current European Union with several treaties such as the Maastricht Treaty. It has 27 members today.

The European Union has structures that may evolve into a state: including the European Commission, the Council of the EU, the European Parliament with delegates elected to five year terms, the Court of Justice, and the European Bank in Frankfurt, Germany.

Member states which meet certain requirements for monetary and fiscal stability can mint and print euros and 16 of the 27 members have done so.

Greece joined the EU in 1981. Before that Greece's currency was unstable. Conditions improved after 1981 and the Greek government began programs which cost more than taxes and fees brought income. When the economy of the world was favorable Greek overspending did not seem to be a problem.

However recently Greece was told that it had to cut expenditures and raise taxes to get back into better balance. Thus it cut many popular benefits causing the people to riot in protest. Besides Greece other EU states in monetary trouble are Portugal, Ireland, Italy and Spain.

I wonder if the U.S. might fall into a crisis like Greece's? We are spending billions of dollars more than our government's income. Our baby boomer generation will soon begin trying to retire with social security benefits.

Once citizens get entitlements, they certainly never want to give them up.

Would I join a riot if I lost my Social Security and other pension benefits? Maybe.

Tom Nichols is a retired college professor who lives in Gainesville. His column appears biweekly on Mondays and on gainesvilletimes.com.



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