NEW YORK - In 1945, when I was two years old, FBI agents barged into our Florida home and arrested my beloved French governess, Mlle Chapuiseau, as a `Nazi spy.’
With the typical dimness of government security agents everywhere, the FBI reasoned: Mlle Chapuiseau was from Alsace. That bitterly disputed province had been occupied by Germany from 1940-1945. She was now in the USA. Ergo she was a Nazi spy.
No matter Mademoiselle Chapuiseau was as French as Joan of Arc. The poor Alsatians had involuntarily changed French and German nationality four times from 1871 and 1945.
I recall this lady because I’m soon off to greet France’s glorious spring in beautiful Alsace and Lorraine. Each spring I visit the Maginot Line’s great forts and the frontier battlefields where millions of French and German soldiers died in three major wars.
The greatest miracle I have ever seen is today’s French-German border. Nothing now demarcates this long-disputed frontier, over which so many fought and died. This blood-drenched border that evoked such madness and violence has almost vanished. You only know you’ve crossed the border by seeing billboards in French or German.
France and Germany have truly become brother nations.
If these old foes can achieve fraternity and genuine mutual respect, there is hope for other seemingly irreconcilable groups like Arabs and Jews, Armenians and Turks, Sri Lankans, Indians and Pakistanis, and even the crazy Cypriotes.
This month marks the 50th birthday of the European Union. Almost everyone these days criticizes the EU. It’s horribly bureaucratic and bloated, filled with paper-passers, redundant layers of unresponsive government, and silly arguments about cheese or the size of buttons.
Much of the union’s time goes to squabbling over trivia or translating boring speeches no one reads into Estonian and Slovenian. Its 27 member states can’t seem to agree on anything except more meetings. The core EU economies, France, Germany and Italy, are stagnating. Unemployment is far too high, though France’s is actually dropping a bit. Regulations and overly powerful unions stifle growth and innovation. Huge EU farm subsidies are an outrage.
The EU has expanded too far, taking in new East European members that are a generation away from being prepared to join western Europe. The Union has no unified armed forces and nebulous foreign policy. Many Europeans are fed up with EU and yearn to return to the old Europe. In 2004, French and Dutch voters made the EU a punching bag for all their grievances and worries by voting turned down its proposed new constitution.
Amidst all the criticism and grumbling from EU citizens, and sneering scorn from Americans and Britons(who benefit from membership when it serves them, but often pretend they are not really EU members), let’s recall the union’s rarely cited, under-appreciated, but quite remarkable accomplishments.
A recent, 26,000-person survey by the BBC of 25 nations found the most respected nations on earth were, in order, Canada, France, and Japan. The much maligned European Union came next.
Among the EU’s major accomplishments: The well-managed Euro, now the world’s second reserve currency and a refuge from the sinking US dollar. Stringent green regulations that make Europe the world’s leading defender of the environment. In some European nations, a permit is now required to cut down a tree.
The EU has become the world’s leading defender of human rights, international organizations and international law, putting the erstwhile champion, the United States, to shame. The EU leads the world in defending the rights of animals and has made major strides combating the evils of industrial factory farming, animal testing, and the barbaric fur trade.
Preservation of historic buildings and quarters, embellishment of public spaces, and strong support for art and culture are hallmarks of the EU. So, in western Europe, is excellent medical care, reliable public transportation, safety and cleanliness of its streets, and care for unemployed, helpless, and aged. Some call this socialism; I call it good, humane, responsive government.
Europe’s greatest triumph has been to rid itself of mankind’s greatest evil, nationalism. The EU has restored Europe to its former role as the center of western civilization, culture, and good taste.
Fifty years in the great sweep of history is nothing. The task of somehow politically, economically, militarily and legally unifying 27 nations from Portugal to the Black Sea will take generations. Critics are expecting too much, too fast from the EU. So far, the EU has made enormous and commendable progress in a relatively short time.
In spite of all your problems, dear EU, a very happy birthday to you.