Peter Rutland has mentioned in the past that many Americans know little about the European Union (E.U.), and what they know may be based more on myth than fact. With a major debt crisis threatening the E.U. ́s very existence, we thought it might be a good time to discuss some of these misconceptions with Professor Rutland, who is Colin and Nancy Campbell Professor in Global Issues and Democratic Thought, professor of government, and professor of Russian and Eastern European studies.

DAVID PESCI: What is one of the more significant myths many Americans believe is a “fact” about the E.U.?
PETER RUTLAND: That the European Union brought peace to Europe. Many liber- als tend to idealize the European Union as an attractive alternative to the United States—a place that is peaceful rather than violent, communitarian rather than indi- vidualist, and with a strong social safety net. Many conservatives demonize the Europeans for the same reasons. When all is said and done, the bottom-line defense of the European Union is that it has ended the centuries-old proclivity of European states for invading each other. It ́s true that most of Europe has enjoyed six decades without war. But this was due to Uncle Sam and Uncle Joe (Stalin) physically occupying the continent and dismantling its armies in 1945. NATO and the Warsaw Pact were in place well before the emergence of European Community institutions. It was the Cold War, and not the Brussels bureau- cracy, that preserved the peace in Europe.

There is also the problem of the wars in Yugoslavia in the 1990s. This was a conflict for which Yugoslavia ́s European neighbors share some responsibility, because of their precipitate recognition of the independence of Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, followed by their inability to stop the fighting until the U.S. intervened.

DP: What about the often-heard assertion that the European Union has transcended the nation-state?
PR: Another myth. European federalists have been proclaiming the end of the nation- state for decades. Far from abolishing the nation-state, the European Coal and Steel Community, the forerunner of the E.U., was introduced to rebuild and hence rescue the nation-states of Europe that had been destroyed by World War II. Their econo- mies were in ruins, their political elites discredited, and their societies polarized. Economic integration was the only way for national political elites to rebuild their countries and restore their sovereignty.

In recent years the European Union has actually enabled and encouraged the splintering of Europe into smaller sovereign enti- ties. It has given a home to the small nations that emerged from the break- up of the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia; and its existence has emboldened nationalists from Scotland to Catalonia. Moreover, there is no evidence that a federal Europe is evolving over time. Periodic polls of Europeans do not show any trend over time towards closer identification with Europe rather than their national identities.

DP: Even with all this, don’t we often hear Europe ́s economic model is superior to ours, especially with regard to quality of life and health care?
PR: Europe certainly scores well on quality of life, health, and equality indicators. However, the Greek crisis has revealed a design flaw at the heart of the European model. The introduction of the Euro in 1999 meant a com- mon currency for the 17 states now in the Eurozone, but there was no mechanism in place to enforce fiscal probity, nor to correct trade imbalances. This mismatch between fiscal and monetary policy is a structural design flaw akin to the location of the gas tank on the Ford Pinto, which could blow up both the tank and the car in a crash.

As a result Greece and others were allowed to run huge and persistent budget and trade deficits. Depreciation of the national currency was a time-tested mechanism for correcting such imbalances—one that is not available to members of the Eurozone. States in the U.S. also do not have their own currencies to devalue—but in contrast to the E.U., the states are not allowed to run a deficit, and the rule is strictly enforced. In the face of a gap in competitiveness between member states, the existence of a common language and culture and a more flexible housing mar- ket (at least before the current crisis) make it easier for workers to move between states in the U.S. than between countries inside the European Union.

DP: Okay, how about another commonly repeated “fact” that the European Union has abolished borders?
PR: Only partly. It is truly a remarkable feeling to sit in a car in Poznan and drive all the way to Brussels without having to show a passport. How many lives were lost, and how much suffering there was, fighting across those German borders in the course of the 20th century. However, mobility within Europe is not as untrammeled as mobility within the U.S. Each member country still has jurisdiction over citizenship, migration, and refugee policy. Regulations for guest-workers from outside the E.U. also vary from coun- try to country. In the wake of the Tunisian revolution, for example, France reintroduced border controls with Italy to stem the tide of refugees headed their way. Deportations of Romanians from France and other countries, back to E.U. member Romania, have also taken place. Some E.U. members, such as Britain, remain outside the Schengen free mobility zone altogether.

DP: Okay, but at least we can say Europeans are more tolerant than Americans, right?
PR: Not really. For many years Europeans pointed to the sorry state of race relations in the U.S. and the enduring legacy of slavery. However, liberal smugness over the inclusiveness of European national identities has taken a hit in recent years as large immigrant communities, particular those from the Moslem world, have challenged the prevailing Christian or secular model of integration. France was convulsed by the ban on headscarves in schools, now extended to a ban on the full-face burqa in public. Britain was proud of its multicultural redefinition of British identity—until the subway bombings of July 7, 2005. Three of the four perpetrators had been born and raised in Britain, and polls showed 15 percent of British Moslems supported the use of violence for political ends. Even tranquil Norway saw the insanity of Anders Breivik ́s killing spree this past July. In contrast, the U.S. model of assimilation is still working well. The United States is home to the largest number of immigrants in the world, and the immigration debates here have not risen to the level of exis- tential crisis that we see across Europe.

Europe and the United States face common challenges and must work together to find common solutions. In times of crisis it is all too easy to resort to finger- pointing and stereotyping: scoring cheap political points at home by denigrating the other. Anti-Americanism has been a stan- dard trope in European politics of the left and the right, while the Iraq war saw the U.S. Congress discussing “Freedom Fries.” But there is more that unites than divides the two economic powers sitting on either side of the Atlantic. Both the American and European models have distinctive strengths and weaknesses, and these have often served to complement each other, if the politicians on both sides approach the relationship with understanding and toler- ance for the differences that unite us.

DP: You presented at an international conference in Berlin during December. What was your impression of the German people’s response to having to bail out Greece, Italy, Spain, and Portugal, and per- haps others as this unfolds?
PR: The crisis is being portrayed as a result of a cultural gap between northern Europe and Southern Europe, between hard- working, thrifty Germans and lackadaisi- cal Greeks. There is some truth to this, but the broader context is the fact of European integration, which tied together these dis- parate economies in the first place. The astonishing levels of unemployment in southern Europe (in Spain 46 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds are out of work) has led to a migration of young people to the north, particularly to a place like Berlin, where rents are cheap.

DP: Aside from the economic havoc that a partial or full dissolution of the E.U. could produce, what other consequences potentially loom if the relationship crumbles?
PR: It’s important to remember that the European Union has played a very positive role in helping to stabilize democracy and prevent the outbreak of ethnic conflict in the former socialist countries of Central Europe, Yugoslavia being a grim exception. There is still work to be done in extending this zone of stability to Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine. This region is home to a total of more than 60 million people but it gets little attention in current U.S. foreign policy. So another unfortunate byproduct of the Eurozone crisis is that Brussels is unlikely to be able to bring pressure to bear to roll back the corrupt and authoritarian leaders in Minsk and Kyiv, not to mention Moscow itself.

DP: Do you think the Euro and the E.U. will survive all this economic turmoil?
PR: At this point all the bets are off. The European Union and the Euro will survive in some form, but it seems clear that the ground rules will be radically changed and we can expect to see several countries exit the Eurozone. UPFRONT