In Europe, Austere Summer Holiday a Sign of the Times

BY Michael D. Mosettig  August 31, 2010 at 4:30 PM EST

Europeans who could afford it this year are wrapping up their traditional month-long August holidays. But many of Europe’s political leaders either scaled back or canceled their vacations, and few ventured far from their capitals.

So much for a European Union without borders when the politicians of its 27-member nations send a message to their constituents that there is no place like home during the Great Recession.

This summertime austerity did attract some skeptical commentary. Financial Times economics columnist Samuel Brittan asked how European resorts were going to prosper if no vacationers travel to visit them.

The current European chauvinism and pessimism provoked an even sharper commentary in Sunday’s Washington Post.

“The European Union is dying,” wrote Georgetown University professor and Council on Foreign Relations fellow Charles Kupchan. Washington policymakers could soon realize that the European integration project 50 years in the making is no more.

“From London to Berlin to Warsaw, Europe is experiencing the renationalization of political life, with countries clawing back the sovereignty they once willingly sacrificed in pursuit of a collective ideal,” Kupchan wrote.

Kupchan cited several factors in this dramatic change: anger in Germany over bailing out Greece; a new conservative government in Britain; right-wing populism, especially in central Europe; the demographic pressures on the European welfare-state model; and a generational shift to leaders who feel less burdened by the grim, 20th-century legacy that spurred the post-World War II drive to European integration.

One irony that Kupchan briefly mentioned is that this shift comes amid the near-unraveling of the most ambitious European integration project — the euro, the common currency of 16 European nations. The debt crisis running from Greece, Italy and the Iberian peninsula to Ireland has been cited by most financial commentators as evidence that politics trumped economics in determining which countries should have been included in the project.

Kupchan’s commentary is certain to be rebutted by the EU’s Washington representative, as well as other European ambassadors — once they return from their summer holidays.