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Europe's Thousand Year Nightmare

Europe's tortuous history explains why its problems are so intractable...

EARLIER THIS YEAR – while we were on holiday – we read a book that had nothing to do with the markets, writes Greg Canavan for the Daily Reckoning Australia.

It was John Julius Norwich's The Middle Sea – A History of the Mediterranean. It was a fascinating and entertaining read, chronicling the history of all the nations that bordered or had anything to do with the waters of the Med.

Thinking about that book now, we can easily see why the Europeans just can't get it together. It's easy to ridicule them (as we do and will continue to do) but it's not like getting a bunch of mates in the room and trying to agree on something. That would be hard enough.

Instead you have a negotiating table full of people who reflect thousands of years of conflict and animosity, trying to come to an agreement that best suits their own self-interests without blowing others – and by implication themselves – out of the water.

What a nightmare.

But European history has never really been any different. They've been having a go at each other for millennia.

To pick an arbitrary starting point, the crusades are a good example. In the 600s the Saracens, as the Arabs were known back then, conquered the Holy Land and North Africa. Then they took on the Persian Empire and Christian Europe. Within a hundred years they got a foothold in Southern Italy and Spain, but went no further.

The Christians, who for our discussion here really means the Europeans, were threatened by this invading force and the new religion of Islam. So they endeavored to take the Saracens' European gains – and the Holy Land – back.

The result was the First Crusade. By 1099, the Crusaders had taken Jerusalem. They celebrated by killing all the Muslims and burning all the Jews alive in the main synagogue.

Within 50 years, the Christians' grip on the Holy Land was tenuous. Another crusade was organized. Like the first one, French and German armies, among others, gathered at Constantinople, the capital of the Roman Empire. Unlike the first one, the Greeks (the inhabitants of Constantinople were Greek) demanded payment to house the armies.

Things didn't get off to a good start and the crusade was a debacle. By 1187, the Saracen leader Saladin, who later became the Sultan of Egypt, had taken Jerusalem. The Third Crusade fared better, but Jerusalem was still under Muslim rule

Not giving up, the Europeans launched the Fourth Crusade. It was a disaster. This time the army was to go by boat to Egypt in vessels built by the Venetian navy. Less than half the expected amount of soldiers turned out and Venice was left badly out of pocket.

In an attempt to recoup its funds, Venice and the Crusaders took part in some 'intrigue', a scheme, which eventually led to the sacking of fellow Christian city Constantinople (the Greeks have been copping it for years). They looted the city of all its treasures and didn't even bother heading to the Holy Land.

A few hundred years later, when the Turks were besieging Constantinople, the Western Europeans refused to help their fellow Christians in any great numbers because it refused to convert to Catholicism. (The city was the head of Eastern Orthodox Christianity).

So as you can see, it's complicated!

Italy, simply a 'geographical expression' according to Count Metternich of Austria, is another good example of the complexity of Europe. Following the disintegration of the Western Roman Empire, the Italian peninsula fragmented.

Ruled by the Holy Roman Empire (whose center of power was Germany) in the north, the Papal States in the middle and the Spanish in the south for hundreds of years, Italy was indeed just a geographical expression. Then Napoleon upset this balance of power and the French occupied much of the peninsula until 1870 when it was unified as the Italian nation as we know it.

Greece itself is another story altogether. To give you a taste, after a long struggle to end the 400-year domination of Ottoman rule, Greece gained independence in 1832. But the Western Powers decided Greece should become a monarchy, not a republic. So they put a German on the throne, 17-year-old Prince Otto of Wittelsbach!

This is simply a very small tip of a very large iceberg of European affairs. Its history has been one of struggle and conflict, not of cooperation. Admirably, the Europeans designed the Euro as a way to promote integration and avoid conflict.

But it was designed incorrectly.

Currency union without fiscal union will fail. Only the timing is uncertain. Instead of acknowledging this reality the Europeans are trying everything to avoid this inevitable fate, including financial leverage, which will be a disaster heaped on a disaster.

There is too much self-interest at play in Europe – backed by a deep history of national animosities – for this to work out well. The Day of Reckoning is knocking on Europe's door.

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Greg Canavan is editor and publisher of Sound Money, Sound Investments, a weekly financial report devoted to unearthing great value investments amid today's "money illusion" of fiat currency. Formerly editor of Australia's market-leading finance newsletter, Greg has been a regular guest on CNBC, ABC and BoardRoomRadio, as well as a contributor to publications as diverse as LewRockwell.com and the Sydney Morning Herald.

See the full archive of Greg Canavan.

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