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Politics

The EU's half-Japanese 'founding father' and the threats to his dream

Count Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi grew up in Ronsperg Castle in Pobezovice, Czech Republic. Today, the run-down property gets few visitors.

POBEZOVICE, Czech Republic -- Not far from the Czech Republic's border with Germany, a castle stands abandoned and dilapidated. One could call it the cradle of European integration -- a project that has also developed cracks in its foundation. 

     Ronsperg Castle was the childhood home of Count Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi. He grew up to become a pioneer of the European unity movement. He published a book promoting the idea, titled "Pan-Europe," in 1923, just five years after the end of World War I. 

     Coudenhove-Kalergi's mother was Japanese, and at that time, bicultural families were a rarity. He also had a Japanese name -- Eijiro. Experts say the count's background surely shaped his view of the Continent.

Love and war

Mitsuko Aoyama, Coudenhove-Kalergi's mother, was born in 1874 in what is now Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward. She was the third daughter of an antique dealer, whose shop happened to be close to the Austro-Hungarian Empire's legation building. When she was 18, Count Heinrich Coudenhove-Kalergi, the Austro-Hungarian acting minister-counselor, fell in love with her. Despite an age difference of 15 years, they married.

     In 1896, when Aoyama was 21, the couple moved to Europe and settled in Ronsperg Castle. Guerlain, the French perfume and cosmetics maker, is said to have named its Mitsouko line after her.

     Harsh days lay ahead: Heinrich Coudenhove-Kalergi died in 1906, leaving his widow to raise seven children alone in her adopted country. Then, with the end of World War I, the empire collapsed. These tumultuous events only reinforced the young Richard's notion that Europe needed to integrate, according to historians.

     "We shouldn't overlook the fact that Richard had a mother from a different cultural background," wrote Masumi Schmidt-Muraki, a Tokyo-born German author, in "Mitsuko and her seven children." "She was proof that it was possible to coexist with people of a different ethnicity and culture. A woman from an island country in Asia was making sincere efforts [to adapt], so Richard must have asked himself, 'Why can't Europeans, who have similar backgrounds, also learn to live with one another?"

     Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi died in 1972. Today, he is rarely counted among the "founding fathers" of the European Union. That title is usually bestowed on leaders including Robert Schuman, a former French prime minister, and Jean Monnet, a French politician who served as the deputy secretary general of the League of Nations.

     There is no telling whether contemporary leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Central Bank President Mario Draghi have ever ventured to that western corner of the Czech Republic where Coudenhove-Kalergi formed his pan-European vision. At this point, visiting a run-down castle is likely the last thing on their to-do lists. 

Burned from both ends

Now economically integrated, Europe has been buffeted by Greece's debt crisis. And a looming vote in the U.K. also casts doubt on the union's future.

     In August, members of the eurozone -- which does not include the U.K. -- agreed to provide a fresh 86 billion euro ($97.8 billion) bailout package to the Greek government over the next three years. In exchange, Greece is obliged to carry out reforms, such as slashing pension payments, plugging tax loopholes and streamlining a bloated public sector.

     As it is, conditions in Greece are rough. In 2014, the tourism sector -- a key source of income -- pushed up gross domestic product by 29.4 billion euros, including direct and indirect effects. The figure was well short of the 33.9 billion euros reported in 2009, before a previous round of debt-related upheaval. 

     Youth unemployment has been above 50% since 2012. 

     The agreed-upon reforms will be painful for taxpayers, but they are considered necessary to put Greece's fiscal house in order and revive the economy. The government also needs to find ways to revitalize industry and boost tax revenue. It is unclear, though, whether there is sufficient political will to do what it takes.

     For now, public calls for leaving the eurozone -- Greece's alternative to bowing to creditors -- have subsided. But such voices could pipe up again at any time.

     Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, a one-time opponent of austerity who agreed to the bailout terms, resigned recently and called a snap election. He hopes to gain a better grip on power, overcoming resistance to the deal from elements of his own party.

     Over in the U.K., Prime Minister David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative Party, plans to hold a national referendum in 2016 on whether the country should remain in the EU.

     In this age of globalism, turning one's back on a market of some 500 million people might seem ill-advised. But some in the U.K. argue EU membership does more harm than good. Jim Mellon, a well-known investor, has donated a considerable sum to TheKnow.EU campaign -- an initiative that seeks to convince taxpayers of the union's disadvantages.

     On the other hand, the U.K.'s Financial Times newspaper recently carried an essay titled "European federalism is not dead yet."

     "It is significant that the EU's underachiever, Greece, and its high-performer, the U.K., are making moves to disrupt European integration from both ends," observed Keiichiro Komatsu, principal at London-based Komatsu Research & Advisory.

     What would Coudenhove-Kalergi think of all this? When he published his book nine decades ago, he could not have foreseen that his pan-European dream would keep so many politicians and investors up at night.

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