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Europe must fix its leaning Tower of Babel

Those who want to preserve Europe's unity should not dismiss nationalist sentiments or frustration over austerity policies. Europe must forge a common identity that leaves room for diversity while delivering opportunity and security through a strong but limited European government.

By Nathan GardelsOp-ed contributor / June 3, 2013

Demonstrators from the anti-capitalism 'Blockupy' movement protest against Europe's austerity policies in Frankfurt, Germany, June 1. Op-ed contributor Nathan Gardels writes: 'The great danger is that the despair and alienation over the failure of Europe to deliver a future for its next generation will conjoin with the backward-looking, reactionary right in one great anti-European eruption.'

Ralph Orlowski/Reuters

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Paris

The eurozone today has become a leaning Tower of Babel. The sovereign debt crisis and the high social costs of austerity have severely weakened its foundation. Whether this tottering edifice designed to thread diversity through the needle eye of a single currency finally collapses and falls, or is able to right itself, will depend on re-founding a European narrative for the 21st century.

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The project of European unity was born out of the fear of war, which devastated the continent twice in the 20th century, and the promise of prosperity. Precisely because of the last few decades of step-by-step integration, war is no longer a danger — and thus has lost its force as the compelling raison d’etre of unity. On the other hand, if, as the current situation suggests, integration means more pain than gain, the “lost generation” of youth facing a jobless future can be forgiven for asking “why Europe?”

At the recent town hall meeting organized in Paris by the Berggruen Institute, French President Francois Hollande called for a “new narrative” for Europe that would appeal to the “post-crisis” generation of today as the “post-war” narrative appealed to the generation that founded the European Union. Jacques Attali, the former top aide to Francois Mitterrand and mentor to Mr. Hollande, told the students of Sciences Po, where the town hall meeting was held: “Young people today are faced with three options if the current eurocrisis is not resolved — leaving Europe, staying in Europe without hope, or going into politics and starting a revolution.”

As mr. Attali’s comment suggests, the despair of youth today is destroying their faith in the promise of Europe, as we see with the success of the left-populist blogger-comedian Beppe Grillo in Italy. Right-wing movements across Europe from the True Finns to the neo-fascist Golden Dawn in Greece yearn for the days before globalization, Muslim immigration, gay marriage, and the Growth and Stability Pact.

The great danger is that the despair and alienation over the failure of Europe to deliver a future for its next generation will conjoin with the backward-looking, reactionary right in one great anti-European eruption. That would finally bring the historical project of European integration crashing to the ground.

In this context, pro-Europeans need to heed a truth of the human condition that Charles de Gaulle fully understood: Identity is rooted in the nation – that is, belonging to a unique way of life; what Johann Gottfried Herder called “volksgeist.” Papering over this truth with a currency managed (or mismanaged) by distant bureaucrats with functional acronyms in Brussels only suppressed this reality, not diminished it.

Unless de Gaulle’s “certain idea of France” and its equivalent in other nations is replaced with an “a certain idea of Europe,” the whole thing will shatter into shards of a once-vibrant dream.

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