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Cover Story

Is Europe really on the brink?

Europe's biggest crisis in the postwar era is not just about the economy. It's about a search for identity – and a rationale for staying unified.

By Staff writer / October 29, 2012

This is the cover story from the Oct. 29 edition of The Christian Science MonitorWeekly.

Cover illustration by Nancy Stahl

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Paris, london, and berlin

In the 2012 London Olympic Games, who won the most medals? Yes, the United States garnered 104, and China captured 88. Nicely done!

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But how about "Europe"? Tally the European Union medals and you get a whopping 306, ranging from Britain (65) to Portugal (1). In London, EU athletes ran, swam, jumped, and pole-vaulted with passion on behalf of their nations and programs. But none of these Olympians talked about winning for the EU.

And therein lies a conundrum for the sprawling entity known as Europe. Despite an abstract pride Europeans feel in being from the EU, the emotion, drive, and thrill of victory is still largely national. You do it for your flag.

On the sports field, this is positive and natural, and no one wants to change it. But in the world of politics, the unity and future of what has been known for 67 years as "postwar Europe" faces its biggest challenge ever. In the space of a few years, Europe has moved from bristling with confidence to a collective crisis that is shaking its unprecedented prosperity to the core.

What began as a debt crisis in Greece in late 2009 – a cloud the size of a fist – has grown into a thunderhead of fractious politics, extremism, costly delay, denials, ethnic tension, and, not least, an erosion of public trust that threatens the core values of Europe's remarkable postwar experiment in integration.

In America, the crisis is largely viewed as an economic story channeled through CNBC and Bloomberg – as some kind of euro mismanagement recorded on graphs and stock tickers. But the problem runs far deeper. It cuts to the core of what Europe may or may not become. It is a crisis of identity and politics with social fallout and, what scares many, an element of that old unknown: unintended consequences.

Extremist political parties are rising. Taxpayers are revolting in the north about bailing out the south. For the far left, "Europe" has become a protectionist zone for bankers and the moneyed class. For the far right, Europe is too tolerant of Muslims, Islam, and immigrants.

Yet Europe's crisis has crept along so slowly that it has been hard to know how seriously to take it. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays come predictions swathed in gloom. On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, the crisis can seem "illusory," as analyst Konstanty Gebert notes in Warsaw. (In resilient Eastern Europe, as some Baltic officials said this summer, a crisis is when the Soviet Union invades; what Europe is now dealing with is just a "problem.")

Part of Europe's hidden genius, as British historian David Marquand (no relation to this writer) says from his home in Oxford, "has been to be boring. Boring meant peace and no drama." Mr. Marquand, whose book "The End of the West: The Once and Future Europe" came out last year, adds, "Today, from inside the crisis, it is difficult to gauge where you are. I hope we have turned a corner. But I'm always worried about the rise of extremism."

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