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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.

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Leading intellectuals now say the crisis is the most serious one since 1945. Arguably it carries more portent than even the halcyon days of 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down, simply because it is unclear if Europe can remain intact. And a breakup of Europe, even in slow motion, is big: It reverberates from St. Louis to Shanghai to São Paulo.

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Dominique Moïsi, the leading Paris intellectual and author of "The Geopolitics of Emotion," points out that while Europe has not experienced such a severe crisis since World War II, "still I am positive. I would say that at the last minute, because they have exhausted all other options, Europeans are finally doing the right thing out of necessity, and in a strange manner. There is much more Europe today than there was a few years ago."

The next 12 months will be crucial in deciding if there is enough "Europe" to hold it all together. The Continent's fate will pivot on whether leaders can still see more rewards in unity than risks in dissolution – and convince their citizens of that. For the first time in European history, two generations have been born who have not experienced war, which was one of the great unifying factors in the birth of an integrated Europe.

"Now, with the current crisis still unresolved, Europe lacks most of the motivating forces that once propelled it toward unity," wrote British historian Timothy Garton Ash in the September/October issue of the journal Foreign Affairs. "Even if a shared fear of the consequences of the eurozone's collapse saves it from the worst, Europe needs something more than fear to make it again the magnetic project it was for a half century."

In October, the Nobel Committee gave the 2012 peace prize to the EU. The prize is an obvious acknowledgment of Europe's longest-ever peace. It is also a morale builder, an affirmative prod that EU nations and peoples not break up at this fragile moment in history.

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Few saw a crisis coming. Five years ago no one could imagine Italy and Spain teetering on the brink of insolvency, or that "bailout" and "austerity" would be household words from Gdansk to Palermo. It would seem science fiction to say that in 2012 an openly neo-Nazi party, Golden Dawn in Greece, would capture 7 percent of the vote in a European election. Or that right-left extremes in France would garner nearly 40 percent of the vote, as they did in balloting this spring.

In 2007, talk of breakup, of bond markets "factoring in" possible departures from the eurozone, or of a Europe of the north and a Europe of the south, would have seemed absurd. Europe was cash rich, with banks lending at 1 percent.


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