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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Without clear solidarity in Europe, and with economies contracting under an EU prescription of austerity, bond markets attack weak or debtor nations. Without a mutual feeling of states helping each other, a new cynicism is taking root among ordinary people and elites alike.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures The debt crisis: Europe's fragile union
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Since the 2010 Greek trauma, the EU has held no fewer than 19 mind-numbing crisis talks in Brussels, out of which 27 state leaders have spun their own often widely differing interpretations. Financial markets have not been impressed. Five governments have fallen.
Spain, the fourth-largest economy in the eurozone, is still looking into the abyss. Its unemployment rate stands at 24 percent – 53 percent among youths. The positions and solvency of Portugal, Ireland, and Italy remain tenuous. New French President François Hollande faces 3 million unemployed.
A surly spirit seems to pervade everything. Greeks call Germans Nazis, and German tabloids mock Greeks as lazy. Newspapers and corporations fret about China and Brazil eclipsing Europe. Brussels, the EU capital, is depicted as a heartless technocratic machine.
In cafes, a certain fatalistic chat is fashionable about whether the situation is more like 1930 (the beginning of the Great Depression) or 1939 (the eve of Nazi aggression). Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House, a London-based think tank, suggests another period: "My gamble or risky call is that we will look at this in 15 years 'time and it will look more like the 1970s than the 1920s or '30s. The 1970s were a nasty difficult dark period for Europe, but not [as bad as] the 1930s, and they got through it."
So we are back in some ways to the Olympics example: Can Europe's political athletes run and swim for the EU as well as for their own nations? Can Europe summon the spirit, morale, and motivation to hang together, or will it increasingly "hang separately," to use the phrase coined in Colonial America?
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In a very real sense, today's EU emerged from the wars and nationalism that cleaved the Continent between 1914 and 1945 and continued to divide Europe until 1989. It was only last year that the final living French soldier who fought in World War I died.
As a particularly cathartic moment, look no further than Verdun, 90 minutes east by train and bus from Paris. Lying next to a river in a pleasant valley, it is the site of the most hellish battle in European history, in 1916. Verdun is both a reminder of the impulse to "end all wars," and of the origins of a federally integrated EU. The battle, 300 intense days and nights, took place up a hilly incline. "It was supposed to last six weeks," says local guide Ingrid Ferrand, a German woman married to a French officer. "Instead, for months, the fate of France turned here."
"It is probably no exaggeration to call Verdun the 'worst' battle in history; even taking into account man's subsequent endeavors in the Second World War," writes Alistair Horne in "The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916." "Verdun was the First War in microcosm; an intensification of all its horrors and glories, courage and futility."
Nine local villages were eviscerated; 700,000 men were killed. At the end, as the sepia photos show, not a tree stood for miles over a moonscape whose topsoil was blasted out by 6 million shells.
Today, the site retains a sober aura, with mostly German tourists coming with cameras. The famed battle trenches, from which wave after wave of soldiers lunged, often to capture only a few yards of territory, are largely filled in.