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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.

(Page 6 of 7)

Still, the anger outside Germany is growing. Spain is a case in point. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy agreed to a bailout in June, thinking that, in return, the EU would "collectivize" some €60 billion ($78 billion) in debt – in other words, that one of the two bailout stability mechanisms, the European Social Fund or the European Stability Mechanism, would cover it.

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"Rajoy wanted to keep €60 billion off the books," says John Hulsman, a global political consultant who lives near Frankfurt. "And that's the deal Spain signed on to. But Merkel has now turned around [in September] to say the agreement is only good for future debt. That's a betrayal. It's another €60 billion for a country already falling out of the sky economically."

"I think we are in Act III of a vampire drama," adds Mr. Hulsman, "and there is no closing act in sight."

* * *

In central Berlin, under a typically brilliant blue sky in October, students are buying waffles and strawberries at a cafe. Across the street, giant drills gnaw away at a construction project designed to rebuild the Weimar-era palace. A bilingual sign outside describes it as "the largest cultural project in Europe."

"There is no sense of crisis here," says a German political official who requested anonymity. "Or, if there is one, it is blamed on lazy Greeks. Fifty percent unemployment in Spain seems very theoretical in this climate. Angela [Merkel] is like a mother figure; I mean that literally. Germans think she is looking out for their interests, keeping them safe."

In London, Leonard describes the current period as an interregnum in which creditor and debtor nations are hunkering down and waiting on events. "Germans are using the crisis to do what they regard to be in their best interest, namely, their homework. Be competitive, reform.... They want to use the crisis to extract the maximum amount of concessions – and that could go wrong: They could miscalculate."

In the past month, several developments have surfaced that suggest at least some crisis amelioration is under way across the Continent. Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank, has promised to "do whatever it takes" to save the euro. Dutch voters did not give a predicted electoral victory to Geert Wilders, the leader of a far-right anti-Islam and anti-Europe party. Several key working groups of foreign ministers and of the EU commission are charting serious political reforms, such as a banking union, really for the first time ever.

Moves like these, coupled with Europe's deeper bonds and shared sense of history, make many experts believe the Continent will ultimately surmount its problems, even if the process is prolonged and painful.

"The prediction about the death of Europe is greatly exaggerated," says Mr. Moïsi. "Go to Asia and no one says they are Asian. They are Japanese and Chinese. But in Europe, we are European. We are no longer a 'project'; we are a reality."

Indeed, Europe's postwar founders would see in the vast intermeshing of EU nations a success story far greater than they could have imagined. On any given day, Polish trucks lumber along France's A6 highway. Some 1.6 million Eastern Europeans live and work in Dublin, Ireland; and London. There's what has come to be known as the "easyJet phenomenon," meaning that for usually less than €100 one can travel to almost any city in Europe. EU leaders may talk of needing "more Europe," but on the ground, it is already happening in countless iterations.


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