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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European products from machine tools to cosmetics are prized around the world. Literacy is high. If you discount the current divisive political crisis posing as a euro crisis, many of Europe's economic fundamentals, from savings to trade, are better than those of the US.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures The debt crisis: Europe's fragile union
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"The narrative of the last two years that Europe is slowly collapsing – well, let's see how things pan out," says Niblett. "One narrative is that finally European governments are doing what they should have done 10 years ago. You now have labor laws in Spain. You have new controls. The trucking licenses in Greece have been torn up and thrown away – the kind of structural reform that has been talked about for years but has never happened because everyone was living in la-la land and thought interest rates of 1 percent meant everyone was rich when they weren't ... that delusion has been thoroughly obliterated. People are now in a crash course having to do what Europe should have chosen to do long back."
Europe also has a different history, rarely told, of progress, invention, healthy dissent, art and letters, and of promoting universal values. Europeans have usually tried to escape a history of poisonous nationalism, and Verdun and Auschwitz and shame have paved over what Marquand calls its "history of common values ... of a cultured, cosmopolitan, liberal bourgeoisie, moving easily between Paris, Vienna, Prague, Warsaw, and Berlin...."
Cosmopolitan Europe emerged in cafes and universities both during the Enlightenment and during the belle epoque at the turn of the last century. It's one stereotype in the American imagination that happens to be true. Artists, scientists, bohemians, editors, novelists, and dissidents met amid piles of newspapers and cheap coffee. In these urban zones of creative ferment, they debated new ideas. The concept of a continent unfettered by hate and borders, by violence and will, checkpoints and nationalism, was touted by literary lions like Austrian Stefan Zweig and Frenchman Romain Rolland.
Today, the vision and dreams of such writers have been, in a sense, democratized. What seemed utopian in the 1920s is now almost mundane. A common civic space – a shared zone between government and corporations – endures in Europe, partly as the notion of an open society. As Marquand puts it, the creation of the EU "is a successful protest against boundaries and also against history."
In a provocative essay last year, eminent German philosopher Jürgen Habermas wrote about the "long shadow cast by nationalism" in Europe. He wondered how Europeans, with or without their political elites, could generate the enthusiasm to help each other out.
Yet despite the current economic chaos and his despair at the response to it by Germany, which he says since 1989 has been ruled by a "morally unambitious generation," Mr. Habermas, too, remains hopeful. At the core, he argues, in slightly utopian style, that "human dignity" will win out. Europe's traditions of law and rights, along with globalization and diversity, and Internet penetration, will awaken a common-sense "universalism" among citizens.
Niblett is more pragmatic but no less passionate in his views of why Europe will stay together. Facing the rise of Asia, which has its own dark history of competition and conflict, the costs of disunity and failure would simply be too catastrophic. "A unified Europe isn't a matter of choice, something nice to have," he says. "There is no choice. It may be messy and painful. But we can't go back."
IN PICTURES: The debt crisis: Europe's fragile union