Europe’s big question

At the root of the debt crisis lies a bigger question: What kind of union do Europeans want?

What do Angela Merkel, David Cameron, and Nicolas Sarkozy have in common?

The leaders of the three most powerful countries in Europe – Germany, Britain, and France – all recognize that a crossroads is fast approaching: What is to become of the European Union? Chancellor Merkel calls this moment nothing less than “the most difficult hours since World War II” for the continent.

What these European leaders don’t agree on is which way to move forward. There’s nothing unusual in that: The future of Europe as a political and economic entity is fast becoming everyone’s question of the moment.

RELATED: Europe debt crisis: 3 reasons why China won't help out

Europe’s debt mess, which has centered on smaller countries such as Portugal, Ireland, and especially Greece, now threatens to take down Italy as well. The crisis has already brought in new leaders in Greece and Italy and sparked a sharp debate on how to save these economies.

Will the common currency of 17 European nations, the euro, become a casualty? Some economists worry that countries will decide to drop out of the common currency and cause a massive shock not only to Europe’s but the world’s financial system. One European business leader is offering a $400,000 prize to any person or group that can devise a safe way for a country to leave the euro.

The European Union has always meant more than an economic union. It represents the hope that after centuries of fighting, Europe is finally a single peaceful entity. Many Europeans have felt that a “United States of Europe” would be the natural, inevitable result of an ever-closer union, beginning with the present single currency and freer movement of people and goods between countries, and eventually ending in true political union.

As Europe has slowly moved toward unification, a Pax Europa has endured since the end of World War II (with the exception of the nasty conflagration in Bosnia, which was tightly contained and finally smothered).

Europe seems unlikely to be able to simply muddle through its current crisis. It will have to make clear choices. What Germany thinks counts heavily because it is the continent’s pulsating economic engine, having already pulled itself out of recession.

In a speech yesterday Merkel argued for a “step by step” path toward European “political union” – “not less Europe but more,” as she put it. But while adhering to that long-range goal she stopped short of endorsing near-term steps such as the creation of a central European bank that would more deeply commit German resources to solving the debt problems of its neighbors.

President Sarkozy is lately arguing that a single European Union has become too unwieldy and now talks of a “two-speed” Europe with a core of countries moving toward integration and others hanging on the edges as a loose confederation.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Cameron is trying to rein in the Euroskeptics within his own Conservative Party who would like to take advantage of the crisis to further distance Britain from integration into Europe.

Cameron’s own vision, laid out in a recent speech, also sees a devolution of power away from a centralized European authority. Leaving the EU wouldn’t be in Britain’s interest, but “We have a right to ask what the European Union should and should not do and change it accordingly,” he says – even though Britain has stayed on the sidelines of currency union, keeping the pound over the euro.

While short on specifics he argues for an EU with “the flexibility of a network, not the rigidity of a bloc” – one freed of “pointless interference, rules, and regulations that stifle growth” and one that “values national identity and sees the diversity of Europe’s nations as a source of strength,” he says.

Before Europe can truly address its deep financial crisis, it must ask deep questions: Are the continent’s people Europeans first or nationalists?

Do they trust each other enough to throw in their economic lot together, through good times and bad?

Or, perhaps, has the vision of a unified Europe that has helped bring peace and stability for the last six decades outlived its usefulness?

These are no longer questions for debate by academics. They are at the center of the discussion all Europeans must now have with each other.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.