In the 2012 London Olympic Games, who won the most medals? Yes,
the United States garnered 104, and China captured 88. Nicely done!
But how about "Europe"? Tally the European Union medals and you
get a whopping 306, ranging from Britain (65) to Portugal (1). In
London, EU athletes ran, swam, jumped, and pole-vaulted with passion
on behalf of their nations and programs. But none of these Olympians
talked about winning for the EU.
And therein lies a conundrum for the sprawling entity known as
Europe. Despite an abstract pride Europeans feel in being from the
EU, the emotion, drive, and thrill of victory is still largely
national. You do it for your flag.
On the sports field, this is positive and natural, and no one
wants to change it. But in the world of politics, the unity and
future of what has been known for 67 years as "postwar Europe" faces
its biggest challenge ever. In the space of a few years, Europe has
moved from bristling with confidence to a collective crisis that is
shaking its unprecedented prosperity to the core.
What began as a debt crisis in Greece in late 2009 a cloud the
size of a fist has grown into a thunderhead of fractious politics,
extremism, costly delay, denials, ethnic tension, and, not least, an
erosion of public trust that threatens the core values of Europe's
remarkable postwar experiment in integration.
In America, the crisis is largely viewed as an economic story
channeled through CNBC and Bloomberg as some kind of euro
mismanagement recorded on graphs and stock tickers. But the problem
runs far deeper. It cuts to the core of what Europe may or may not
become. It is a crisis of identity and politics with social fallout
and, what scares many, an element of that old unknown: unintended
Extremist political parties are rising. Taxpayers are revolting
in the north about bailing out the south. For the far left, "Europe"
has become a protectionist zone for bankers and the moneyed class.
For the far right, Europe is too tolerant of Muslims, Islam, and
Yet Europe's crisis has crept along so slowly that it has been
hard to know how seriously to take it. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and
Fridays come predictions swathed in gloom. On Tuesdays, Thursdays,
and Saturdays, the crisis can seem "illusory," as analyst Konstanty
Gebert notes in Warsaw. (In resilient Eastern Europe, as some Baltic
officials said this summer, a crisis is when the Soviet Union
invades; what Europe is now dealing with is just a "problem.")
Part of Europe's hidden genius, as British historian David
Marquand (no relation to this writer) says from his home in Oxford,
"has been to be boring. Boring meant peace and no drama." Mr.
Marquand, whose book "The End of the West: The Once and Future
Europe" came out last year, adds, "Today, from inside the crisis, it
is difficult to gauge where you are. I hope we have turned a corner.
But I'm always worried about the rise of extremism."
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 So Paulo.
Dominique Mosi, 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. …