OPINION

The end of Europe as we know it

?An epiphany is beguiling Europe,? wrote British historian Perry Anderson in 2007, adding, ?Far from dwindling in historical significance, the Old World is about to assume an importance for humanity it has never, in all its days of dubious past glory, before possessed.?

The intellectual self-gratification of the elite is reflected in the relatively recent work of another British historian, Tony Judt, in ?Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945,? in which he sings the praises of ?Europe?s emergence in the dawn of the 21st century as a paragon of the international virtues.?

As George W. Bush?s America — with the war in Iraq, financial scandals a la Enron and the bursting of the dot.com bubble — was at the nadir of international credibility and the recently introduced euro was in its heyday, the temptation was great to believe, like the guru of New Labour, Mark Leonard, that the 21st century would be a European one.

In the same vein, German sociologist Ulrich Beck proclaimed, ?Move over America, Europe is back.?

Even the publisher of the French theoretical review Le Debat, Marcel Gauchet, estimated that the political formula pioneered by the Europeans will ultimately become the model for all other nations.

It seems like centuries have passed since the Europeans saw themselves as the most beautiful thing in the world in the waters of a placid lake. Within four years, prompted by the global credit crisis, it all went pear-shaped, to the extent that Germany?s Der Spiegel published a photograph of the euro?s coffin draped in a Greek flag on its cover.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy felt compelled to warn that ?without the euro there is no Europe, and without Europe there is no possible peace and stability.?

On an even more pessimistic note, Britain?s former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw wondered, ?If this euro in its current form is going to collapse, is it not better that it happens quickly rather than a slow death??

The truth is that the global financial crisis did not begin in the eurozone, but on Wall Street. However, international crises are much like earthquakes in that the greatest damage does not necessarily occur near the epicenter, but in areas with the most vulnerable structures. The eurozone proved to be the weak link as the common currency, instead of acting like a shock absorber, acted like an amplifier, magnifying to an extreme degree the imbalances between the German ?core? and the Mediterranean ?periphery.? Today, the shock waves of this relationship have intensified to the point of threatening a rift.

Demonizing the ?wasteful? ways of the states on the periphery is a convenient interpretation of the crisis by the demagogues and populists in Europe?s North, which, oddly enough, seems to be the subject of some rumination by the governments of the beleaguered South.

Yesterday we were detestable PIGS (the nickname given collectively to Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain); today we have been downgraded to mere germs that threaten contagion. It?s not too hard to see where all this is going: If pigs can arouse some sympathy, germs can be eradicated without mercy using a simple formula concocted by the doctors, or can at least be kept far away from the healthy core of Europe with the imposition of quarantine.

If, though, little Greece is capable of causing such contagion throughout Europe, couldn?t the problem lie with Europe?s immune system? In other words, could Greece?s debt crisis be, instead of the cause, the catalyst for revealing a much deeper systemic crisis within the eurozone?

This question is being posed with increasing frequency by the flagships of the European and American press.

?The crisis is in Brussels, not in Athens,? ran the headline of an op-ed by Jacques Attali in The New York Times on Sunday, June 19. The first president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development stresses, with unadorned realism, that which few Greek politicians dare utter: ?The Greek financial crisis is neither Greek nor financial any more. It is a political crisis of the whole of Europe. Its solution is no longer financial, but political. It is no longer a matter just for Athens, but for Brussels. Indeed, it is now a Franco-German problem above all since their banks are most exposed. ?

The following day, Irwin Stelzer, former managing director of the investment banking firm of Rothschild Inc, wrote in The Wall Street Journal, ?Let’s not finger Greece as the locus of some sort of ?contagion.?? The American analyst says that if the problem were restricted to Greece, or at least to the periphery of the European Union, solving it would be easy.

For his part, Timothy Garton Ash wrote in the Guardian on June 15: ?It?s not just Greece. In Ireland, Portugal and Spain the anger is boiling over, as people feel that the young, the poor and the unemployed are being forced to pay for the selfish improvidence of their politicians — and of French and German bankers.? The British historian argues that saving the eurozone is possible only though a political plan transforming the Union, something that would require a serious shift in stance from Germany.

?It?s all wishful thinking? is what the UK?s Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, would respond. In 1993, the then British prime minister warned the Europeans: ?You have not anchored Germany to Europe. You have anchored Europe to a newly dominant, unified Germany. In the end, my friends, you will find it will not work.?