Many years ago, as Europe was taking its first steps toward greater unification, the French historian Fernand Braudel posed the question whether this would lead to an ?inventive Europe, making for peace, or a routine Europe, still creating the kind of tensions that we know only too well?? In the years since the publication of ?A History of Civilizations? (1963 and, posthumously, in 1987), Braudel would have seen reason to hope but also to fear: the European Union does express the humanistic spirit that can conquer problems at home and abroad, and is trying to show solidarity among its peoples at a time of crisis, but, at the same time, its member states remain set on serving first their own interests and satisfying their own obsessions, before considering what is good for Europe. Europe is at the crossroads that will determine the answer to Braudel?s question.
European history is an endless effort by the continent?s nations to maintain a balance between them. Whenever one entity assumed a disproportionate amount of power, it provoked the others? reaction, leading to the formation of opposing alliances and, of course, war. Even though the EU has developed beyond the wildest dreams of the visionaries who saw unification as the only way to put an end to endless conflict, in the last two years we have seen a resurgence of the fear of imbalance. This time, though, the majority of countries are afraid not of the most powerful among them but of the weaker ones, whose failure could threaten their own well-being. Because Europe?s mission of ?pacification? has succeeded so well, power and threats are today measured by each country?s economic standing, not by military might.
Consequently, Germany, which for decades was the silent worker of the unification project (demilitarized and penitent for past evils), is without doubt Europe?s greatest power. At the other end is Greece, with its heroic sacrifices of the past (when it was poor and always tied to the wagon of some greater power), which is the object of scorn for its inability to adapt politically and economically to the benefits of being an equal member of the European Union — which has lead to political and economic bankruptcy. For two years, Greece has been blamed for the harm it caused Europe?s single currency; in other words, the EU?s weakest member, and not its strongest, is perceived as the greatest danger to the rest. Greece, of course, is responsible for the mess it is in and for the halting effort to change, but the exaggerated fears of the other countries reveal a weakening of the vision of a ?Europe of the peoples,? in which each nation has something to offer.
Europe?s unification was embraced by its peoples at the political level because the principles of liberal democracy took root in the major Western European countries, leading to an unprecedented rise in the quality of life and making their citizens the envy of other nations who could only dream of one day sharing their benefits. The subjects of the Soviet Bloc, for example, knew that their union (which had been imposed by force) existed mainly to serve the interests of Russia. The desire for freedom, democracy and economic benefits became the glue of unification. The cultural — or ?civilizational? — identification opened the way toward stronger political union (up to the point that it did not eradicate national sovereignty), but it was in the economy where the greatest leap was taken, with the creation of the single currency. Now that confidence in the euro is shaken, the only solution appears to be greater economic — and, thereby, political — union. In the debate, however, we are forgetting the cultural closeness that inspired the whole effort. Countries are now measured solely on the basis of their economic indicators and not as members of a union that is far greater than its parts. The economic crisis, though, is not just a matter of sovereign debt; it also betrays the need for Europe as a whole to secure a dignified level of life for all its people while achieving competitiveness at a global level.
At a time when the whole planet is looking for balance and no country is a superpower, the Europeans cannot afford to question the dominance of their strongest member. But their acquiescence to Germany?s persistence with austerity programs across Europe could lead to a worsening European recession, the further shrinking of the middle class and the marginalization of society?s weakest members. In this case, the faceless, supranational forces of the global market will have won — not Europe. A ?non-inventive? Europe will face the danger of a resurgence of tension among its members, but the despair of great numbers of citizens could trigger something worse: civil conflict. The end of the dream of Europe would be not just a defeat but the start of a nightmare without end.