Like an overladen container lorry laboring up a steep hill, the European Union is close to stalling.
Greece is the most urgent part of this crisis. Between the fury on the streets of Athens and the continued disunity of decision-makers in Brussels, Berlin, Frankfurt and Luxembourg, the crunch could come any day. But it’s not just Greece. In Ireland, Portugal and Spain too, 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 the French and German bankers, who loaned profusely where they should not have loaned at all.
Across the Continent, the legions of the indignados, as they are called in Spain, and the aganaktismenoi (the outraged), as they say in Greece, are growing
And it’s not just the Eurozone. Every single major project of the European Union is faltering. France and Italy are suggesting that the achievement of the Schengen area, in which 25 European countries have removed border controls, should be chipped away, just because a few thousand people from convulsed North Africa have taken refuge on the Italian island of Lampedusa. Many European countries are already in a panic about the integration of immigrants and people of migrant origin, especially those who are Muslims. Solidarity and social justice, central values of the post-1945 European project, are in retreat almost everywhere as a result of growing inequality and spending cuts to tackle public debt.
In the Arab Spring, Europe faces the most hopeful set of events in the 21st century so far, comparable in scale and potential to 1989; but the Continent’s collective and institutional response to this historic opening has been feeble. Even in the most hopeful cases — Tunisia and Egypt — we may have only a few months in which to prevent the Arab Spring becoming an Arab fall. The disappointed hopes of that half of the population that is under 30 would then produce further, larger immigrant surges to Europe. In their own countries, Islamists would exploit the chances and the confusion of semi-freedom.
The European-led military intervention in Libya was always likely to be a slow, difficult grind, but it has painfully exposed Europe’s chronic failure to concentrate its military capabilities. Already, some of the European powers involved are running short of munitions. You can understand why U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates was scathing about this in Brussels last week.
Even enlargement, Europe’s most successful project, is close to stalling. In his victory speech after the recent Turkish elections, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan did not even mention the EU. Yes, Croatia will probably join the EU in 2013, and that’s good news. But Croatians might be forgiven for wondering what exactly they will be joining.
Retired prime ministers and foreign ministers never tire of attributing this faltering of the European project to the lack of leadership. (Subtext: It was all so much better when we were in charge.) This is true, but less than half the story. For although the quality of European leadership is somewhat poorer than it was a quarter-century ago, the need for it is greater.
Why? Because all the great underlying motivators of the European project back in the days of Helmut Kohl, Francois Mitterrand and Jacques Delors, and even more so in the time of the founding fathers, have faded or disappeared.
Those powerful driving forces included searing personal experiences of war, occupation, holocaust, fascist and communist dictatorships; the Soviet threat, catalyzing west European solidarity; generous, energetic American support for European unification; and a West Germany that was the mighty engine of European integration, with France on top as the driver. All these are now gone, or very much diminished. While there are intellectually convincing new rationales for the project, including the rise of non-Western giants such as China, rationales are no match for emotional motivators.
The key to so much of this, especially on the economic side, is Germany. For much of its history, what has become the European Union pursued political ends by economic means. For Kohl and Mitterrand, the euro was mainly a political project, not an economic one. Now the boot is on the other foot. To save a poorly designed and overextended monetary union, the political must ride to the rescue of the economic.
That will require Angela Merkel’s leadership. If we are talking about the European economy and currency, Germany is the indispensable power. Only the combination of Germany and the European Central Bank, working in unison, has a chance of calming the mighty markets.
For more than a year now, Merkel has attempted to find the narrow — perhaps nonexistent — line where the minimum that can be done to save the embattled Eurozone periphery meets the maximum she thinks German public opinion will bear. She has then tried to win her Eurozone partners to that course. So far, it has not worked. Now she needs to start from the other end: Work out, with the central bank and other Eurozone governments, what is the best, most credible deal available, and then put all her authority on the line to convince a reluctant German public that this is in the long-term, enlightened national self-interest of Germany. And it is.
For no one has more to lose from the disintegration of the Eurozone than the Continent’s central economic power. It may soon be too late.
Timothy Garton Ash, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and professor of European studies at Oxford University.