What, precisely, is the nature of the crisis in Europe right now?
Is it strictly to do with banking and debt?
Or does the financial crisis expose a more deep-rooted problem that Europe is grappling with—a crisis of identity.
If you ask Irish commentator Fintan O’Toole what’s bringing Europe down, he’ll tell you it’s the sudden disappearance of democracy.
“All that rhetoric about European values, solidarity and democratic values…proves to be very fragile,” said O’Toole. “What really happens in [Ireland’s] case is that nobody really gives a damn about democracy.”
O’Toole sees Europe—and by that he means Germany—brushing aside the elected leaders of smaller, debt-ridden states to impose take-it-or-leave-it austerity measures.
“We’ve turned the banking crisis into a sovereign debt crisis, and then turned that into a democratic crisis,” O’Toole said. “And that’s what’s happened everywhere in Europe, so that the banking crisis is morphing and now is reaching the point of being a crisis of democracy itself.”
As O’Toole sees it, democracy is the cornerstone of European unity, without which the continent would splinter.
In history, Europe has more often been splintered than unified. “There’s nothing natural about an idea of Europe,” said Miri Rubin, professor of European History at Queen Mary University of London. “It doesn’t happen on its own. It’s always the product crafted by leaders and thinkers and politicians.”
The Europe of the Middle Ages was unified, in one powerful way: Christianity was what Rubin calls the glue that held Europe together. It came at a cost: Jews, Muslims and others were marginalized.
The glue of Christianity broke down in the 16th century. For the next couple of hundred years, war was pretty much a constant. But Rubin says the Europe of the Middle Ages offers clues for survival today.
“There has to be a vision, a narrative, a reason to join and to want to be part,” she said. “What we have to do nowadays is bring on millions of the populace.”
People must vote for that vision these days.
Some, like Fintan O’Toole, argue that democracy has become the modern unifying belief that European leaders have used to bind the continent together.
But there’s also the worry that democracy may be Europe’s Achilles’ heel.
But democracy can become dangerous when voters are spooked by a failing economy. In the 1928 election in Germany, the Nazis got just 2.6 percent of the vote.
“Internal reports among the elite were dismissing them as a total waste of space, they were going nowhere,” said historian Laurence Rees. “Then suddenly by 1932 the Nazis were the biggest party in Germany. And that’s pretty much down to an economic crisis and collapse in banks.”
The catastrophe and bloodshed that then engulfed Europe was what eventually led to the European Union, and the euro.
In 1951, six nations including Germany and France formed the European Coal and Steel Community, the earliest forerunner of the EU. Coal and steel were the two resources you need to make weapons with.
“It was a deliberate plan, thinking Germany’s been responsible… for two world wars,” said Rees. The signatories wanted to tie Germany into Europe by controlling how it used these two resources. “That was a huge motivational factor in the foundation of all of this.”
And so the beginnings of Europe’s integration were based not on a positive vision, but a negative one: “Never again.”
Laurence Rees isn’t sure if that desire for peace, or a vision of democracy, is enough to hold today’s much larger group of nations together.
Especially for Germans.
“If you have to give half your wealth up to support to support a load of feckless Greeks, as you see it, at what point do you have enough of that?” said Rees. “You’re looking to detach yourself from the broader Europe.”
“Who knows where that could go?” said Rees.
Nobody knows. And maybe that is what’s united Europeans right now.