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The Erosion of Europe

BERLIN – Just weeks ago, the worst of the financial crisis in Europe seemed to be over. Stability seemed to be returning. But appearances proved to be deceptive. A minor problem (at least in scale) like Cyprus, when combined with an almost unbelievable degree of incompetence among the “troika” (the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund), was enough to turn a molehill into a mountainous crisis.

While markets remained calm, the Cyprus crisis revealed the full extent of the political disaster that the eurozone crisis has wrought: the European Union is disintegrating at its core. Europeans’ current crisis of confidence concerning Europe is far more dangerous than renewed market anxiety, because it cannot be overcome with another liquidity injection by the ECB.

Europe’s old political order was based on competition, mistrust, power rivalries, and, ultimately, war among sovereign states. It collapsed on May 8, 1945, and was replaced by a system based on mutual trust, solidarity, the rule of law, and compromise. But, with the crisis eroding these foundations, trust is giving way to mistrust, solidarity is succumbing to ancient prejudices (and even new hatred between the poor south and the rich north), and compromise is being overwhelmed by diktat. And Germany is once again at the center of the process of disintegration.

That is because Germany, by far the EU’s strongest economy, has enforced a strategy for overcoming the eurozone crisis that worked for Germany at the beginning of the millennium, but under completely different internal and external economic conditions. For the distressed southern European states, the German-backed mixture of austerity and structural reforms is proving fatal, because the decisive third and fourth components – debt relief and growth – are missing.