To its custodians and admirers, the EU is the only force standing between its member states and the age-old perils of chauvinism, nationalism and war.
That was the pointed message that the Nobel Committee sent last year, when it awarded the EU the Nobel Peace Prize for its role in “the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights.”
And it is the message hammered home relentlessly by the Continent’s politicians, who believe their citizens face a stark choice, in the words of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, between continued integration and a return to “centuries of hatred and blood spill.”
However, right now, the EU project is not advancing democracy, liberalism and human rights. Instead, it is subjecting its weaker member states to an extraordinary test of their resilience, and conducting an increasingly perverse experiment in seeing how much stress liberal norms can bear.
That stress takes the form of mass unemployment unseen in the history of modern Europe, and mass youth unemployment that is worse still. In the Continent’s sick-man economies, the jobless rate for those under 25 now staggers the imagination: more than 40 percent in Italy, more than 50 percent in Spain and more than 60 percent in Greece.
For these countries, the eurozone is now essentially an economic prison, with Germany as the jailer and the common currency as the bars. No matter what happens, they face a future of stagnation — as aging societies with expensive welfare states whose young people will sit idle for years, unable to find work, build capital or start families.
HOLDING THE CENTER
The question is whether they will face ideological upheaval as well. So far, the striking thing about the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, both in Europe and the US, is how successfully the center has held. Power has passed back and forth between left and right, but truly radical movements have found little traction, and political violence has been mercifully rare.
In a sense, Francis Fukuyama’s post-Cold-War declaration of the “end of history” — by which he meant the disappearance of credible alternatives to liberal democracy and mixed-economy capitalism — has held up pretty well in the past five years.
Amid the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression, illiberal societies like Egypt and Syria have faced political crises, but the developed world has not. There has been no mass turn to fascism, no revival of Marxist economics, no coup d’etats in Madrid or jackboots in Rome.
However, you have to wonder whether the center can hold permanently, if unemployment remains so extraordinarily high. How must liberal democracy and mixed-economy capitalism look to young people in the south of Europe right now? How stable is a political and ideological settlement that requires the rising generation to go without jobs, homes and children because the European project supposedly depends on it? And for that matter, how well is the Continent’s difficult integration of Muslim immigrants likely to proceed in a world where neither natives nor immigrants can find work?
Already, the Greek electorate has been flirting with empowering a crypto-communist “coalition of the radical left,” even as a straightforwardly fascist party gains in the polls as well. Hungary’s conservative government has tiptoed toward authoritarianism. Spain has seen huge street protests whose organizers aspire to imitate the Arab Spring. And lately, Sweden, outside the eurozone, but not immune to its youth unemployment problems, has been coping with unsettling, highly un-Scandinavian riots in immigrant neighborhoods.