EUROPE’S DEBT crisis is threatening a political order that has been built up over the course of more than a half century. It is still entirely possible—indeed likely—that the European single currency will not survive the crisis. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, has predicted that if the euro collapses, the European Union will crumble with it. The destruction of the EU would, in turn, remove the organization around which postwar European politics has been constructed.
Even if both the EU and the single currency survive, the current crisis is likely to extract an economic and political price that makes a mockery of many of the original hopes invested in the European Union. The founding fathers of the EU—men such as Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman—built their project around a brilliant and simple proposition. The purpose of the European project when it got going in the 1950s was explicitly political. The idea was to move Europe beyond the terrible wars that had disfigured the Continent during the first half of the twentieth century. But, while the goal was political, the means were economic. The founding fathers aimed to build a new Europe by initially concentrating on small, practical steps that brought tangible economic benefits. The idea was that economic cooperation would create shared prosperity and foster the habit of cooperation. The old national rivalries would be replaced by a win-win logic built around economic integration. As Europeans got used to working together and saw the benefits, further and bolder steps could be taken toward the “ever closer union” spoken of in the 1957 Treaty of Rome.