Europe: A Leaning Tower of Babel

Francois Hollande, France's president, speaks during a news conference at the French Embassy in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Fr
Francois Hollande, France's president, speaks during a news conference at the French Embassy in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, May 18, 2012. Hollande said France and Germany will do 'everything' to keep Greece in the euro zone. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

PARIS -- The eurozone today has become a leaning Tower of Babel. The sovereign debt crisis and the high social costs of austerity have severely weakened its foundation. Whether this tottering edifice designed to thread diversity through the needle eye of a single currency finally collapses and falls, or is able to right itself, will depend on re-founding a European narrative for the 21st century.

The project of European unity was born out of the fear of war, which devastated the continent twice in the 20th century, and the promise of prosperity. Precisely because of the last few decades of step-by-step integration, war is no longer a danger -- and thus has lost its force as the compelling raison d'etre of unity. On the other hand, if, as the current situation suggests, integration means more pain than gain, the "lost generation" of youth facing a jobless future can be forgiven for asking, "why Europe?"

At the recent town hall meeting organized in Paris by the Berggruen Institute, French President Francois Hollande called for a "new narrative" for Europe that would appeal to the "post-crisis" generation of today as the "post-war" narrative appealed to the generation that founded the European Union. Jacques Attali, the former top aide to Francois Mitterrand and mentor to Hollande, told the students of Sciences Po, where the town hall meeting was held: "Young people today are faced with three options if the current eurocrisis is not resolved -- leaving Europe, staying in Europe without hope or going into politics and starting a revolution."

As Attali's comment suggests, the despair of youth today is destroying their faith in the promise of Europe, as we see with the success of the left-populist blogger-comedian Beppe Grillo in Italy. Right-wing movements across Europe from the True Finns to the neo-fascist Golden Dawn in Greece yearn for the days before globalization, Muslim immigration, gay marriage and the Growth and Stability Pact.

The great danger is that the despair and alienation over the failure of Europe to deliver a future for its next generation will conjoin with the backward-looking, reactionary right in one great anti-European eruption. That would finally bring the historical project of European integration crashing to the ground.

In this context, pro-Europeans need to heed a truth of the human condition that Charles de Gaulle fully understood: Identity is rooted in the nation -- that is, belonging to a unique way of life; what Johann Gottfried Herder called "volksgeist." Papering over this truth with a currency managed (or mismanaged) by distant bureaucrats with functional acronyms in Brussels only suppressed this reality, not diminished it.

Unless de Gaulle's "certain idea of France" and its equivalent in other nations is replaced with an "a certain idea of Europe," the whole thing will shatter into shards of a once-vibrant dream.

The challenge for pro-Europeans is not to dismiss national sentiment, but seek to forge a common identity that leaves plenty of room for diversity while delivering opportunity and security through a strong but limited European government.

At the Berggruen Institute meeting in Paris, students from Sciences Po, the London School of Economics and the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin proposed a narrative for their post-crisis generation founded in "freedom and solidarity." The European identity for their generation, they argued, would be bound up with the founding idea of European civilization -- the universality of reason and the free individual -- combined with a social model that doesn't let fellow citizens fall into the cracks as Europe faces the competitive winds of globalization.

It remains to be seen if such a narrative is convincing. Many fear that the 2014 European Parliament elections will become a platform that will give full voice to the nationalist and populist anti-European backlash. Perhaps such an eventuality ought to be welcomed, not feared, because it would force a strong redefinition of the pro-European identity in the face of an existential challenge.

When al-Qaeda took down the Twin Towers in New York in 2001, Samuel Huntington, the Harvard theorist who wrote "The Clash of Civilizations," argued that the attacks had "given back to the West its common identity." The same dynamic will take place if the European idea is thoroughly challenged in 2014.

Whether or not "a certain idea of Europe" triumphs, however, will be determined by how quickly and effectively the present European leaders and institutions stem the current crisis. The announcement in Paris of a concerted "offensive" against youth unemployment by the French, German, Spanish and Italian governments is a propitious start.

What matters now is whether they will deliver hope through concrete action instead of more empty promises between now and the 2014 election. The fate of Europe is in their hands.