FEW PEOPLE WOULD DENY that Europe has been mired in crisis since the near collapse of its banking system in 2008. The entire continent has fallen prey to the sort of debilitating pessimism that last infected it when Hitler was still alive. Even its best-governed nations are stricken by the sense that things have gone badly wrong and that no one knows how to put them right. A future of hyperinflation, soaring unemployment, slashed productivity, social unrest and political repression suddenly seems frighteningly possible.
One of the most disorienting features of the crisis is that its origins and future course seem so obscure. Scores of commentators have competed with each other to explain the traumatic events of the last few years and to speculate about what happens next. By and large their theories are wildly incompatible. The left blames neoliberalism while the right blames the legacy of post-war social democracy. Some claim that globalisation needs to be reined in while others call for it to be extended.
Nevertheless, there are two observations about the current European scene which tend to unite observers from across the political spectrum. The first is that we have reached a decisive moment in the process of European integration. Nearly everyone now agrees that the leaders of the European Union (EU) will try to use the crisis to further their goal of creating a European superstate. There is also widespread agreement that the crisis has opened a new chapter in the history of popular protest. Although many countries in Europe moved to the right as the economic downturn began to take hold, the past two years have seen a massive mobilisation of workers, young people and middle-class dissidents in pursuit of left-of-centre objectives. Many believe that this coalition of enragés is forging new styles of protest that will play a crucial role in shaping Europe’s future.