Felipe Fernandez-Armesto: There's magic in a crisis – and good reasons for hope amid the gloom


How many crises can Europe survive? American colleagues ask, through toothy smiles agleam with Schadenfreude.

The Italian imbroglio seems beyond disentanglement. And because Europe has no institutions equal to the crisis, and no policies that can both ease recession and restrain debt, the best we can hope for is to extemporise expedients and muddle through. Austerity is our only defence – and austerity deepens underlying problems of stagnation and unemployment. It also outrages electorates. By dethroning elected governments, cancelling the Greek referendum and switching power into the hands of technocrats, the present crisis seems to be squeezing democracy as well as prosperity. Berlusconi and Papandreou never exemplified democratic virtues – but at least they were among the disasters voters brought on themselves. The Eurocrats have never trusted democracy; now they appear to be sidelining it with evident hieratic disdain. In a spirit of democratic revanche, Greeks and Italians may lose patience with fiscal discipline, while Germans jib at paying the bills. People might recoil from the Union, repudiate the euro and reach for the comfort of national introspection – or even purported "final solutions" from noisy little Führers. Pessimism may indemnify us against disaster. Yet I see three reasons for optimism.

First, though the euro is a novel kind of currency, it has the motor-force of history behind it. Economically, European countries depend on each other so much that ever since the 18th century they have sought, almost continuously, to work towards fixed exchange rates. The euro brought the search to a triumphant end. It breaks one of economists' most dearly held rules, by operating in areas of widely divergent prosperity, with contrasting fiscal and monetary needs – but so did the dollar, for most of the history of the ascent of the US to superpower status. Every time a big new confederation or federal polity takes shape, it tends to experience similar birth pains as its currency emerges. We should not express surprise that the euro works badly, but amazement that it works at all. More than an economic convenience, the single currency is a historic necessity. If it ceased to exist, we should have to re-invent it. The market seems to sense this: despite rumours of imminent demise, the euro has been amazingly robust against the dollar.

Second, if democracy does reassert itself against technocracy, the outcomes in general will favour the Union and the euro. Polls showing Germans yearning for the Deutschmark, with the nostalgia of a thumb-sucking adolescent, are misleading. German voters are not infantile. They know how well they have done out of the euro – which is why they have the money to bail partners out. Ironically, emotional sentiment is on the euro's side – demonstrably so, since the countries where surveys give the currency highest ratings are among those, including Greece, that have suffered most since it was introduced. Real disaffection is directed less against the Union or the euro than against the national governments that caused or deepened the crisis by mismanaging their banking and property sectors or accumulating irresponsible deficits.

Regionalist politics, which are increasingly powerful, tend to subvert the states and strengthen the Union. Scotland is in the hands of a party that prefers the EU to the UK. Voters in the Basque lands and Catalonia are equivocal about Spain, but enthusiastic about Europe. Supporters of the Lega Nord are more likely to want to kick their southern neighbours out of the eurozone than secede themselves.

Finally and decisively, the European Union is, in a crucial respect, better equipped for crisis than the US or any other mature, fully formed polity. It is – or should be – a law of political science that states or proto-states grow stronger in existence-threatening crises than in times of stability and peace.

A glance at the history of the three great Western superpowers of modern times demonstrates the facts. Spain, the UK and the US succeeded each other in global preponderance, following similar trajectories. All emerged from internecine wars – in Spain's and Britain's cases from dynastic conflicts, and in that of the US from the "Revolutionary War", the power struggle among colonial elites. The European Union, similarly, emerged from a period of furious internal conflict that German historians call the Europäische Bürgerkrieg – literally, the European civil war, which ended in 1945 and directly inspired our drive for unification.

At the next stage of state formation, the Spanish monarchy emerged strengthened from every crisis it endured. The Catalan revolts cleared the way for strong state institutions. The 18th-century wars, which imperilled the empire, left it enlarged. For Britain, likewise, the Glorious Revolution and Jacobite wars turned a rickety dual monarchy into a strong "United Kingdom"; the crisis of American independence preceded and to some extent provoked the acquisition of an unprecedented global empire. The US, meanwhile, was an unstable federation until its civil war transformed it into a great power. Up to and including the Vietnam war, every major crisis the US faced strengthened it. The old Chinese curse – "May you live in interesting times!" – turns out to be a blessing.

So it has been with the EU. The debacle of European empires drove the states into closer collaboration. The oil shortages of the early 1970s helped to promote crucial enlargement of what was then the European Community. Collapse of the Soviet Union might have undone the process by removing a major reason for Western Europeans to huddle together. Instead, it led to German reunification and a remarkable phase of simultaneous enlargement and consolidation. With every crisis, it became easier to advance towards "ever closer union". Only when Spain, Britain and the United States respectively achieved maturity as states did the magic of crisis fade and the cracks begin to reopen. Europe is still a long way from that stage of development.

Meanwhile, bring on the crises; without them, we'd be more likely to fail.

The writer is professor of history at Notre Dame University and author of '1492: The Year Our World Began'