Anxiety is a constant presence for people living in Athens as they ride the seven-year see-saw of economic survival and revival.
The signs of economic depression are never far from the surface in a state where the sun shines and the most prominent reminder of democracy and peace sits prominently atop the Acropolis, its marble visage visible from every corner of this city.
A mother who approaches and apologizes profusely while begging for a few cents to feed her family; a proud man who carries a worn briefcase to a job he no longer gets paid to do.
In response, European institutions have bailed out and chewed out Greece for its profligacy and dysfunction, but in the process Europe fails to deal with its own survival and identity. As a result, the world is witnessing the slow death of the European project and the ongoing dissolution of the European Union.
What started out in 1951 as a Coal and Steel Community among a handful of previously warring nations has evolved into today’s 28-member hodge-podge European Union.
As the most articulate EU visionary, Jean Monnet, put it in 1978: “We can never sufficiently emphasize that the six (original) Community countries are the forerunners of a broader, united Europe.”
Early visionaries like Monnet imagined a federal state, much like a United States of Europe, where the things that united member countries were stronger than those that divided them.
In the process, there would be shared political institutions and intertwined economic relations. Erasing national borders and freeing trade began to dissolve national differences and divisions. Until 2008, that is, when the global recession hit and hit hard.
Suddenly, it was every man for himself. A Europe whole and free quickly became a house divided. Instead of circling the wagons, the larger states and their leaders began performing triage on smaller, weaker countries characterized as parasites.
These less competitive countries – aided and abetted by shameless leaders – had for years grown fat and happy skimming the free-flowing European subsidies and credit, which suddenly stopped.
They, in turn, became unwilling to live within their means, setting the stage for the ongoing Eurozone economic crisis and confrontations that roil global financial markets.
There is plenty of blame to go around for Europe’s systemic failures and frailty. In fact, there is plenty of blame directed at Berlin, Brussels, and some of the political bomb-throwers and blackmailers on the farthest fringes of Greece’s recently elected Syriza radical left party and government.
Blame, however, should not only land on the vocal and vituperative. It needs to be shared by those who gave up on the larger European idea.
Greece may make it through the latest round of negotiations with promises it cannot keep or that take it further down the rabbit hole of economic retraction.
As Greek Minster of Administrative Reform George Katrougalos put it last week, any economic deal without debt relief or forgiveness is a deal to “extend and pretend.”
Perhaps that is the best way to characterize the fiction that there is a European “Union.” The continent is showing that it is more a European trade association than a political union.
Or maybe it is a failing “confederacy” where the idea is not to unify, but to extend and pretend the fiction of a “union.” Will there soon be calls to remove the EU’s gold-starred blue flags from European national capitals?
This is a defining moment in European and world history. A generation ago, at the end of the cold war, a strong and confident Europe was growing and unifying at an unprecedented pace, while the former Soviet Union shrank and weakened.
Fast-forward to 2015. Moscow flexes its muscle, and is showing a growing appetite for mischief while Europe gives up. Beijing stands back, mostly patiently, and watches the drama unfold, looking for opportunities and asserting itself out of the limelight, as the world watches Europe unravel.
Eyes are on Greece and how the next steps could make or break the Euro. But the real attention should be paid to the few institutions that are holding Europe together as the EU goes through these early death throes.
The only real unifying EU features are the Eurozone currency’s monetary union, and – perhaps more importantly – the American-dominated North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
If all else fails, it will be up to the political forces within NATO to re-imagine, redefine and reconstitute a fully democratic, just, and peaceful European identity and union, a touchy prospect given that NATO’s main purpose is as a military alliance.
Relying on the Euro and NATO to pull off an eventual European reunification would be a tough task.
Hungary is rebuilding border fences and nationalist forces are growing. Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron is promising a popular EU referendum, setting the stage for a possible “Brexit” or “British Exit.” France’s rising rightist politician Marine Le Pen wishes to bid the EU adieu.
With so many Europeans rushing for the exits, it is convenient to blame the Greeks for yelling “fire” in a crowded EU theater.
Ironically, the one person who just stepped up to speak in favor of greater European unity is literally defined by the term “sovereignty”: Britain’s sovereign, Queen Elizabeth II. At a Berlin state dinner in her honor last week, she appealed for a unified Europe.
“We know that division in Europe is dangerous and that we must guard against it in the West as well as in the East of our continent. That remains a common endeavour,” she said.
Clearly, Europe has gone topsy-turvy when the United Kingdom’s queen paraphrases Abraham Lincoln and warns against a house divided.
Regardless of any imminent agreements, bailouts or breaks, Greece may turn out to be the first card to fall out of a shaky European house of cards. Anyone believing in the European project now has a new “cri de coeur”: Long live the Queen.
Markos Kounalakis is a regular contributor to The Bee, a research fellow at Central European University and visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. His most recent piece was “The perverse act of recruiting kids for war.” firstname.lastname@example.org, @KounalakisM.