Economic Crisis Could Undo Unified Europe

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Strikes in Britain are the latest in a series of protests sweeping Europe over the imposition of tough austerity measures aimed at controlling debt and spending. The result: a crisis of confidence. The airwaves are awash with gloomy debates over whether the European Union even has a long-term future.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

You can find plenty of police on duty in Europe. We've reported this week on protests in Greece, to which police have responded with tear gas. And now comes Britain's turn. Public workers have called a strike for today. As many as three-quarters of a million people - civil servants and teachers - are protesting cuts to their pensions and far bigger issues are at stake, as NPR's Philip Reeves reports.

(Soundbite of horn blaring)

PHILIP REEVES: Union officials set up for a day of protest - and a big march through London.�They include Anne Ainsworth.�Ainsworth says the British government's austerity plans mean public sector workers must pay more for their pensions and get less, and that's wrong.

Ms. ANNE AINSWORTH: Nobody wants to go out and strike. Nobody likes to strike, but that they feel they've got no alternative.

REEVES: The walk-out means likely big delays for travelers arriving at British air and sea ports. Thousands of schools are closed. Universities and courts are being disrupted.

Britain doesn't use the euro. Yet like Greece and others, it's also trying to tackle a big budget deficit, a hangover from the global financial crisis several years ago. The economic upheaval going on in Europe is proving painful and there are side effects. Faith in the concept of a unified Europe is fading. There's always been a rolling debate about Europe's future. These days it's not so much about building unifying institutions as whether the EU can ultimately survive.

Sir Stephen Wall is considered one of Britain's most influential pro-European diplomats. Now listen to him.

Sir STEPHEN WALL (British Diplomat): Very few political institutions last forever and, you know, we shouldn't be too gloomy if we think that maybe, you know, in 40 years' time this one will be on its way out.

REEVES: Martin Kettle writes about European affairs for The Guardian, and he says the fact someone of Wall's stature is talking like this is significant.

Mr. MARTIN KETTLE (Journalist, The Guardian): I mean his voice wasn't often heard publicly but it was extraordinarily influential, for successive prime ministers, John Major, for whom he worked, then for Tony Blair.

REEVES: There's another reason this matters, says Kettle.

Mr. KETTLE: You know, we hear those kinds of words from people on the right, from Euro-skeptics, people who want it to be true. Now we're hearing it from people who don't want it to be true, and that's a really important moment, I think.

REEVES: Stephen Wall does not see the EU as a failure.

Sir WALL: It has, after all, helped deliver peace in most of Europe since World War II. It's helped deliver peace and security to all the countries of Eastern and Central Europe when they became free, and it's still, you know, for the foreseeable future the best vehicle we have for European cooperation.

REEVES: But the EU may have seen its best days, says Wall.

Sir WALL: Doesn't mean to say(ph) the European Union will collapse, but I think that in relative terms we're likely to see, unless there is a dramatic leap forward on the euro, a decline both in our internal coherence and in our relative weight in the world.

REEVES: This decline could be checked, says Wall, with the introduction of a more directly democratic system.

Sir WALL: But again, I think that is unlikely. I mean if you take as an example a country like the Netherlands, which was the most federalist of European countries 20 years ago, now there's a deeply nationalistic, populist streak in the Netherlands, as elsewhere in the European Union, which militates against that kind of European-wide democracy.

REEVES: Other issues are also feeding into the general pessimism around Europe about the EU. Free movement is supposed to be guaranteed within most of the EU, thanks to the Schengen Agreement. Worried about refugees from the Arab Spring, countries are actually tightening border controls. Meanwhile, NATO's operation in Libya is exposing deep European divisions.

There are still a few optimists around. Former British parliamentarian David Marquand, who's written widely on Europe, says he's one.

Mr. DAVID MARQUAND (Former British Parliamentarian): Because I think now it's gone so far that I just don't think it can unravel.

REEVES: Yet Marquand says the situation is serious, especially the Eurozone sovereign debt crisis.

Mr. MARQUAN: If that crisis is not resolved, then there could indeed be a disastrous backlash for the whole project of the European Union. But I think for that very reason the governments involved will in the end realize that they have to make fundamental changes in order to keep it alive.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, London.

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