You might say that just over five decades into its existence, the European Union is in the grip of a midlife crisis. The euro has been shaken by the global economic downturn. The EU social model, based on various versions of the welfare state, has been eroded by debt and budget cutting. And a newly assertive Germany is causing anxiety among its union partners. Today, we start a week-long series on Europe's increasingly rocky struggle for unity. From the European Union capital in Brussels, NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports.

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SYLVIA POGGIOLI: With the burgeoning European Union workforce now at 45,000, more high-rise offices are in construction. Street names honor Robert Schuman and Jean Monnet, the postwar leaders who strove to rebuild Europe on the ruins of World War II, the most devastating war in human history.

Here there's no sense of crisis, but among the individual 27 member nations, there's growing angst about the future of the postwar effort to unite Europe. The effort was launched in 1950, as longtime enemies France and Germany agreed to pool their war-making industries, coal and steel. Four more countries soon signed on.

Mr. MARK EYSKENS (Former Belgian Premier): Not only a stroke of genius, it was a miracle.

POGGIOLI: Former Belgian Premier Mark Eyskens says the Coal and Steel Community was an effort to overcome Europe's dark, bloody past.

Mr. EYSKENS: To construct the reconciliation between Germany and France - no longer peace treaties, these were just pieces of paper without any impact. But we started to integrate the economies, and that brought about, indeed, the Pax Europea.

POGGIOLI: The horrors were still vivid: mass extermination in Nazi death camps, some 30 million Europeans dead, as many millions expelled, deported and transplanted.

To build a Pax Europea, says former Italian diplomat Sergio Romano, collective amnesia was essential.

Mr. SERGIO ROMANO (Former Italian Diplomat): It was obvious that you had to close, as rapidly as possible, the chapter of responsibilities, and move on.

POGGIOLI: And Europe quickly did. Wide-ranging social reforms produced cradle-to-grave welfare states aimed at keeping civil and ideological strife at bay.

In 1957, the Coal and Steel Community evolved into the European Community. And over the decades, more nations joined the club. Their new anthem: Beethoven's "Ode to Joy."

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Unidentified Group: (Singing in German)

POGGIOLI: In the span of a single generation, Western Europe enjoyed an unprecedented boom. With the past swept under the rug and NATO providing security, the new European social model could compete with the American way of life. There was wealth and complacency.

Then came the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, and ghosts of the past reemerged.

At a late 1989 summit chaired by French President Francois Mitterrand, the prospect of a reunited Germany stirred anxiety and suspicion.

Mr. EYSKENS: The atmosphere was extremely disturbing, and even shocking.

POGGIOLI: Belgium's Eyskens sat next to the British prime minister and German chancellor.

Mr. EYSKENS: At my left, Margaret Thatcher, at my right, Helmut Kohl. Margaret Thatcher became very - extremely nervous. She took the floor and said, Francois.

POGGIOLI: Thatcher scolded Mitterrand for a draft communique on the reunification of all German-speaking peoples - an ominous echo of Hitler's aspirations.

Mr. EYSKENS: I saw Helmut Kohl shattering, and he became extremely furious, and he said: I swear I will always defend a European Germany and never defend a German Europe. It was an historical phrase he repeated several times.

POGGIOLI: Mitterrand and Kohl withdrew. On their return, they said yes to German reunification on the condition that Germany abandon its beloved deutsche mark and join a single currency, but on German terms, strict regulations to keep money tight and deficits small.

The euro, as the currency was named, was a political rather than economic creation - the result of Europeans' fear of resurgent German nationalism and Germans' obsessive fear of inflation.

But it's a currency without common fiscal and economic guidance.

Its basic shortcoming - as in most European Union policies - is member states' unwillingness to give up their cherished national sovereignty. That's the dominating thinking since the 1648 Westphalia Treaty that established the nation-state, says former EU Commission President Romano Prodi, with a touch of resignation.

Mr. ROMANO PRODI (Former EU Commission President): How can you change so many centuries of history in one shot?

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POGGIOLI: In fact, the EU has its own bureaucracy and parliament. But real power still lies with each member state.

And that's how it's facing the challenges of the 21st century: expansion, globalization and immigration from outside Europe.

The end of the Cold War that brought in many former Soviet satellites was celebrated as the healing of a once-divided continent, but it also opened up borders to cheap labor, making fear of the Polish plumber the anti-EU mantra. Beyond that, the arrival of millions of Muslim immigrants created even more divisions.

Anti-Brussels sentiments led to the defeat a hefty and undecipherable constitution by Dutch and French voters. One of the ill-fated document's authors was Belgian statesman Jean-Luc Dehaene. He concedes the emotional driving force that first united Europe had dried up.

Mr. JEAN-LUC DEHAENE (Belgian Statesman): Citizens experience the global world as a threat. They are afraid of all the changes that are in the global society. They feel very insecure and go back to their own cocoon. You see some nationalism coming up again in different member states.

POGGIOLI: Turnout at European Parliament elections is plummeting as right-wing and xenophobic parties soar and independence-seeking regions spread from Britain to Belgium, from Italy to Spain.

Mr. GIULIANO AMATO (Italian Statesman): The atmosphere is of an increasing separation of our member states from each other.

POGGIOLI: Italian statesman Giuliano Amato, another constitution author, said in a lecture this year at New York University that Europeans feel disempowered and are turning against the world.

Mr. AMATO: The entire world that is going somewhere else and is growing, and we are not growing. And it's becoming younger, and we are becoming older. And it's open to expectation of a better future, and we are open to the expectations of a worse future.

POGGIOLI: Will the next generation reignite the European flame?

These young civil servants have come to Brussels to learn about the EU. Brigitte Bay is Danish.

Ms. BRIGITTE BAY (Civil Servant): Even though I'm European, I could not accept a European government without a national government.

POGGIOLI: Jakup Johanik comes from Prague.

Mr. JAKUP JOHANIK (Civil Servant): I am really proud that, first, that I am Czech, and, second, that I am European.

POGGIOLI: Gavin Todd-James is from London.

Mr. GAVIN TODD-JAMES (Civil Servant): I'd probably call myself British rather than European, but it has certainly opened me up to the idea that, you know, I'm part of something wider.

POGGIOLI: It's that wider something that has ensured the longest period of peace and economic growth in European history that's now in search of a new identity.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News.

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MONTAGNE: Tomorrow, we go to Germany, which has thorny relations with the rest of the EU.

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MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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