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So Europe's leaders have agreed on a new approach to try to turn their economies around. It may be years before we know whether the euro crisis can be resolved. This prospect of Europe's disintegration apparently frightens leaders there just enough to keep them working together. A breakup would be costly and not just economically. NPR's Tom Gjelten says the lessons of history weight heavily on European minds.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: The process of European integration began in 1951. It was just six years after the end of yet another war that tore Europe apart and the goal was to end war on the European continent forever. The first institution created was the European Coal and Steel Commission, with France and Germany as the two key members, the two countries that had fought so often.

But why coal and steel? Ivan Vejvoda of the German Marshall Fund explains, that's what you need to build weapons.

IVAN VEJVODA: You needed coal to fire up the iron that produced the steel that produced the artillery and tanks. And so if you could get France and Germany to be talking about those two key elements of what is a military might, then you could actually find ways in which they could manage their relationships.

GJELTEN: The six European nations that joined the commission agreed to a common market in coal and steel. The French foreign minister said it would make war materially impossible. The common market also laid the foundation for economic growth. Over the next 50-plus years, Europe prospered. Dominique Moisi, the founder of the French Institute for International Relations, says the French, the Germans, the Italians all came to associate European integration with hope and optimism.

DOMINIQUE MOISI: We were growing economically, and we were doing so in an environment that would be dominated by peace, thanks to a Europe that was making impossible the return of war among major European countries.

GJELTEN: That optimism persisted until the global financial crisis hit, bringing with it a host of unfamiliar social and economic problems. Ivan Vejvoda, himself from Serbia, says the European project suddenly went into reverse.

VEJVODA: Falling standards of living, rising unemployment, the challenges that occur with the issues of integration of non-Europeans; all these things have led to the re-nationalization of politics in Europe. Rather than focusing on the European-ness, they're going back to the French-ness or German-ness or Italian-ness.

GJELTEN: A host of economic issues has been highlighted in the European crisis, too much spending, too little regulation, poor lending practices. But it's this problem of Germans versus Greeks or Spanish versus Italians that's the bigger problem. George Friedman of the intelligence firm Stratfor sees a failure of institutions, beginning with the European Union itself, the entity that grew out of that coal and steel common market.

GEORGE FRIEDMAN: The EU is a superb instrument for managing prosperity. One could say that no human invention has ever been better at handling good times. The problem is that Europe finally started experiencing bad times, and the entity that was created couldn't manage it.

GJELTEN: It was easy for German, French or Italian leaders to think and act like Europeans when they were all rewarded economically for doing so. But this has been a time for sacrifice, and it's harder for those leaders, or the populations they lead, to think like Europeans during hard times. In the United States, economic stress has brought some political polarization, but it hasn't put state against state. George Friedman points out that the United States struggled long and hard to establish a national identity.

FRIEDMAN: We fought a bitter civil war. The problem with the Europeans is, who will fight and die for the idea of Europe?

GJELTEN: Dominique Moisi, in Paris, doesn't put it in such negative terms. He says the problem is just that European leaders have failed to get their people to commit to Europe, even to dream about Europe. But he points out that the fundamental reason for European integration, to prevent conflict, is as compelling as ever.

MOISI: It's a question of political leadership. With a little help from politics, we will be able to do it.

GJELTEN: There's no choice, he says, we are doomed to rediscover the value of Europe. Tom Gjelten, NPR News.

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