What Do the Arab Spring and the European Union Have in Common?

The origins of one and the survival of the other may end up depending on the same thing: the rise of a generation that imagines its society in a new way.


It's not easy to find optimism about the future of the EU. The Union may be, as the Italian journalist and Corriere della Sera / Financial Times columnist Beppe Severgnini remarked at the Aspen Ideas Festival yesterday, a "political masterpiece"—the most important instance of post-World-War-II political architecture in the world, tightly linking Germany, France, and the broader continent after decades of gruesome, self-destructive war—but it's an economic disaster. With the economy of the eurozone going down hard, there is, as Simon Johnson, former chief economist for the International Monetary Fund, put it, "an enormous storm coming."

There's no questioning that metaphor among Severgnini's and Johnson's Aspen co-panelists—Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, and The Atlantic's Clive Crook—though there's little consensus on the magnitude of the storm ... or what its ultimate effects are likely to be. Severgnini is of a camp inclined to see opportunity in crisis, or rather the necessity of crisis for Europe to seize the opportunity the EU represents: "Europe needs to have its back against the wall; otherwise we do nothing." Haass doesn't doubt that the Union will endure; and he sees that endurance as being as important for the continent and the world as Severgnini does. But the dysfunctionality of European economy, Haass says, is a "condition to be managed," not a "problem to be solved." Crook thinks that lowering the bar for the EU's survival from "perfect solution" to "manageable situation" is a move away from denial, though he fears Europe's trajectory won't lead to an outcome that can actually be managed, after all, but a colossal crisis.

Even if Europe averts such a crisis, though, why should we be so pessimistic as to think its economic skies will never truly clear—on however long a timescale we're able to consider the question? Haass's view here is a foundational one among Euro-skeptics: Nationalism—and the agenda of national sovereignty that no European state capital has ever really been willing to abandon—mean we'll never get to a fix that overcomes the European Union's structural problems. How can you convince Germans that they should transfer money to Greeks so they can retire 10 years sooner? You can't.

But Severgnini takes a different view on the relationship between national and European identity—at least in the long term—and it's not unlike a view adopted by optimists about democracy in the Arab world in the face of political reaction and disorder today. It takes time to convert the social basis for a institution's legitimacy into political success. It took more than a dozen years after the outset of the U.S. War of Independence, as these optimists are wont to point out, for Americans to form a real government themselves. The first step is social revolution: Americans seeing themselves as independent of the British crown; Arabs seeing themselves as democratic citizens; Europeans identifying with a complex, continental political identity that doesn't necessarily negate their national identities. That in turn is the basis for something that can strengthen itself and stabilize politically and economically over time.

Here's the optimist's ultimate perspective on Europe in Severgnini words: