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European Union growing more divided

June 26, 2011


IN GREECE: About 3,000 police officers, coast guard workers and firefighters protest salary and budget cuts on Thursday in Athens. Austerity measures in Greece have fueled disenchantment with the European Union.

 IN GREECE: About 3,000 police officers, coast guard workers and firefighters protest salary and budget cuts on Thursday in Athens. Austerity measures in Greece have fueled disenchantment with the European Union. / DIMITRI MESSINIS/Associated Press

FLENSBURG, Germany — Erik Holm Jensen slips between countries without a thought or a passport.

The 60-year-old business consultant drives from Denmark into northern Germany as smoothly as an American going from Delaware to New Jersey. There’s no hassle at the border, no guards to stop him. If he blinks, he misses the modest sign indicating he’s crossed from one country into another.

Such seamless travel is one of the European Union’s greatest achievements in its pursuit of a stable, prosperous continent built in the lingering aftermath of World War II. The other is the euro, like the wad in Jensen’s wallet that he can use in 17 nations.

But the twin pillars of Europe’s grand project are now under assault. Unfettered movement and the single currency have become subjects of bitter dispute, pushing tensions to their highest point in years and making the European Union look increasingly like an oxymoron.

Countries including Denmark, France and Italy have raised hackles recently by considering the reintroduction of checks of some kind along their borders. The euro faces a debt crisis that poses the gravest threat to its existence since it was launched nine years ago, with political infighting preventing the EU from mounting a swift, effective response.

Faith in the dream of a united, richer, happier continent — fueled by the optimism of most of the last decade when the region’s economy was booming — appears to be dwindling.

“Europe is a little bit in shock,” said Ulrike Guerot, an analyst with the European Council on Foreign Relations. “We need to figure out whether the project of political union and greater integration still stands.”

Euro crisis a source of tension

That prospect has been most severely undermined by the euro crisis, which has produced major cracks within the 27-nation EU.

Even as debt-laden Greece, Ireland and Portugal lined up for humiliating bailouts, EU leaders have squabbled for more than a year over how to deal with the mess and keep it from spreading to the bigger economies of Spain and Italy.IN BELGIUM: Two unidentified men carry a mock coffin and the symbol of the euro currency outside a European Union summit in Brussels.

Ironically, the common currency that was meant to unite Europe is dividing it instead, with fiscally disciplined northern countries such as Germany and the Netherlands growing more resentful of being on the hook for their southern counterparts’ imprudence.

Not everyone would go as far as the German magazine Der Spiegel, whose cover last week featured a portrait of the euro atop a coffin draped with the Greek flag. But skepticism toward Europe’s ambitious experiment in forging a common future is not hard to find.

“It can indeed be a burden to be part of the European Union,” said Thomas Dehler, 44, an entrepreneur in Berlin. “I’ve often asked myself why the deutschemark was abolished in the first place. … Economic union wasn’t the right way.”

But he added, “We can’t take it back anymore. Now we have to grit our teeth and get to it.”

Such disenchantment isn’t that surprising in the economic powerhouse of Germany.

But disillusionment with the EU is also rife in Greece, a beneficiary of the club’s largess. Anti-EU graffiti and banners in downtown Athens shout the frustrations of people who see the austerity and pain demanded of them in exchange for help as both punitive and a recipe for economic suicide, not recovery.

“I believe Greece belongs to Europe. Its interests are anchored there,” said Nikos Branidis, 37, an unemployed mathematician. “Do I believe, though, in European integration? Not anymore. It was supposed to be a process of coming together but instead has proven to be just a union driven by monetary interests.”

Waning enthusiasm spans the continent. In an EU-wide survey last year, only 49% of people said membership was a good thing, close to its lowest support in a decade. Nearly 20% saw membership as a drag on their country. The euro’s troubles have worsened since. Three countries have applied for bailouts, with one of them, Greece, desperately needing another one; private creditors holding Greek bonds are under pressure to take a hit; and tens of thousands of anti-austerity protesters have marched in Madrid and Athens.

European solidarity is in shorter supply now than a year ago. In Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands, for example, populist right-wing parties have made significant electoral gains, led by politicians who often spout “Euroskeptic” rhetoric about being yoked to countries they deem too different or irresponsible.

“European integration was a top-down (enterprise): If you build it, they will come,” said Hugo Brady, an analyst with the London-based Center for European Reform. “People did make use of the benefits it brought. But it didn’t mean that they moved any closer culturally. …We’re not as alike as people thought.”

Other points of contention

Even if the euro pulls through its crisis, the trauma of the experience will probably cool the dreams of ever-closer cooperation and expanding European power, Brady said.

As the crisis continues, tempers grow short. During the continent’s recent outbreak of E. coli-related illnesses, Germany quickly blamed it on cucumbers from Spain, which reacted furiously when the accusation turned out to be misplaced. Talk in Madrid of suing German officials subsided only after the EU agreed to offer compensation to Spanish farmers.

National interests still trump European ones, a truth laid bare by the rising disputes over borders.

Currently, 22 EU countries, plus three not in the union, allow unrestricted movement among them; enter one and the rest are open to you, with no need to clear further border checks. The liberalization has been a huge success, loved (mostly) by residents and visitors alike.

No wholesale rollback of the system is on the horizon. But two months ago, France and Italy, alarmed over a surge in immigrants fleeing unrest in North Africa, called for the reintroduction of temporary border controls. The idea ignited a firestorm of protest from fellow EU countries worried over the consequences of such a move.

This week, Denmark is set to approve a controversial measure to re-establish a permanent customs presence along its borders with Germany and Sweden, largely at the insistence of a right-wing anti-immigrant party. The proposal has strained relations between Copenhagen and Berlin.

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  1. June 27, 2011 at 8:02 am
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