BARCELONA -- It hardly qualifies as breaking news that Europe is in the middle of a deep and protracted economic contraction. When a story, no matter how shocking, goes on for years, the natural inclination is to let it fade to the background of our awareness. But a visit to Spain — even to one of the cities where the economic tragedy does a good job of hiding behind hordes of tourists and beautiful architecture — is a reminder of the extent of the disaster that has befallen Europe, until recently one of the world’s most prosperous regions.
Here in Spain, unemployment has reached 27 percent, higher than that experienced by the United States during the Great Depression. For young people, the unemployment rate is more than 57 percent. Home prices have collapsed, and continue falling. In Greece, the situation is even worse.
Governments have responded with brutal austerity measures, laying off workers, raising taxes, and slashing spending.
“Europe,” a term that connotes a luxurious blend of culture, history and modernity, is going through a major existential test with calamitous human consequences. Even so, I think the European model is, in fact, passing the test.
Let me tell you why.
When the European Union started taking shape, unfurling itself from a modest trade group to become an ambitious economic and political union, the emphasis was, as it is now, on the economic and political aspects of the project. In reality, however, there was another purpose, one that was spoken of only in conspiratorially low tones.
Europe is more than a little afraid of itself. The 20th century showed Europeans a side of their vaunted cultures that left them shocked, perhaps forever.
Europeans speak with little bashfulness about the European Union’s original aim to create an alliance to prevent one country from going to war against its neighbors. They are generally referring to Germany when they say this, reliving the bad old days of European wars in which Germany, in league with one or more neighboring powers, launched military quests that resulted in tens of millions of deaths.
There was more to the EU idea than keeping Germany from going to war. The unspoken aim of the European model was to prevent swings into the dangerous beliefs of extremism. Europe, after all, was the birthplace of some of the worst totalitarian ideologies of all time. European minds knitted together social resentment, phony science, and supposedly high-minded philosophy with well-known results. It was Europe that gave the world fascism, with its most grotesque incarnation in Nazi Germany. The most extreme ideologies of the left also came from European thinkers pondering the answer to the world’s economic and social riddles.
Sadly, the worst of Europe spread like drug-resistant bacteria to other parts of the world. When Cambodia suffered a slaughter at the hands of the bloodthirsty Pol Pot regime, for example, one could trace Pol Pot’s education to the cafes of Paris and the classrooms of the Sorbonne.
Which brings us to the 21st century trauma of today’s Eurozone.
It’s not uncommon to stumble into a political demonstration in one of Barcelona’s streets. Strikes and protests have become commonplace, which is hardly surprising considering the depth and duration of the crisis. Some five years have passed since it all began, and the experts say the end of this dark tunnel is not yet within sight.
The people, here and in much of Europe, particularly in the badly-afflicted Mediterranean areas, are beyond fed up with their governments. They resent the European austerity prescription, and many say Germany, Europe’s economic powerhouse, has emerged dominant in Europe after all.
In spite of all that, the extremist rumblings, for the most part, have failed to reach truly alarming levels. There are some noteworthy exceptions. In Greece, the Golden Dawn, with its Swastika-inspired logo and similarly Nazi-like ideology, has made significant gains. In Hungary, anti-Semitism is undergoing a revolting revival.
Everywhere, extremist parties enjoy some rise in popularity. But given the depth of the misery, it would be unrealistic to expect politics as usual, without a dash of nationalistic fervor and “anti-other” ferment.
For the most part, Europeans have no nostalgia for the bad old days of extremism. Considering how bad things are, that is a veritable triumph for the ideals of those who founded the modern, and admittedly struggling “Europe.”
Unemployment is much too high and the path out of the crisis is not altogether clear. And yet, by mostly resisting the temptation of extremism, Europe is passing this difficult test.