What began as a debt crisis in Greece in late 2009 – a cloud the size of a fist – has grown into a thunderhead of fractious politics, extremism, costly delay, denials, ethnic tension, and, not least, an erosion of public trust that threatens the core values of Europe's remarkable postwar experiment in integration.
In America, the crisis is largely viewed as an economic story channeled through CNBC and Bloomberg – as some kind of euro mismanagement recorded on graphs and stock tickers. But the problem runs far deeper. It cuts to the core of what Europe may or may not become. It is a crisis of identity and politics with social fallout and, what scares many, an element of that old unknown: unintended consequences.
Extremist political parties are rising. Taxpayers are revolting in the north about bailing out the south. For the far left, "Europe" has become a protectionist zone for bankers and the moneyed class. For the far right, Europe is too tolerant of Muslims, Islam, and immigrants.
Yet Europe's crisis has crept along so slowly that it has been hard to know how seriously to take it. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays come predictions swathed in gloom. On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, the crisis can seem "illusory," as analyst Konstanty Gebert notes in Warsaw. (In resilient Eastern Europe, as some Baltic officials said this summer, a crisis is when the Soviet Union invades; what Europe is now dealing with is just a "problem.")