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Is Europe really on the brink?

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Part of Europe's hidden genius, as British historian David Marquand (no relation to this writer) says from his home in Oxford, "has been to be boring. Boring meant peace and no drama." Mr. Marquand, whose book "The End of the West: The Once and Future Europe" came out last year, adds, "Today, from inside the crisis, it is difficult to gauge where you are. I hope we have turned a corner. But I'm always worried about the rise of extremism."

Leading intellectuals now say the crisis is the most serious one since 1945. Arguably it carries more portent than even the halcyon days of 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down, simply because it is unclear if Europe can remain intact. And a breakup of Europe, even in slow motion, is big: It reverberates from St. Louis to Shanghai to São Paulo.

Dominique Moïsi, the leading Paris intellectual and author of "The Geopolitics of Emotion," points out that while Europe has not experienced such a severe crisis since World War II, "still I am positive. I would say that at the last minute, because they have exhausted all other options, Europeans are finally doing the right thing out of necessity, and in a strange manner. There is much more Europe today than there was a few years ago."

The next 12 months will be crucial in deciding if there is enough "Europe" to hold it all together. The Continent's fate will pivot on whether leaders can still see more rewards in unity than risks in dissolution – and convince their citizens of that. For the first time in European history, two generations have been born who have not experienced war, which was one of the great unifying factors in the birth of an integrated Europe.

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