Grandmother Europe has life in her yet

Grandmother Europe has life in her yet

The last few years have not been kind to the European Union.

The EU has yet to emerge from its worst economic recession since the Great Depression of the 1920s. Its single currency, the euro, remains on a life-support machine. Britain, one of the biggest and militarily most significant member-states, is toying with leaving the EU altogether, while Greece, one of the weakest member-states, may face eviction from the union.

Even the EU's claim to have brought lasting peace to the "old continent" which generated two world wars during the past century no longer holds true: A very hot war is now unfolding in Ukraine, most likely to be followed by a prolonged colder war with Russia. In short, failure all around.

But there is an alternative, almost counter-intuitive view of today's Europe which is just as compelling: Far from falling to bits, the continent is slowly getting its act together and is poised to emerge from its current trials much more strengthened.

The snag is - and it is a very big one - that few governments or strategic experts outside Europe have noticed this subtle but significant transformation.

Take the euro crisis as an example. On one level, little has changed since disaster struck: Greece is as bankrupt and as badly governed as ever, Europe is as morose as it has been since the single currency's future was placed in doubt, and hostility to Germany's demands that all Europeans should suffer years of painful economic austerity in order to put their finances in order is as high as ever.

Indeed, the political clouds are darkening even further: Greece is now run by a bunch of far-left populists who only six months ago would have been dismissed as just fringe elements, a fate which may well also await Spain, Italy and even France, where populists can storm to power on the back of an electoral backlash against current political elites.

But such doomsday meltdown scenarios ignore some pretty fundamental European achievements.

The first is the sheer scale of the EU commitment to bailing out its member-states. It cannot be repeated often enough that Greece received a staggering €245 billion (S$366 billion) in loans to keep it afloat, the biggest single bailout in the history of mankind.

One may argue about the wisdom of this bailout and the conditions imposed on Greece, but not about the generosity of the act. Can anyone imagine any other part of the world where such a huge transfer of resources is thinkable, let alone feasible?

Most European governments which contributed to the Greek bailout knew they were throwing good money after bad, but still did it because they genuinely believed that European solidarity was worth paying for.

This solidarity was even more in evidence when Greece's newly elected populist government recently tried to renege on its promises of reform, while still demanding cash: The Greeks found themselves in a minority of one inside the EU, proof of Europe's realisation that economic overhaul is not a choice, but a necessity.

Europe was also transformed by the euro crisis in other ways.

A European Rescue Fund worth half a trillion euros is available to prevent any other member-state from falling into a Greece-style crisis. European banking supervision is a reality and, last week, the European Central Bank started to pump cheap money into the continent's economies in order to revive growth.

All these things were simply unimaginable five years ago.

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