A Less Perfect Union

Europe After the Greek Debt Crisis

Demonstrators gather to protest against the European Central Bank's handling of Greece's debt repayments, in London, June 2015. Neil Hall / Courtesy Reuters

The European Union is an unparalleled historical experiment in governance. There is no other example in modern times of such an intensive effort to establish a peaceful, prosperous political community beyond the nation-state. Forged out of the ashes of two devastating world wars and a great depression, the union of nation-states has been increasingly bound together through markets, laws, and institutions. Although the trust and optimism that must underpin such a community has waxed and waned over the years, the poisonous atmosphere that has arisen in the wake of the Greek debt negotiations is remarkable, particularly as it comes on the heels of several decades of such extraordinary success.

First, let us be clear: The EU is not collapsing, and, no matter what happens to Greece and the eurozone, the EU’s institutions, laws, and policies will remain in place for the foreseeable future. But the perception that Germany made a brute power play to force Greece to accept devastating bailout terms in exchange for euro membership has unleashed a backlash against that country and deepened cleavages between northern and southern Europe. In the process, the Greek negotiations have unwound the willingness of many EU citizens to join their political fates together, a commitment that constituted the heart and soul of the European project. The result may be a less cohesive Europe, one that is unwilling to act in the world as a single unit and thus less able to address the continent’s key challenges: economic stagnation and unemployment, the influx of political refugees, climate change, and political instability outside its borders. More broadly, the Greek debt crisis has demonstrated once and for all the fragility of a polity that does not rest on robust institutions and norms of legitimate democratic governance.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel talks with French President Francois Hollande during a Eurozone emergency summit on Greece in Brussels, June 2015.

John Thys / Courtesy Reuters
Understanding how the Greek crisis will affect the future of the EU requires first

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