Opinion writer May 28, 2012

Once upon a time in Europe, there was a confederation. It stretched from the Alps to the Adriatic and straddled the ancient line between Western Christendom and Byzantium.

The confederation promised an eternal end to the wars that had historically bedeviled its component peoples. It built goodwill and interdependence through a common currency and free movement of labor and capital.

Espousing peace, equality and human rights, the confederation offered a “third way” between the callousness of American-style capitalism and the inefficiency of central planning.

It also offered an alternative power center to countries not content to choose their allies from among the United States, China and Russia.

But Yugoslavia collapsed in 1991, after more than a decade of steadily escalating strife. And its downfall was accompanied by renewed ethnic warfare even bloodier than the World War II-era fighting the postwar confederation was supposed to abolish.

I wouldn’t overstate the analogy between Yugoslavia and today’s troubled European Union. Yugoslav “market socialism” was more authoritarian than the social democracy of Europe. For all the talk of “brotherhood and unity” at home and “non-alignment” abroad, what really held Yugoslavia together was the iron fist of its chieftain, Josip Broz Tito, who died in 1980 and was succeeded by a succession of ineffectual, unelected bureaucrats.

The end of Soviet-U.S. competition relaxed the East-West tension that had helped force the Yugoslav peoples together from the outside.

But I wouldn’t understate the analogy, either. Like the European Union, Yugoslavia was constantly trying bureaucratic fixes for deep-rooted rivalries — between Albanians and Serbs, Serbs and Croatians. Leadership shuffles, duplicative institutions and constitutional rewrites papered over but never eliminated them, even though almost all Yugoslav nationalities spoke the same language.

Tito used debt-fueled economic growth to buy peace; when the bills came due, fiscal austerity added yet another political irritant.

So the crisis Europe faces today is not all that unprecedented. It is not merely a financial or economic one. The deeper question is how — or whether — any multinational confederation can survive in the land mass between the Urals and the Atlantic, long after the world war that originally justified it and the Cold War that helped perpetuate it. How is the E.U. to escape the fate of every previous empire and confederation in European history?

When viewed that way, Europe’s predicament looks difficult indeed.

Franco-German rivalry helped cause one continental bloodletting after another, the most monstrous of which was World War II. United Europe was supposed to tie France and postwar West Germany so tightly together, economically, that war would become impossible.

This was both a noble and, potentially at least, feasible project. But it is clear in hindsight that the authors of European unification have oversolved the original problem.

They could have had Franco-German peace without giving Spain and Finland a veto over policies that affect the German and French peoples, and vice versa. They could have had free trade and mobile capital without pretending that Greece and the Netherlands belong in a currency union.

Did the E.U. overexpand and overreach because France wanted a vehicle for its own unrealistic foreign policy ambitions? Or because poorer countries in Europe were eager for privileged access to Germany’s money? It hardly matters now.

The fact is, Europe is stuck with this confederation, yet it is no longer solvent, politically or economically.

Short-term efforts at muddling through occupy the continent’s politicians. But they are pushing against tectonic forces that are shifting against the E.U., just as surely as similar forces ground away at the Holy Roman Empire and Yugoslavia.

There are only two ways forward. One is breakup; though not likely to be as bloody as the Yugoslav meltdown, an E.U. collapse, even a gradual one, would impoverish the continent and leave a toxic residue of nationalist rancor.

The other choice, of course, is to follow the perennial prescription — “more Europe.” The only cure for the ills of today’s relatively loose confederation is a tighter one, it is said.

What this means in practice, however, is the surrender of more national sovereignty to Brussels, to include, for the first time, elected parliaments’ loss of control over basic financial decisions.

Nor will this cession of power be symmetrical: Germany and other wealthy nations will determine the new rules of the game and debtor nations will follow them — not uncomplainingly.

United Europe’s future, if it has one, looks more austere, more contentious and — above all — less democratic than its present. And I repeat: This is the optimistic scenario.

lanec@washpost.com