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In Europe, Breaking Up Is So Easy to Do

Czech President Vaclav Klaus, a Euroskeptic in the best of times, provoked outrage in the European Parliament when he told the assembly on Feb. 19 that the E.U. was an undemocratic and elitist project comparable to Soviet-era dictatorships. "Not so long ago, in our part of Europe we lived in a political system that permitted no alternatives and therefore also no parliamentary opposition," Klaus said. "We learned the bitter lesson that with no opposition, there is no freedom."

Though his criticism may have been exaggerated, Klaus was tapping into a certain rejectionism among East Europeans who ask why, after their countries' long struggle for independence, they should now give up their sovereignty in favor of an ephemeral quest for European unity.

Europe's recent East-West divisions are most glaring in the matter of a resurgent Russia. The West is willing to mollify Moscow's desire to regain superpower status and wants to cooperate in building oil and gas pipelines. But the East fears that this would give Russia more leverage and eventually allow it to dominate Europe's energy supplies -- fears that were stoked this winter when Russia temporarily cut off natural gas delivery to Ukraine in a pricing dispute.

All of this is frightening policymakers and historians alike.

At a recent meeting in Rome, German Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck told his European colleagues that there is a greater risk than many realize of repeating the mistakes of the 1930s. Then as now, European governments were tempted to succumb to domestic political pressures urging "beggar thy neighbor" measures that ultimately transformed a financial crisis into a Great Depression. That helped the Nazis and other political extremists take power. By the end of the '30s, 15 European countries were being run by right- or left-wing dictatorships.

Although there is little evidence that extremist political parties are moving into position to seize power, European leaders' weakness in the face of the crisis is a growing cause for concern. In recent weeks, the governments of Iceland and Latvia collapsed after banking failures that seem impervious to any remedy, Greece and France were swept by massive labor strikes, and agitated depositors have caused major bank runs in capitals from Dublin to Kiev.

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel leads a grand coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats that controls 75 percent of the Bundestag. Yet despite this overwhelming parliamentary power, the government failed for months to come up with an emergency rescue package. Only reluctantly, and with an eye to September elections, did Merkel approve $100 billion in economic incentives in January, including a 2,500 euro ($3,000) bonus for anybody who scraps an old car and buys a new one.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, meanwhile, has offered French carmakers Renault and Peugeot-Citroen a 6 billion euro loan package -- provided they keep the jobs in France and stop building plants in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, where labor costs are much cheaper. That, in turn, provoked an angry response from Slovakia, which threatened to expel the Gaz de France power utility from its territory. Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek could not stop himself from suggesting that France was once again willing to harm others to save its own hide -- a not-so-subtle reference to the way the French abandoned the Czechs when the Nazis invaded in 1938.

Since World War II, Europe has been an admirable success story, showing how the long-term benefits of multinational cooperation can surpass short-term national interests. Now protectionist pressures are rising everywhere. But what's troubling about Europe is the way the financial crisis has become entwined with populist fears that echo from the continent's tragic past. I watched Europe's dream of unity dissolve once before. I hope I won't soon be watching it disintegrate once and for all.

William Drozdiak, a former editor and foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, is president of the American Council on Germany.

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