As the euro twists in the wind, so does a sense of European identity

The World

As European leaders grapple with a plan to save the eurozone, the whole notion of a European identity is being called into question.

Creating a European identity has been at the heart of a European Union since its inception, and officials in Brussels spend a lot of money on projects aimed at strengthening that identity — a sense among citizens of the 27-member collective that they belong to something bigger than their home countries.

And the money Brussels is spending is in euros, the common currency for the 17 members of the eurozone.

From the start, the euro was intended to both symbolize and foster European unity. Euro coins and bills are covered in images and slogans from European history.

Take the 2-euro coin. One side is the French slogan, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” On the other, a map of the entire continent.

At the Parisien, a small bar in the medieval quarter of Barcelona, the owner, Gregorio, said he read last week how French President Nicolas Sarkozy declared that if the euro vanishes nothing will remain of Europe.

Gregorio said that scared him.

“Because we could go back to the way things were before,” Gregorio said, “each country for itself. The history of Europe is measured by war.”

The past 60 years of peace among countries of the European Union is unique in Europe’s history, he said, and he thinks the EU and the euro deserve some credit.

EU leaders repeat that point as they seek to save the currency.

On Monday, Italy’s interim Prime Minister Mario Monti said he worried the sovereign debt crisis was turning the euro into a divisive tool, driving Europeans apart. The crisis has been driving Europeans apart for more than two years.

The euro didn’t cause the Greek crisis, but many Greeks now see the euro as a symbol of the devastating austerity measures forced upon it by Europe.

In Spain, voices critical of the euro are on the rise as well.

In Barcelona’s main square, Spaniards line up to test a new ice-skating rink set up for the Christmas season. As Teresa Vallecillos, a factory worker who’s here with her 10-year-old son, pulls out some cash, she said she’s never much liked the euro.

“When we joined the eurozone, shopkeepers rounded up their prices to the nearest euro,” she said. “At the same time, our wages went down.”

Not surprisingly, Vallecillos said she doesn’t consider herself European first.

“I feel Spanish,” she said. “I’ve never noticed any positive change from joining the eurozone."

But euro supporters, like Karel Jannoo with Brussels-based think tank the Center for European Reform, said people forget that before the crisis, the euro had made Europe richer, making trade and travel across the eurozone easier.

It also gave Europe more might in dealing with big trading partners like the United States and China.

Jannoo said European leaders haven’t done a good job of describing the currency’s benefits.

“What you need to do to stimulate a common feeling is to say, 'look, we have a model of society where you have social security for everybody, schooling for everybody, unemployment benefits for everybody,' ” Jannoo said. “We are not like the U.S. where the gap between rich and poor is huge.”

Jannoo said the euro’s demise, or diminishment, would be a disastrous step backward for this sense of collective identity.

If social media sites are any indication, the European identity may already be headed in that direction.

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