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Goldmark: Will frustration in Europe lead to breakups?

The giant Euro symbol is reflected outside the

The giant Euro symbol is reflected outside the headquarters of the European Central Bank on Nov. 5, 2012 in Frankfurt, Germany. Credit: Getty Images

Europe hasn't been on the front pages much lately. What you hear is that the European financial crisis has "quieted down" -- investors are coming back and financial markets are strengthening.

But what we're seeing is a lull, not the end of problems in Europe.

Along with the United States and China, Europe is one of three critical pillars in the world economy, and today it is the weakest. It's growing more slowly and its continuing financial problems are significant.

European bailouts to keep their financial system from seizing up over the past five years loaded up the banking sector with government debt, which has had the perverse effect of making the European Union more dependent on its banks and less able to force those banks to restructure, get healthy and start lending again. And Europe has still not managed to set up a banking authority with clear power to supersede national regulators, who may be soft on their own banks.

What's more, other nonfinancial trends may be destabilizing over the longer run.

Europe is a complicated stew of different races, cultures and national identities. The United States is, too -- but the reason we historically looked more like a melting pot than an uneasy patchwork of former enemies is because the Europeans who came here mostly decided to leave European identity politics behind. Today, a new strain of identity restlessness in Europe, which threatens to break apart some countries, is raising its head.

The United Kingdom has announced it wants to loosen its ties with the European Union. But breaking up can be contagious, and at the same time, part of the United Kingdom itself is making noises about getting divorced. A referendum scheduled for 2014 will allow Scotland to vote on whether it wants independence. No one, as far as I can tell, has the slightest idea what happens next if the vote on that question is affirmative.

There are similar stirrings elsewhere. Belgium's fragile marriage between the Dutch-speaking Flemish and the French-speaking Walloons has gotten rockier, to the point that Belgium was unable to form a government for much of last year. Catalonia, the wealthiest region of Spain, is still talking about becoming independent. Where does this all lead? Probably to weaker national units and -- ironically -- a stronger European Union.

Germany, seen as the conservative economic superpower of Europe, is also experiencing new destabilizing currents -- but not quite of the same kind. At the end of a conversation reviewing where Europe was going, a senior German editor told me that the most dangerous trend in Germany was the loss of respect by young Germans for what is called "the European Project." The generation that came to power following World War II fervently supported the idea of European cooperation. "Now," he told me, "many of our young people are disgusted with Brussels and with the EU." They feel, he said, that the European Union is bloated, inefficient, and has dithered rather than put in place serious policies to deal with the financial upheavals of the past five years.

The danger here is not that part of Germany will decide to secede from Germany. The danger is that the biggest and soundest economy in Europe will want to go it alone more often, and not drag along what some see as a tired, inefficient contraption for cooperation that is not willing or able to make the tough decisions.

Neither Europe nor the United States has charted clear paths out of its financial doldrums. The United States is politically polarized and paralyzed. Europe's political processes are not paralyzed, but seething below the surface are currents of growing restlessness. And that may mean the next generation is not sure that cooperation -- at either the European or national level -- is better than going it alone.

Peter Goldmark, a former budget director of New York State and former publisher of the International Herald Tribune, headed the climate program at the Environmental Defense Fund.