Politically the EU has always been something unique, sui generis. Now leaders must show creativity again by proving that conventional wisdom about currency unions is wrong - that the Euro can be efficiently managed by a union of sovereign states.
And it's time to say good bye to federalism.
The historic drivers of EU integration have always been federalists. In other words, people who believed that they were building a European state - with a capital, a government, a parliament, a constitution. This vision has rarely been spelled out, but it has been implicit in many of the past "projects". Many think that Helmut Kohl, the chancellor who oversaw German unification in 1990, has deliberately put an imperfect currency union on track in order to force the EU to become, over time, a federal union. And many of the remaining federalists, such as German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble who worked closely with Kohl on German unification, appear to be driven by the idea that the euro crisis represents the historical moment in which a major step towards this vision could - and should - be taken.
But the past years have made it plain that member states do not really want to abdicate. Anti-EU sentiment has grown in many member states. The more "EU" equals "crisis", the more people are becoming tired and skeptical. New political movements are gaining traction by including euro-skepticism in their portfolio. There is no pro-EU movement at the grass-roots, no large demonstrations.
The danger today is that Europeans turn their backs on an EU that is the mainstay of Europe's geopolitical order because they are fed up with the difficulties of managing a common currency. People often take freedom, stability and prosperity for granted. That may be a mistake. Without decades of European integration and unification, Europe would probably look very different today. It might look like the Asia Pacific region, where war between great powers has become possible again, where nationalist rage over territorial disputes limits governments' scope for compromise, and where an arms race is underway. The Asia Pacific is in dire need of something that the EU still has in abundance: trust and confidence among states, nurtured by common undertakings and institutions.
The biggest political challenge for European leaders today is therefore to keep the union intact. This includes a new deal with Britain, conceived as a forward-looking strategic engagement, not as a first step towards an exit. Secondly, they must do more so that Europeans can, in a changing world, live in peace and prosperity. The US is losing its dominance and its will to police the world is weakening: it needs partners. Europe must urgently step up its game. To become a relevant partner, the EU must become a coherent and efficient player. Foreign policy starts at home; and the world is not waiting.
Changing the focus of the Euro-debate from the economical to the political would also help to restore the EU's image in the eyes of the citizens. If Brussels becomes the place where European leaders meet to devise strategies to secure Europe's place in the world and to project interests and values, if the instruments put in place by the Lisbon treaties become infused with life, namely the EU's diplomatic service, the EU's image would fundamentally change.
In the 1950s, some European leaders worked hard to create what for many appeared impossible, a union made of states that were enemies for centuries. After the end of the Cold War, another generation of European politicians has deepened and enlarged the union, again against considerable opposition and skepticism. Today's generation of leaders is facing a similar challenge. If they manage to do both, keeping the EU intact and turning it into a global player, they will have deserved the Nobel Peace Prize not only once, but at least twice.