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 HAS EUROPE REACHED THE BREAKING POINT?

HAS EUROPE REACHED THE BREAKING POINT?

A refugee crisis, a Greek debt showdown, Russian aggression and terrorism in the streets. How 2015 has threatened to undo the European Union.

A few weeks ago, I visited the fence that made Hungary a symbol of European anxiety. Chain-link and razor wire, it slices through pastures as it traces Hungary's southern border. More than 100 miles long, it was constructed quickly this summer as refugees streamed into the country, heading toward Austria and Germany. Police officers and soldiers were stationed every few hundred yards, and they examined my passport at almost every checkpoint. They seemed bored, perhaps because the flood of refugees and migrants had mostly abated. The fence had sealed Hungary off, and that made Laszlo Toroczkai - the 37-year-old mayor of Asotthalom, a Hungarian farming town on the Serbian border, and a rising ultranationalist star of far-right European politics - very happy.

Before Hungary's government started building the fence, Toroczkai argued for months that something had to be done to stop the refugees. Once the fence was up, he posted his version of a ''Dirty Harry'' video on YouTube. Stone-­faced and wearing a black jacket, Toroczkai warns illegal immigrants to steer clear of his town. The video cuts to images of unsmiling Hungarian guards, patrolling the border on horseback and motorcycles. It even includes a map that shows migrants en route to Germany how they can skirt Hungary and go through Croatia and Slovenia instead.

''Hungary is a bad choice,'' Toroczkai says, staring into the camera. ''Asotthalom is the worst.''

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Place de la République in Paris. Credit Tomas Munita for The New York Times

It might seem odd that a chain-link fence could threaten the order of the European Union, but one of modern Europe's singular accomplishments is its open internal borders. The treaty that made this possible, known as the Schengen Agreement, began going into effect in 1995 and expanded to include 26 countries in and around the European Union. It immediately provided a potent symbol of both the ideals and the real benefits of European integration. Elites believed unity would guarantee peace and prosperity and dispel the demons of nationalism. Over time, the European Union built a rich and diverse economy, exerting global influence through the clout of its scale and the soft power of its liberal, democratic values - a Western superpower without the bellicosity or the laissez-faire hardheartedness of the United States. Workers' rights were protected. Generous social-welfare programs flourished. The open borders bound the member nations together in subtler ways, too: Italians could soon go skiing in Austria with ease and without a passport, or head to the Côte d'Azur for a swim as if Europe were all one country. Workers could commute between Brussels and Paris without hassle.

Hungary's southern fence was erected along its external borders with Serbia and Croatia, which are not Schengen countries. But it caused a chain reaction that shook European politics to the core, as the distinctions between internal and external borders blurred. First, it led to more fences. Neither Slovenia (which is a Schengen country) nor Croatia was fully prepared for the surge of frantic migrants and refugees suddenly diverted toward them. Slovenia quickly constructed its own fence on the Croatian border. Austria later began building a fence on its boundary with Slovenia and established other border controls, as did other countries. Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary said he was defending the Schengen area, while other leaders said these new barriers were intended to provide an orderly route north for refugees, not to block them. Nonetheless, the rapid proliferation of fences across a region defined by free movement was an unmistakable sign that the external Schengen borders had broken down and the founding values of the system were under terrible strain.

By the time of my visit, the broader question in Hungary and throughout the member nations was whether the European Union itself was falling apart. Twice in 11 months, Paris had been hit by vicious terrorist attacks, raising fears about European security and stirring anti-Muslim xenophobia. Europe's far right was gaining strength, including the National Front in France. Europe's undisputed leader, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, was in political trouble. Greece was still a financial mess. A demographic crisis loomed, given the rapid aging of many European countries. Out on the European periphery, Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, was making bloody mischief in Syria and Ukraine. And the United Kingdom was contemplating withdrawing from the union altogether.

The European Union was supposed to be an economic superpower, but after seven years it is still struggling to recover from the global economic crisis. Economic growth is sluggish at best (and uneven, given the divide between a more prosperous north and a debt-burdened south). Adjusting for inflation, the gross domestic product of the 19 countries now sharing Europe's common currency, the euro, was less in 2014 than it was in 2007. Widespread joblessness and diminishing opportunities confront an entire generation of young Europeans, especially in Spain, Italy, France and Greece. The economic malaise tinges everything: Young people resist marriage for lack of economic opportunity. Poorer European countries are experiencing brain drains as many of their best young professionals and college graduates move abroad. Numerous Greek doctors, for instance, now work in more prosperous Germany while Greece's health system is in crisis. Even as Toroczkai pushed back against migrants, he complained to me that too many young Hungarians had to leave for London or elsewhere to find work.

The migrants only accentuate the European paradox: A place of deepening pessimism for many of its own young people has become a beacon of hope and safety for migrants, many of them Syrian refugees who have been through the horrors of civil war. Many are young and educated, seemingly a timely fit for a region with an aging population. Except Muslim immigrants present a challenge to European ideals of tolerance, especially in a year of terror attacks, as far-right extremists and conservative political leaders like Orban warn that Europe's security and ''Christian values'' are threatened - a reminder of just how fragile the European system has become.

Currently composed of 28 member states, from Germany, the industrial giant, to Malta, the tiny archipelago, the European Union is a bureaucratic machine jerry-built in pursuit of a utopian dream, the post-World War II vision that a unified Europe would be a peaceful and prosperous Europe. Nationalism and extremism had led to Hitler and the Holocaust and, before that, centuries of war. The New Europe was supposed to make future wars impossible and create harmony. The reality never matched the ambition, but considerable accomplishments ensued: the world's largest single market; the open borders of the Schengen countries; the euro; and a progressive social and legal framework that has made the European Union a leader in environmental protection, renewable energy and human rights.

Modern Europe was put together incrementally, beginning with an industrial agreement in the early 1950s among six countries, with France and Germany at the center. Next came the Treaty of Rome in 1957, which created the European Economic Community, the European Union's forerunner, at that point encompassing only Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany. The Maastricht Treaty in 1992 introduced requirements and a timetable to establish the common currency. Other treaties gradually brought in more member states, drawn to European prosperity and security, including the Baltics and parts of Eastern Europe in 2004 and 2007, in a final triumph over the Cold War.

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Khalil Merroun, of the Évry-Courcouronnes mosque near Paris. Credit Tomas Munita for The New York Times

But then came the 2008 economic crisis, followed by the convulsive aftermath of the Arab Spring, followed by the aggression of a revanchist Russia. Europe's collaborative, consultative political style began to resemble indecisiveness. The inadequacy and weakness of the European Union's institutions were glaringly exposed. Washington was mostly focused elsewhere, and European leaders continued to practice the high art of muddling through, in hopes that the broader European economy would revive soon and bring brighter political prospects. Instead, 2015 became the year that pushed Europe to the brink.

It began on Jan. 7, with the year's first Paris terror attacks, when two French-Algerian brothers opened fire with automatic weapons inside the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. A third gunman, a criminal-turned-Islamist, later killed a police officer and stormed a kosher grocery. In total, 17 people were killed. But the focus quickly shifted southward to Greece. On Jan. 25, the Greeks staged a revolt, electing as prime minister a radical leftist, Alexis Tsipras, who famously refused to wear a tie. Just 40, Tsipras had promised to put an end to economic austerity, the German-led European Union policy of trying to promote growth by reducing national budget deficits through mandated tax increases, spending cuts and structural reforms. Yet debt levels had grown in Greece, unemployment remained above 20 percent and its economy over the past five years had contracted by 25 percent.

In February, Tsipras and his flamboyant finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, toured European capitals to urge Greece's creditors to change the terms of the loans that had kept their country afloat. Germany, Finland and other creditors thought Greece was ungrateful and resisting the tough reforms needed to reverse decades of bad governance. In late June, everything blew up. Unable to secure more bailout money, Tsipras called a surprise national referendum, asking Greek voters to decide on the latest offer from creditors. They voted ''no'' - to no avail. Greece effectively defaulted on an I.M.F. loan as the government began running out of money. Tsipras closed banks, put capital controls in place and finally capitulated in July. He signed a new bailout deal with creditors that included the same sort of austerity measures he had spent months fighting. In August, he resigned. And in September, he was re-elected, though now his job in part was to carry out the terms of the new deal. Austerity had prevailed, even if fewer and fewer people thought it worked.

But then came the 2008 economic crisis, followed by the convulsive aftermath of the Arab Spring, followed by the aggression of a revanchist Russia. Europe's collaborative, consultative political style began to resemble indecisiveness. The inadequacy and weakness of the European Union's institutions were glaringly exposed. Washington was mostly focused elsewhere, and European leaders continued to practice the high art of muddling through, in hopes that the broader European economy would revive soon and bring brighter political prospects. Instead, 2015 became the year that pushed Europe to the brink.

It began on Jan. 7, with the year's first Paris terror attacks, when two French-Algerian brothers opened fire with automatic weapons inside the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. A third gunman, a criminal-turned-Islamist, later killed a police officer and stormed a kosher grocery. In total, 17 people were killed. But the focus quickly shifted southward to Greece. On Jan. 25, the Greeks staged a revolt, electing as prime minister a radical leftist, Alexis Tsipras, who famously refused to wear a tie. Just 40, Tsipras had promised to put an end to economic austerity, the German-led European Union policy of trying to promote growth by reducing national budget deficits through mandated tax increases, spending cuts and structural reforms. Yet debt levels had grown in Greece, unemployment remained above 20 percent and its economy over the past five years had contracted by 25 percent.

In February, Tsipras and his flamboyant finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, toured European capitals to urge Greece's creditors to change the terms of the loans that had kept their country afloat. Germany, Finland and other creditors thought Greece was ungrateful and resisting the tough reforms needed to reverse decades of bad governance. In late June, everything blew up. Unable to secure more bailout money, Tsipras called a surprise national referendum, asking Greek voters to decide on the latest offer from creditors. They voted ''no'' - to no avail. Greece effectively defaulted on an I.M.F. loan as the government began running out of money. Tsipras closed banks, put capital controls in place and finally capitulated in July. He signed a new bailout deal with creditors that included the same sort of austerity measures he had spent months fighting. In August, he resigned. And in September, he was re-elected, though now his job in part was to carry out the terms of the new deal. Austerity had prevailed, even if fewer and fewer people thought it worked.

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Soldiers in the Grand Place central square in Brussels. Credit Tomas Munita for The New York Times

Merroun slipped out of his white burnoose and into his suit jacket, smiling as he settled into a chair. He had just finished Friday's lunchtime prayers. ''Five thousand people,'' he said, gazing out his office window as a throng of Muslim worshipers streamed out of the prayer hall. Outside his office, two black-jacketed bodyguards assigned by French officials sat in the hallway. The security detail had been with Merroun since the January attacks in Paris, which had a profound impact on France. Flaws were exposed in French security and intelligence gathering. Debates erupted over French secularism and freedom of expression. Distrust of French Muslims deepened. In response, Merroun and other religious leaders held interfaith gatherings to promote tolerance.

Merroun leaned forward in his chair. Terrorism is ''not jihad,'' he said. The jihad of one's self is about personal betterment and seeking greater understanding.

''Today, you did a great jihad by coming to see me,'' he said. ''You called yesterday, you took the Metro, it was raining and you came here for a noble cause, to inform people. And I also made an effort, a jihad: I listened to you, I welcomed you and tried to transmit a message to better inform people, to try and dispel misconceptions and spread our true message, thousands of kilometers away, in the United States.''

Merroun didn't discount the venom directed at Muslims or refugees - this explained his security detail - but he thought the sour public mood was rooted in broader frustrations, like the lack of jobs. ''So far, things have managed to remain relatively stable,'' he said.

Our interview finished up shortly after 2 o'clock. I took the train back into Paris with a colleague. That night, less than eight hours later, three teams of suicide bombers and other heavily armed radical Islamists attacked Paris, killing 130 people.

To see why the European Union is breaking down, you must look under the hood, and the place to do that is Brussels. Recently, along Rue Montoyer, one of the many streets lined with law firms and interest groups that lobby European institutions, I found Emily O'Reilly, 58, a native of Ireland who holds the title of ombudsman for the entire European Union.

That same morning, Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain had announced what he required to keep his country in the European bloc. During the British general elections in May, Cameron sought to appease anti-­Europe factions by promising to hold a referendum on whether Britain should remain in the European Union. A date for the vote has not been announced - it will happen at some point before the end of 2017 - and it is too soon to know in which direction voters will lean. But the possibility that Britain could leave is already stirring dread in Brussels, especially because public disgust with Euro­pean governance is also rising in France and even Germany.

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People gathering to pay their respects to victims of the November terrorist attacks in Paris. Credit Tomas Munita for The New York Times

''They want more Britain and less Europe,'' O'Reilly said, distilling the essence of the British revolt.

O'Reilly's job is to shine a light on the European system and redress a widely perceived lack of bureaucratic accountability. It is not a simple task, given the immensity and confusing powers of the European Union. She recently tried, and failed, to clearly explain to her husband the differences between the European Council, the Council of the European Union (sometimes called the Council of Ministers) and the Council of Europe. I mentioned that I was trying to figure the system out. ''If you do that, come back,'' she said. ''Tell us all and make your fortune here.''

O'Reilly is not naturally cynical about the European Union. She left school in 1975, two years after Ireland joined the European Economic Community. As a condition of membership, Irish lawmakers passed a new labor law that helped eliminate gender discrimination in the workplace. Those laws enabled O'Reilly to become a journalist before moving into her government career. European governance literally changed her life for the better. Now, though, young women and men in Europe are staring at joblessness, and the European Union is regarded as part of the problem.

''What has to happen is that the experience I had as a young woman, as a young girl back in the '70s, has to be replicated for the young girls in Greece and Italy and in Eastern Europe,'' she said. ''That hope and that potential that the E.U. held out for my generation has to be given to others.''

Critics often use ''Brussels'' as shorthand for the whole sprawling European project, hence the ''Brussels Bubble.'' There is a basic institutional structure, with a certain degree of checks and balances. The European Commission is roughly equivalent to an executive branch. Then there is an elected legislative branch, the European Parliament. A third branch, the European Council, consists of the elected leaders of the 28 member states (and shares a building with the Council of the European Union, a forum for national ministers to hash out various shared policies). Beneath those main branches is a labyrinthine bureaucracy that in flowchart form would resemble an M.C. Escher print. The overall processes of lawmaking and governing can be elusively fluid and deliberately opaque, which is one reason the credibility of European governance is so easily attacked. Many ordinary people have little idea how it works.

The European Union has no equivalent to the United States Constitution but is a product of the succession of treaties ratified by member states, a process closer to that of the Articles of Confederation, America's original governing document, which ultimately failed. If these treaties have steadily pushed Europe toward greater integration, the job is far from complete.

European Union institutions have vast regulatory powers over everything from data roaming to environmental standards to trade deals to antitrust rules. But power is not shared equally. The European Commission, for example, is supposed to enforce the bloc's treaties - yet it must sometimes tiptoe around big member states like France and Germany. And as a whole, the institutions often lack the structural power, political decisiveness and bureaucratic efficiency to act collectively when faced with big, unforeseen problems like the Greek crisis, the surge of migrants or the standoff with Putin over Ukraine. National leaders are often forced to decide these issues in marathon emergency meetings in Brussels at the European Council, and even then, only incremental progress is made. It is a perfect recipe for public cynicism: a system of intrusive regulators whose tentacles can spread into your personal life, even as leaders appear indecisive in the face of genuine crises.

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A Hungarian police officer patrolling the border with Serbia, where a fence has been erected to prevent the flow of illegal migrants. Credit Tomas Munita for The New York Times

Because the system is incomplete, workarounds are often needed to get things done. O'Reilly explained one element of the ad hoc system of power sharing that has grown up in Brussels with a term of art: ''trilogue.'' Trilogues are semiofficial meetings, often conducted with minimal transparency, of lawmakers from the European Parliament, representatives from national governments and bureaucrats from the European Commission. Together they hammer out legislation that is later put to a vote in the European Parliament and other Euro­pean Union institutions. It is back-room politics, Brussels-style. O'Reilly, who is investigating the practice, said many people think trilogues help cut through bureaucracy to get things done, but they also raise questions about transparency and a broader lack of checks and balances.

To many experts across Europe, this messy, opaque style of governance undermines the credibility of a European experiment intended to be a model of democracy. They say the solution to this arguably antidemocratic form of democracy is obvious: a new treaty ratified by all member states that would further consolidate political and financial authority in Brussels while improving systemic shortcomings. Or exactly the sort of dilution of national sovereignty that is now fueling far-right populist anger in Europe. Almost no one believes a new treaty could be approved anytime soon. A decade ago, when the European Union was trying to ratify a treaty that would establish a European Constitution, President Jacques Chirac of France supported the choice, in a national referendum, that would have given more authority to Brussels over a range of issues, from foreign policy to housing to fisheries. Voters in France shocked political elites by rejecting the Constitution, partly out of fear that the measure would erode French sovereignty. Soon after, voters in the Netherlands did the same thing.

''Ever since then, we've been on a slippery slope,'' Fredrik Erixon, the director of the European Center for International Political Economy in Brussels, told me. ''Every elected national leader knows there is no political mileage to try to lead on European issues or push for more integration. The European idea is now a rapidly declining trend.''

Five days after the attacks in Paris, I met Laszlo Toroczkai in his office in Asotthalom. He told me he respected Islam but found it unsuitable for Europe. ''My third daughter is about to be born,'' he said. ''I'm not bringing up my daughter to marry into a Muslim man's harem.''

It was the sort of overtly bigoted remark that has become more common in Hungary and elsewhere in Europe (and not so unfamiliar in the United States too). Many Hungarians mocked his anti-­illegal-immigrant video, but Toroczkai's stature rose within Europe's far right. Earlier in November, he was invited to speak at a Polish Independence Day rally in Warsaw, where thousands of far-right supporters waved flags and displayed banners with messages like ''Stop Islamization.'' Toroczkai told me that the Paris attacks - two of whose perpetrators apparently passed through Greece posing as refugees - had proved him correct.

If the migrant crisis had exposed fault lines in the Schengen system, this second Paris attack threatened to demolish it. Some suspected terrorists had traveled to and from Syria. Others had seemingly moved freely back and forth between Brussels and Paris. Open borders now meant Europe was more open to terror.

''Migration is just going to lead to bloody conflict,'' Toroczkai said. ''European politicians will have to listen to public opinion, which is radicalizing all over Europe as a result of this migration crisis.''

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The European Commission's headquarters in Brussels. Credit Tomas Munita for The New York Times

Above all, the crisis, like the Hungarian fence, had underscored the fact that erasing borders never quite erased divisions among countries with different languages, customs and histories. The European Union expansion in 2004, which took in parts of Eastern Europe, stirred deep economic anxiety in France and contributed to the defeat the next year of the French effort to approve a European Union Constitution. Its opponents invoked the ''Polish plumber'' as a symbol of cheap outside labor that threatened the French working class. Now the arrival of migrants is again challenging European ideals.

Europe is not usually considered a continent of immigrants. When countries like France and West Germany recruited workers from Algeria and Turkey in the 1960s to fill labor shortages, the common expectation was that many of them would eventually return home. Anyone riding the subway in Paris can see that the French capital is one of the most diverse places in the world, yet France has struggled to absorb even second- and third-­generation French Muslims, often because of difficulty balancing Islam with French secularism. In Germany, Islam is managed in part through diplomacy; many imams are provided, by agreement, by a religious ministry of the Turkish government. France has a similar setup with Morocco, Algeria and other majority-Muslim countries.

The chief defender of European openness has been Merkel, but she has paid a political price. Far-right parties quickly made gains in the polls while her support dropped, and fellow conservatives criticized her sharply. (Germany eventually announced border restrictions on migrants entering the country.)

On Nov. 2, I traveled to Darmstadt, in south-­central Germany, to watch her conduct a meeting with hundreds of rank-and-file members of her conservative Christian Democratic Union party. An outpouring of German volunteers had helped migrants, but many here were concerned. A software engineer worried that the migrants would be an extra burden at a time when, he feared, Germany was losing its competitive edge. Another man bemoaned that Germany was losing its Christian values. Others lamented that there were not enough jobs or warned that towns and villages were already overwhelmed.

Merkel listened to each remark, dutifully took notes and then offered roughly the same response: We can do it, she said again and again. Germany has to lead on this. We will be fine. Everyone applauded, but the mood seemed heavy. There still didn't seem to be a plan. Afterward, I cornered an engineer named Martin Spruch, who had told Merkel that the rest of Europe had abandoned Germany on the matter of refugees. ''We cannot do this all alone,'' he told me.

Since the Paris attacks, President François Hollande of France has stood by the country's commitment to receive a modest number of refugees. Yet he has instituted border controls and warned that Europe must secure external borders or risk member countries sealing themselves off. And this, he added, would amount to a ''dismantling of the European Union.'' In early December, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front in France, scored major victories in regional elections, raising the once-unthinkable possibility that the far right has a chance at the presidency in 2017.

On the day I visited the Hungarian fence, I noticed a black van parked outside the town hall in Asotthalom. Inside was a small delegation of politicians from Belgium, led by Filip Dewinter, the leader of the far-right Vlaams Belang party. Belgium was reeling after investigators discovered that some of the suspected organizers of the Paris attacks lived only a few miles from the European Parliament. For days, the police locked down the city searching for suspects.

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Afghan immigrants at a former school near Bünde, Germany, which is now used as a refugee center. Credit Tomas Munita for The New York Times

Dewinter, whose party once notoriously used a photo of his teenage daughter in a bikini and a niqab as part of a ''Women Against Islamization'' campaign, had come to Hungary on a ''fact-­finding mission'' about the fence and to film videos. His party had fared poorly in Belgium's last election, but he thought the combination of the migrant crisis and the Belgian connection to the Paris attacks boded well for him. He thought the fence was a great idea.

Eight days after the Paris attacks, I walked through the Maidan, the central square of Kiev and the symbolic heart of Ukraine. This is where Ukraine's Maidan revolution began two years earlier, when people took to the streets, furious over a promise broken by President Viktor Yanukovych. He had backed away from signing a political and economic ''association agreement'' with Europe and turned toward Russia. Images of the protests, which spread to other cities, were carried around the world and showed crowds of young Ukrainians, waving European Union flags, desperate to be part of the West.

Today was the anniversary. It rained on this day two years ago, and it was raining now, but otherwise everything felt different. Ukraine had endured two years of war, economic collapse and political upheaval, with thousands dead and more than a million displaced. Europe had stumbled into a new Cold War and learned the costs of misjudging Russia. Ukraine was never supposed to be a problem for Europe; in fact, it was thought to be the opposite of that, a chance to expand Europe's orbit and stabilize its periphery - on its own terms and on the strength of its soft power.

For centuries, power politics in Europe meant guns and wars (and the influence of the Vatican, given the sometimes belligerent role of past popes). But the European Union has been a relatively pacifist body, most prominently when France and Germany strongly opposed the George W. Bush administration's invasion of Iraq. Britain and France are still military powers, and the Italian Navy remains active in the Mediterranean, but the European Union has sought to exercise global influence through its economic strength and democratic values. Leaders saw trade and closer ties as enough to maintain stability on the European borders.

Ukraine changed that. First, Putin shattered Europe's sense of security after the Maidan protests grew violent. The police attacked; protesters died. Under pressure, Yanukovych fled to Russia. Putin responded by seizing Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula where Russia leased a port for its Black Sea fleet. Then pro-­Russia separatists, backed by Russian forces, escalated the war in Ukraine's industrial east, where sporadic shooting still continues despite a fragile cease-fire - even as skeptics say neither side really wants to implement the accord. In the midst of all this, Ukraine elected a coalition government that signed the association agreement with the European Union and pledged to carry out reforms. Ukraine's government is also negotiating for visa-free access to European Union countries. That would be a tangible success, signaling closer ties, but those talks have been complicated by European concerns about border security after the Paris attacks. The government is also trying to satisfy European demands that would allow Ukraine to enter a free-trade pact with the European Union.

But Ukrainian reformers want more European involvement, money and commitment, even a path to eventual European Union membership, as they try to rebuild a country still hobbled by corruption, dominated by oligarchical interests, divided ethnically and locked in a confrontation with Russia. Their argument is that Ukraine can never become secure or democratic without Europe, and that Europe can never be secure, or truly fulfill its ideals, without a stable, democratic Ukraine.

''Ukraine needs this success,'' Ostap Semerak, a pro-­reform lawmaker, told me. ''And the European Union needs this success.''

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A memorial to people killed during protests in Kiev, Ukraine. Credit Tomas Munita for The New York Times

Europe itself, though, is increasingly ambivalent. Russia, not Ukraine, has long been the greater concern. Led by the Germans, Europe long pursued a foreign policy rooted in the belief that economic interdependence with Russia would ensure political stability, just as it had between once-mortal enemies like France and Germany. Russia sold natural gas to Europe. Europe sold machinery and luxury goods to Russia. Europe's east, meanwhile, inevitably became a place of geopolitical competition, as new member states like Lithuania and Poland regarded the integration of Ukraine in some fashion as a security priority.

Europe's internal crises are now dominating its agenda, with some leaders eager to normalize relations with Russia and effectively return to business as usual. Merkel and Hollande are trying to secure a lasting peace agreement between Russia and Ukraine, but European attention has shifted to Syria, refugees and terrorism. Hollande is focused on trying to put together a coalition against the Islamic State - one that would include Russia. Merkel traveled to Istanbul to woo President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey - despite her prior criticism of his authoritarian impulses - and in November, the European Union agreed to pay three billion euros to Turkey to help stanch the flow of migrants pouring across Turkish borders. It even reopened talks about Turkey's long-stalled bid to join the European Union. Europe had dumped soft-power diplomacy for a scrambling, even desperate, embrace of realpolitik.

I visited a handful of reformers and analysts in Kiev during the Maidan anniversary weekend, and Europe's sudden overtures to Russia had not gone unnoticed. Anxious scenarios circulated: A Europe desperate to strike at terrorists might cut a deal for Putin's help (because his military was also now involved in Syria), possibly ending the economic sanctions put on Russia in response to its aggression in Ukraine or making concessions in the peace talks.

During the anniversary on the Maidan, people walked slowly in the rain, stopping at different memorials. Two teenage girls huddled under an umbrella, crying as they stood beside rows of photographs of people who died. ''Mostly, Europe doesn't care what is happening in Ukraine,'' Anne Levchuk, who said she was 17, told me. ''They can't really feel what we feel.''

The fundamental uncertainty about Europe's future is when prosperity will return. Will things soon turn around? Or is Europe in the midst of a crippling decline similar to Japan's lost decade? The European Central Bank is trying to play the role of savior - pumping money into the financial system - but the question is whether it, alone, can pull it off.

European countries once managed to have strong economies and generous social safety nets, as social democracy became Europe's political mainstream. That formula collapsed in the 2008 economic crisis, though even today Europe is divided on where to place the blame - a bloated welfare state or decades of corrupt governance, or both. Europe's left defended the old socialistic model even as the consensus in Berlin and Brussels had long since shifted to pro-market, ''neo-liberal'' policies. Greece became a battleground for different economic visions but also a test case of how Europe handles an effectively bankrupt state in its midst, with a legacy of political corruption.

Ten days after the Paris attacks, I went to Greece to visit Alexis Tsipras. He adjusted the two wing chairs in his office, catching the light through the window, and invited me to sit down. Tsipras wore a blazer and khakis, still tieless, still prime minister. He seemed weary, even a touch forlorn, staring down at his lap. Can an entire country seem exhausted?

''I think it's not so easy to change Europe when you are alone,'' Tsipras said, speaking in practiced English.

Tsipras is beaten, but he still thinks he is right. The euro crisis is not solved. Europe has a common currency but not a common financial system. Greek debt is still unsustainable. The ''recipe,'' as he calls austerity, has been proved wrong. Why, he asks, has economic growth and employment recovered so much faster in the United States than in Europe? He still attacks the consensus in Berlin and Brussels as straitjacketed economics enforced by creditors, in defiance of logic, unable to produce real growth. Many economists agree. But Tsipras's critics argue that he offered no real alternative other than old-style Greek clientelism. He misplayed his confrontation with Berlin and Brussels. (They did, too.) His job now is to administer what he regards as the wrong medicine, hope his country doesn't implode while he makes it attractive to private investors and then try to recover and ''regain our sovereignty.''

''We saw that there is no other way,'' he said. ''Our European partners and Germany were very, very tough.''

The Greek crisis was never only about the country's problems; it was also about Europe's power equations, as well as volatility in the financial markets. To renegotiate Greece's debt and make real concessions meant possibly opening the door to renegotiations with debtor countries like Italy, Portugal and Spain. Other creditors would be staring at new liabilities and infuriated voters. Even the Baltic countries and the Eastern Europeans had more contempt than sympathy for Greece, because of Greece's higher standard of living. A crisis rooted in economics was fought in the realm of politics, infused by moralism (Lazy Greeks versus Mean Germans) and national self-interests. A common currency intended to bring nations together had done the opposite.

It might never have been realistic to envision a United States of Europe. Yet the prospect of a weaker Continent is something that should alarm Washington; Europe and America are trade partners, are bound together militarily by NATO and share a commitment to democracy. Many European bureaucrats and officials cling to the belief that crisis has always made Europe stronger and more integrated. Yet the optimism that carried the project forward to stop wars and create prosperity is dwindling. Now the challenge of the Euro­pean Union is whether it can succeed in continuing to bring a better and more secure life to a larger and more diverse group of citizens. Has the European Union reached the practical limits of the ideal of an ever-closer union? Europe's binding glue now might well be fear - fear of the unknown, of what will happen if Greece does tumble out of the eurozone, or if Britain chooses to leave the European Union.

Tsipras said he still considers himself pro-­Europe, as most Greeks are, and took heart from rising leftist parties in Portugal and Spain. ''Greece is not alone anymore,'' he noted. But he described Brussels as ''the kingdom of bureaucracy,'' a place where ''there is a lack of democracy - the most important decisions are taken behind closed doors.'' It might have sounded like resentment from someone who tried and failed to knock down the palace gate. But it was what I heard everywhere I went. Indeed, Tsipras seemed to capture the European moment.

''I am very, very skeptical for the future,'' he said.

By Jim Yardley, The New York Times Magazine

Jim Yardley is the Rome bureau chief for The Times.


 
 
 
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