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Growing Economic Crisis Threatens the Idea of One Europe

The leaders of the European Union gathered Sunday in Brussels in an emergency summit meeting that seemed to highlight the very worries it was designed to calm: that the world economic crisis has unleashed forces threatening to split Europe into rival camps.

An urgent call from Hungary for a large bailout for newer, Eastern members was bluntly rejected by Europe’s strongest economy, Germany, and received little support from other countries. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, facing federal elections in September, said countries must be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

“Saying that the situation is the same for all Central and Eastern European states, I don’t see that,” Mrs. Merkel told reporters. She spoke after Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany of Hungary warned, “We should not allow that a new Iron Curtain should be set up and divide Europe.”

With uncertain leadership and few powerful collective institutions, the European Union is struggling with the strains this crisis has inevitably produced among 27 countries with uneven levels of development.

The traditional concept of “solidarity” is being undermined by protectionist pressures in some member countries and the rigors of maintaining a common currency, the euro, for a region that has diverse economic needs. Particularly acute economic problems in some newer members that once were part of the Soviet bloc have only made matters worse.

Europe’s difficulties are in sharp contrast to the American response. President Obama has just announced a budget that will send the United States more deeply into debt but that also makes an effort to redistribute income and overhaul health care, improve education and combat environmental problems.

Whether Europe can reach across constituencies to create consensus, however, has been an open, and suddenly pressing, question.

“The European Union will now have to prove whether it is just a fair-weather union or has a real joint political destiny,” said Stefan Kornelius, the foreign editor of the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. “We always said you can’t really have a currency union without a political union, and we don’t have one. There is no joint fiscal policy, no joint tax policy, no joint policy on which industries to subsidize or not. And none of the leaders is strong enough to pull the others out of the mud.”

Thomas Klau, Paris director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, an independent research and advocacy group, said, “This crisis affects the political union that backs the euro and of course the E.U. as a whole, and solidarity is at the heart of the debate.”

The crisis also has implications for Washington, which wants a European Union that can promote common interests in places like Afghanistan and the Middle East with financial and military help.

“All of that is in doubt if the cornerstone of the E.U. — its internal market, economic union and solidarity — is in question,” said Ronald D. Asmus, a former State Department official who runs the Brussels office of the German Marshall Fund.

The problems are basically twofold: within the inner core of nations that use the euro as their common currency, which together have an economy roughly the size of the United States’; and within the larger European Union.

The 16 nations that use the euro — introduced in 1999, and one of the proudest European accomplishments — must submit to the monetary leadership of the European Central Bank. That keeps some members hardest hit by the economic downturn, like Ireland, Spain, Italy and Greece, from unilaterally taking radical steps to stimulate their economies.

Germany once vowed never to bail out weaker members in return for giving up its strong national currency, the deutsche mark. But German leaders are now faced with the unpalatable prospect of having to put German money at risk to bail out less responsible partners that do not adhere to European fiscal rules.

Within the larger European Union, fissures are growing between older members and newer ones, especially those that lived under the yoke of Soviet socialism. Some countries of Central Europe, like the Czech Republic and Poland, are doing relatively well. Others, including Hungary, Romania and the Baltic states, are in a state of near-meltdown.

But only two newer members — tiny Slovenia and Slovakia — are protected by being among the countries that use the euro, and there was little support on Sunday for changing the rules to allow more to join quickly.

Many new members have seen their currencies plummet against the euro. That has made their debt repayments to European banks, their primary lenders, a much greater burden even as the global recession has meant a plunge in orders from consumers in the West. Some countries are asking for aid, both from their European partners and from the International Monetary Fund, to prop up their currencies and the banks.

While Western European countries are reluctant, with their own problems both at home and among the countries using the euro, there is a deep interconnectedness in any case.

Much of the debt at risk in Eastern Europe is on the books of euro zone banks — especially ones in Austria and Italy. The same is true of problems farther afield, in Ukraine, which is not yet a member.

Capitalist model "tarnished" in Eastern Europe

Having watched the Soviet Union collapse, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe embraced the liberal, capitalist model as the price of integration with Europe. That model is now badly tarnished, and the newer members feel adrift.

Before the larger European summit meeting on Sunday, the Poles called an unprecedented meeting of nine of the new member nations in the East to discuss common grievances.

Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek of the Czech Republic, which holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, tried to ease tensions, insisting that no member would be left “in the lurch.”

“We do not want any dividing lines; we do not want a Europe divided along a north-south or east-west line, pursuing a beggar-thy-neighbor policy,” Mr. Topolanek said.

But his Hungarian colleague, Mr. Gyurcsany, called for a special European Union fund of up to $241 billion to protect the weakest members. His government circulated a paper on Sunday suggesting that Central Europe’s refinancing needs this year could total $380 billion.

“Failure to act,” the paper said, “could cause a second round of systemic meltdowns that would mainly hit the euro zone economies.”

Mrs. Merkel opposed an undifferentiated package, although she suggested on Thursday that targeted help might be offered to specific countries, like Ireland.

Governments of the countries of the European Union have already spent a total of $380 billion in bank recapitalizations and put up $3.17 trillion to guarantee banks’ loans and try to get credit moving again.

On Friday, the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development, the European Investment Bank and the World Bank said they would jointly provide $31.1 billion to support Eastern European nations, but much more will be needed.

Mr. Klau, of the European Council on Foreign Relations, sees a worrying loss of faith in a certain brand of capitalism. “It’s politically dangerous there since they’ve just emerged from an ultraregulated and stifling system, were confronted with shock therapy that created great hardship, and are just beginning to recover and stabilize,” he said. “Now they’re thrown back into an economic and political cauldron.”

The new members are finding that their European partners are putting their own national interests ahead of “collective and necessary solidarity,” Mr. Klau said.

Charles Grant, director of the Center for European Reform, a research group in London, is more sanguine, however. “My expectation is that the euro zone countries, out of pure self-interest, will bail each other out,” he said. “For Central and Eastern Europe it is too early to say there won’t be solidarity. But non-E.U. countries in the east — particularly Ukraine — seem to be the No. 1 worry.”

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