A European Civil War: The American Crisis Comes To Europe

03/07/2011 19:55 BST | Updated 02/09/2011 10:12 BST

The European debt crisis is a sign of a much bigger conflict within the European Union. It is a battle for what Europe is and what it should do. And, more importantly, where the power truly rests; Brussels or national governments.

For four long, tedious, blood soaked years in the 1860s, the United States engaged in a brutal internal conflict over slavery and the role of the Federal Government. The years 1861 - 65 unleashed a barbaric tempest of war and destruction; the premise of the conflict asked an innocent question over State sovereignty and rights. The Confederacy declared it was their unalienable right to maintain the institutionalisation of slavery, as a means to provide labour to their cotton industry. Northerners, however, saw slavery as abhorrent, grotesque and against the true spirit of America. The Federal government had the political power to overrule the States.

In April 8, 1864 the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibited slavery and involuntary servitude. A year later, in 1865, 600,000 people were dead and the American Civil War was over. But what does a conflict, nearly 150 years ago, have to do with the modern European Union? Surprisingly, there is a correlation.

The European debt crisis is the first major internal dilemma for the European Union. It is a test, which will determine whether or not the Union will survive; a similar fate Abraham Lincoln warned about at Gettysburg. There is great uncertainty about the Euro as a currency and the European project as a whole because a default, by either Greece, Ireland, Portugal or Spain, has the potential to destroy the entire European banking system. Decades of stability, prosperity and wealth could vanish if this financial crisis fractured the foundations upon which the new Europe was built on. As Margaret Thatcher once said to the United States Congress, Europe experienced the 'greatest transformation since the fall of Rome.' And this new Rome is currently burning.

A solution has been constructed by the European Central Bank; a single economic policy with a Finance Ministry of Europe. To achieve a successful implementation of the ECB plan, Eurozone countries would have to concede economic sovereignty to the European Union. Potentially, this would be the beginning of a United States of Europe. But there is one problem: European citizens hold national pride so dear. I cannot envision the populis of Ireland, Greece or Portugal conceding their national sovereignty to Europe, especially after toxic and political damaging IMF-ECB bailout packages. Ireland was once among the great pro-European citizenry in Europe and now it is the most hostile. There are persistent rumours of Greece leaving the Euro and, potentially, the European Union too. The Treaty of Lisbon concludes any departure from the Eurozone requires succeeding from the Union itself. Commentators play down any significance of a possible member leaving; in 1860, South Carolina left the United States of America. Less than a year later, another ten States followed. Greece could provide the means for others, such as Ireland, to leave as well.

Granted, this is a difficult analogy to make. After all, I'm comparing a military conflict to an economic crisis, but it originates to a central and similar argument. What is the role, or duty, of a continental government? If it is to exist, then it is to exert some authority. When the smoke settled, guns were silenced and the soldiers went home from war, the American people granted their Federal Government the power to administrate the reconstruction of the South. The North not only won the military campaign, but also successful articulated the argument that the final arbiter was, indeed, the Federal Government. However, its actions were required to be benevolent, not oppressive. In the 21st Century, Europe must answer the similar question, when dealing with the sovereignty debt crisis; who truly has the authority to solve the problems?

The European narrative has many chapters in its rich history and many more to come. An American friend of mine once described contemporary Europe as similar to the United States, before the end of the civil war: a continent sure of its destiny, but not on the path of projection. Both Europe and America are experiments; experiments that are routinely tested. The United States could've easily ended the civil war within months and recognised the Confederate States, thus sparing hundreds and thousands of lives, but it chose not to. Europe could spare uncertainty in the financial markets by aligning economies and banking systems under a single European umbrella. But is there an European Abraham Lincoln, with the stomach to exert such fortitude and save the European Union? That is the question, which Europe must answer.