Everything seems possible in Europe at the moment: collapse or breakthrough, decadence or Renaissance. Some speak of the break-up of the euro, others of a whole new level of integration. Is solidarity now at an end – or, conversely, is it set for an unprecedented expansion through Eurobonds or unlimited bond purchases by the European Central Bank?

Never have we been so close to a ‘domestic’ policy for Europe; the new governments in Spain, Italy or Greece are infinitely more important for the Germans than the new grand coalition in the federal state of Berlin.

At the same time such unaccustomed closeness is bringing out venom and menace: the clumsy triumphant talk, à la Volker Kauder, of German dominance, the irritable and aggressive reactions in London. Europe, one feels, is standing at a threshold, a turning point. Now’s the time to ask what it’s all about.

It helps to step back from it – maybe even a few thousand kilometres. In a coffee shop in the Pakistani city of Lahore, the German visitor has asked enough questions about Pakistan. Now it’s the turn of the man he’s speaking with to ask a few questions about Germany. One especially preoccupies him.

“Are the Germans not famous as engineers?” “Yes.” “Then they can surely build wonderful weapons?” “Yes, it’s probably true.” "But why then don’t you have nuclear bombs? The British and the French have them. How can you put up with others having the bombs, but not you?"

Hormone-free politics

In the world in which he lives, what he now hears is completely fantastical: that having its own nuclear weapons is not an issue at all in Germany; for Pakistan, the nuclear-armed neighbour is its arch-enemy, India. For us that neighbour is France, and France’s nuclear armoury doesn’t matter to us in the slightest.

We don’t worry about France’s weapons, but about its credit rating. And we don’t worry that this rating is too good, but that it could be too poor. This turns the historical experience of many centuries upside down. For ninety percent of humanity, such a political environment is inconceivable.

The post-heroic, hormone-free politics that the Europeans have developed over the past few decades are much more than merely a consequence of its war-torn past. It’s a shared form of life, a way that countries and peoples have of talking to each other, which in the crisis must be extended into new territory: into the field of economic management and budgeting.

For this way of life there’s a seemingly unsophisticated and sentimental – a Helmut Kohl-like, as it were – yet very precise image: Europe is a family. Family means that there is here a natural, inherent solidarity that cannot be nullified by misconduct. No amount of mismanagement can turn the Greeks into strangers.

Egotistical Brits, domineering Germans

However, each family does have its own method of exerting moral pressure on the black sheep and, for instance, compelling the alcoholic cousin to go in for rehab. Nor is it pleasant to be dependent on relatives; it can even be much more unpleasant than being dependent on a bank.

The peculiar blend of comfort and brutality with which Sarkozy and Angela Merkel chastised the heads of the heavily indebted countries at the Cannes summit bears unmistakable family traits, and no one likes being treated to this kind of tough love.

Hence, there’s something else bound up in the family model; you might call it the end of diplomacy. Family is a relatively informal zone: one doesn’t bother with politeness.

This directness is also increasingly shaping the discourse in Europe. However unpleasant, sometimes repellent the rows over lazy southerners, egotistical Brits or domineering Germans, they’re also the expression of a new intimacy. One has been meddling too long in the other’s affairs, has his hand in the Treasury or his foot on the brake.

Curiosity and longing

The closeness of the relationship means there’s a lot of potential for getting hurt. Yet this is no relapse into the 19th Century, no return of old demons from the World War or the time between the wars; it’s just the creaking, hissing, and rattling of an experiment into the future.

The current official strategies and justifications for Europe work, in contrast, more with fear or coercion, with an automatism derived from the philosophy of history and intimidating “world-historical” scenarios.

The success of the EU and its political philosophy is far from assured. On the contrary: the forces opposing it haven’t been this strong in decades. But the European project is something special, a historic special case.

From Lahore in any event, from a divided sub-continent bristling with weapons, where men are still men and bombs are still bombs, this Europe is gazed on with incredulous amazement. And yet with a little curiosity and longing, too.

Translated from the German by Anton Baer