The end of the year always prompts questions about what the most important issue of the next year may be. It's a simplistic question, since every year sees many things happen and for each of us a different one might be important. But it is still worth considering what single issue could cause the world to change course. In my view, the most important place to watch in 2013 is Europe.
Taken as a single geographic entity, Europe has the largest economy in the world. Should it choose to do so, it could become a military rival to the United States. Europe is one of the pillars of the global system, and what happens to Europe is going to define how the world works. I would argue that in 2013 we will begin to get clarity on the future of Europe.
The question is whether the European Union will stabilize itself, stop its fragmentation and begin preparing for more integration and expansion. Alternatively, the tensions could intensify within the European Union, the institutions could further lose legitimacy and its component states could increase the pace with which they pursue their own policies, both domestic and foreign.
The Embattled European Project
It has been more than four years since the crisis of 2008 and about two years since the problems spawned by 2008 generated a sovereign debt crisis and a banking crisis in Europe. Since that time, the crisis has turned from a financial to an economic crisis, with Europe moving into recession and unemployment across the Continent rising above 10 percent. More important, it has been a period in which the decision-making apparatus created at the founding of the European Union has been unable to create policy solutions that were both widely acceptable and able to be implemented. EU countries have faced each other less as members of a single political entity than as individual nation-states pursuing their own national interests in what has become something of a zero-sum game, where the success of one has to come at the expense of another.
This can be seen in two ways. The first dimension has centered on which countries should bear the financial burden of stabilizing the eurozone. The financially healthier countries wanted the weaker countries to bear the burden through austerity. The weaker countries wanted the stronger countries to bear the burden through continued lending despite the rising risk that the loans will not be fully repaid. The result has been constant attempts to compromise that have never quite worked out. The second dimension has been class. Should the burden be borne by the middle and lower classes by reducing government expenditures that benefit them? Or by the elites through increased taxation and regulation?
When you speak with Europeans who support the idea that Europe is in the process of solving its problems, the question becomes: What problem are they solving? Is it the problem of the banks? The problem of unemployment? Or the problem of countries' inability to find common solutions? More to the point, European officials have been working on this problem for years now, and they are among the best and brightest in the world. Their inability to craft a solution is not rooted in a lack of good ideas or the need to think about the problem more. It is rooted in the fact that there is no political agreement on who will pay the price geographically and socially. The national tensions and the class tensions have prevented the crafting of a solution that can be both agreed upon and honored.
If the Europeans do not generate that sort of solution in 2013, it is time to seriously doubt whether a solution is possible and therefore to think about the future of Europe without the European Union or with a very weakened one. If, however, Europe does emerge with a plan that has general support and momentum behind it, then we might say that Europe is beginning to emerge from its crisis, and that, in turn, would be the single most important thing that happens in 2013.
At this point, a reasonable person will argue that I am ignoring the United States, which has different but equally significant economic problems and is also unable to generate consensus on how to solve them, as we have seen during the recent "fiscal cliff" affair, which will have many more iterations. But as valid as the comparison is on the financial level, it is not valid on the political level. The United States does not face the dissolution of the republic if it follows contradictory policies. The United States is more than two centuries old and has weathered far worse problems, including the Civil War and the Great Depression. The European Union is only about 20 years old in its current form, and this is its first significant crisis. The consequences of mismanaging the U.S. financial system are significant to say the least. But unlike Europe, the consequences are not an immediate existential threat.
The Other Costs of the Crisis
It is the political dimension that has become the most important, not the financial. It may well