STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And let's remember what's at stake, here. The United States has trade ties with Europe going back centuries, so a disaster there can have effects here. As if to provide a reminder, a prominent American financial firm, MF Global, has already gone under, in part because of bad bets on European debt. Some American officials are watching European efforts to scale back their exposure to trouble. The question is whether Europe's reforms will come quickly enough, as NPR's Eric Westervelt reports from Berlin.
ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Time and again, the financial markets have allowed Europe just enough time to come up with a seemingly endless series of minor, incremental steps that fail to solve the crisis. But now that the debt crisis has rocked the eurozone's third-largest economy, a key question is whether time is finally running out. Political scientist Pieter de Wilde is with Berlin's Social Science Research Center.
PIETER DE WILDE: Whether these countries will default, will be the eurozone or not, it's all up for grabs. I mean, it seems that if there is a solution, it has to be a muddling-through solution, but it's anybody's guess where this goes now.
WESTERVELT: Yet it's doubtful that muddling through, putting out one fire while another smolders will continue to work.
SONY KAPOOR: Things will get much worse before they get better - if they do. Eventually, the difficult questions will need to have to be answered by democratic means.
WESTERVELT: Sony Kapoor with the London economics think-tank Re-Define says those big, difficult questions include how and how quickly the eurozone will move toward closer fiscal and political union, will treaty changes happen to ensure that the economic and political fiasco occurring in Greece can never happen again, as well as questions about the role of the European Central Bank and structural reforms to promote growth.
KAPOOR: The best we can hope for is that the crisis would have moved from the acute loan where things look like they may blow up any second, to a more longer-term problem where growth has slowed, but it's important reforms are being taken, and one can see the light at the end of the tunnel, which is not the case now.
WESTERVELT: In the post-war era, it's always taken a crisis to get European countries to cooperate more closely. But this debt crisis is proving more severe, longer lasting and harder to solve than others, in part because of the European Union's weak central leadership. So de Wilde notes that has put pressure on the leaders of Germany and France, Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy, or Mer-kozy, as pundits now call the duo.
DE WILDE: It's been difficult for them to present in tandem, because France is obviously also in financial trouble. It is clearly the most powerful European country in economic terms - Germany - that either steps up to the plate and takes leadership, or allows Europe to falter.
WESTERVELT: Germany's chancellor has stepped up more of late. She pressured Italy and Greece to stick to its reform pledges, and at the recent G-20 summit, raised the possibility of ejecting Greece from the eurozone. Today, she called the euro crisis maybe Europe's most difficult hour since World War II. But overall, many economists see Merkel's proposed solutions and her cautious, slow approach as inadequate.
She has repeatedly drawn red lines, including rejecting the idea of collectivizing eurozone debt through jointly issued euro bonds. She's also fought against using the European Central Bank to buy up more bonds of debt-weakened countries. She wants more fiscal and political integration, but she advocates moving slowly. EU treaties, she argues, should be changed before implementing new controls. Analyst Kapoor says the eurozone does not have the luxury to wait.
KAPOOR: The size of the economic problem is now so big, that there is no longer a sensible solution possible within available political space. And this is where German redlines come in, which have effectively blocked any sensible economic solution that would work today.
WESTERVELT: There's also deep concern that Germany and its northern European allies continue to aggressively promote an austerity-first agenda. The only way out of the crisis, that theory goes, is to slash spending and benefits, no matter how difficult. That proposed way out has only widened the north-south split and sparked unrest as thousands in Greece and Spain in particular have taken to the streets to protest those painful cuts. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Berlin.
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