"There is a remedy which, if it were generally and spontaneously adopted by the great majority of people in many lands, would as if by a miracle transform the whole scene, and would in a few years make all Europe, or the greater part of it... free and... happy. What is this sovereign remedy?.. We must build a kind of United States of Europe."
These are the words of Winston Churchill extracted from his historical speech at the University of Zurich back in 1946 in the aftermath of World War II.
Churchill was calling on the peoples of Europe to look to their common cultural heritage and build on it, bypassing nationalism and fascism, out of which they had suffered two devastating wars.
He thought that both the US and the USSR should serve as guarantors of this project. He even went as far as to envision Germany and France being in its core.
It is impressive to observe how accurate Churchill was when you see the historical course of the European Union. For more than 60 years, the Europeans not only did succeed in overcoming nationalism and fascism, but also developed unique ideals and structures and to a large extent, prospered in this historical process of unification in diversity.
And even if Europe never made it to "a kind of United States", it did evolve as a chain of economies, societies and cultures, which look today strongly interconnected and complementary to one another.
But now recession, public and private debt, widening social inequalities within the continent and an essential change in the political role of European institutions have brought to the fore its weaknesses and made a breaking point in that chain visible for the first time.
| Inside Story - European debt crisis
The continuing talk of a possible "Grexit", the return of the IMF in the continent, the rise of poverty and unemployment and the reappearance of reactionary politics are strong indications of the dangers lying ahead. For the defendants of social cohesion, democracy and the welfare state this is not news.
Right after the Maastricht Treaty in the 1990s and in the course of 20 years since then, it was regularly recorded in statistics that some Europeans were gradually but increasingly folding back to national politics more and more. Skepticism (conservative or progressive) and divisionism was winning the hearts and minds of many.
The elites and the Eurocrats are treating Europe as a top-down project and this is not making Europeans happy. While growth was guaranteed, European institutions were seen as adjustment mechanisms with the aim to help social and economic co-operation in the process of integration. But once the economic crisis started, it all turned into something much more essential and by all means dangerous.
The imposed policies of fiscal discipline, privatisation of public assets and the dismantling of the welfare state are not just adjustment measures in the function of sovereign states or corrections of financial illnesses. They constitute essential changes of how social and political relations are shaped within the countries and the continent as a whole.
Not accidentally did the "indignados" call for "real democracy" last year, and labour unions in more than 23 countries and over a thousand events against austerity last week, on November 14, asked the elites to "listen to what the citizens and workers have to say, and to change course", that is, end austerity.
Democratic decision-making, social cohesion and the welfare state are inventions deeply rooted within the imagination of the vague European identity next to economic co-operation and prosperity. As much as the European Union's aim is to create a stable economic environment in the game of global competition for capital, that much it is the expression of the will of the peoples to live in democratic, just and cohesive societies.
By reducing the European project into a neoliberal exercise for bankers and capitalists, where human lives are treated as numbers and democratic consensus is minimised to the lowest possible degree is really to break one of the pillars upon which the whole project lies: The social contract.
A historical date
And that is precisely why November 14 marks a historical date, for it brought to the fore the issue of democratic legitimisation in a new way. Workers, pensioners, students and the unemployed marched all over Europe en masse, declaring that they will not be reduced to impersonal numbers in excel files in Brussels and they will not fall back to nationalism and introversion.
"Debts are not shrinking, growth is not returning, societies of the south are suffering as poverty and unemployment rates are climbing at an unprecedented scale."
By shouting "enough" and "we're all Greeks now", the workers defined the real division currently at play in the continent. Not between the productive north and the lazy south, or the disciplined Germans against the undisciplined Greeks, but the division between capital and labour, the elites and the people, technocracy against democracy.
I probably have to explain now why Churchill is quoted in this article. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the enlargement of the EU - which contains now 27 states in East and West - the continent looks so much different than what he and other conservative or progressive politicians of his times could ever imagine. The addition of a part of the East created a periphery of cheap unregulated labour with weak, if not non-existent welfare policies.
The same neoliberal model is proposed now for the countries of the south. If implemented, it will lead to a continent which would be beyond recognition even for the conservatives of the first half of the 20th century. Until now, no generation of European politicians had questioned social cohesion as being one of the foundations of the whole project. But the current conservative leadership in Europe does, mindless of the risks its ideological orthodoxy poses.
After five consecutive years of recession in Greece and the South and two years of the most radical austerity ever attempted, it is crystal clear that the attempted neoliberal reform is not sustainable. Debts are not shrinking, growth is not returning and the societies of the south are suffering as poverty and unemployment rates are climbing at an unprecedented scale.
Following the Arab Spring of 2011, the European Autumn of 2012 is slowly creating the conditions for the development of a movement, which aims to change the agenda. And if it succeeds, it could become a catalyst for positive social change not only in Europe but all over the world.
Matthaios Tsimitakis is a journalist based in Athens.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.