They say that those the gods wish to destroy, they first send mad. That would be one explanation for the responses to the series of crises that have afflicted Europe over the last year. Riots left inner cities across Britain resembling battle zones. Greece teetered on the brink of such social chaos that there were dark hints that the army might step in, returning the home of democracy to the grip of the colonels once again. The markets humbled economies and forced governments from office in Dublin, Madrid, Lisbon and Rome, while the mighty eurozone threatened to plunge the whole world into another recession. Even that social democratic nirvana, Scandinavia, proved it was not immune to terror and immigration scaremongering, after Anders Behring Breivik shot and killed 77 people last July and a party called the True Finns rose from near obscurity to become an inspiration to the far right across the continent.
Perhaps Europe's deities, and especially those given to mischief-making like Dionysus and Loki, have been at work. For at nearly every turn, leaders have responded to these cataclysmic events in the same way - with denial. Not all did so, but when Britain's youth demonstrated why they are such excellent guests in Mediterranean resorts by going on drunken, drug-fuelled rampages and marking their commitment to the culture of consumerism by liberating as many electrical and designer fashion goods as they could from retail outlets that were not strictly open for business, many right-minded commentators agreed that what these people needed was more: more love, more indulgence, more understanding, more benefits, more respect.
Greece's parlous finances may well be attributed to the actions of irresponsible (not to mention corrupt) politicians, but ordinary Greeks can be forgiven for feeling outrage at the austerity measures being forced on them by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and by foreign, even if fellow European, governments. Their country and their heritage are up for sale - one would not risk a bet on Athens's greatest monument not ultimately being renamed the "Walmart Parthenon" should a continental firm not come forward to sponsor it (although the "Morrison's Marbles" or "Carrefour Acropolis" sound scarcely better). One round of cuts is followed by another, any fat long trimmed as the knife approaches the bone. Yet when Greece's then-prime minister, George Papandreou, had the audacity to propose a referendum on continuing the measures, he was quickly put in his place and his days in office were numbered. Of course the people should not have their say! A programme that may reduce levels of welfare provision to those Homer might have recognised when he was writing The Odyssey, and which may make the simple life enjoyed by one of his characters, the swineherd Eumaeus, once again an attractive proposition to his descendants, must be implemented. Never mind that it may bring what Europe never expected to see on the streets of one of its capitals again - revolution, violence and chaos.
But the brutal treatment experienced by Greece's prime minister was just one example of how those elected to represent whole populations had to bend to the demands of small coteries of hitherto obscure financial operatives: the rating agencies, who at the stroke of a pen could and did downgrade countries' bills of economic health, and the traders, who see no value in anything they cannot use to line their pockets, and who insist they bear no moral responsibility for the havoc they wreak on the lives of the many for whom the world of stocks and shares is as illusory as their hopes of winning the lottery. The tribunes of the people gnashed their teeth at their humiliations and their defenestrations. In Dublin, exit Fianna Fail, with their lowest share of the vote since 1923. Out went the Socialists in Lisbon and Madrid; and all Silvio Berlusconi's masterly manoeuvrings could not stop his finally being forced to step down, serenaded as he made his way to depart by car by a choir performing the Hallelujah Chorus. None of these could complain if the moneylenders had brought the temples down around their heads, however; for they had invited them in the first place, and worshipped alongside them this great power, the "market", that supposedly would not only naturally order society, if only it were allowed to operate unfettered, but would make everyone wealthy too.
Yet despite the destruction wrought by the obsession with "markets" and insistence upon choices many have no interest in making (as in Britain's National Health Service, a triumph of universal provision that neoliberal economists of both Labour and Conservative stripe have been trying to dismantle for nearly two decades), there are those who argue that the problem is that we have been insufficiently slavish to this ideology. Only when we let this ultra-Darwinian approach flourish, presumably in the process slashing and burning to extinction most of the traditional professions on the continent, can we begin again on a purified landscape, however bleak such a painful purge may leave it.
Perhaps the most startling, initially breathtaking and then outrage-making, response to failure, however, was the reaction to the breakdown of the eurozone. Some humility might have been order when a project many warned all along was based on fanatical devotion to European "ever-closer union" rather than fiscal, or even plain common, sense, collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions. Instead, that unelected mandarin, José Manuel Barroso, who, like his predecessors as president of the European Commission acts as though he has the mandate of the polls, and Germany's chancellor, Angela Merkel, spoke as one: the crisis showed that we needed "more Europe", not less, they both said.
Saddest of all was the bloody proof in Norway that antique fears of Muslims, not just at Europe's gate but now infiltrating from within, had been revived. This, while Turkey's bid for EU membership has long been kept on teasing tenterhooks, a promise forever delayed and revealing that Europe's talk of openness and inclusion conceals a continent only too ready to close in on itself, and erect barricades to preserve ways of life that are unsustainable, founded on misguided or outmoded political ideologies, and which are inconsistent with the liberal culture of which Europe considers itself to be the proud champion and originator.
Change is bound to come. Change must come. But there is no appetite for an appropriate transformation from leaders who are in denial about the state they are in. There is precious little acceptance that the chill winds of the free market, liberal economics they have unleashed are inconsistent with the generous welfare provision that European countries have taken for granted. There is no acknowledgement that they have raised younger generations who know all about rights, but next to nothing about duties, and whose materialism and spiritual impoverishment provides no hope for their coming to terms with the fact that they will have to make do with less than their parents. Above all, there is complete myopia when it comes to Europe's place in the world. That continent's century was the 19th, when its tiny nations managed to paint most of the globe in various shades of imperial and grew rich by exploiting the labour and resources of less militarily advanced peoples.
Most observers have moved on, and would acknowledge that the last century was America's. The new millennium has already seen power and wealth move inexorably east. But Europe, still clinging to unjustifiable vestiges of past glory, such as France's and Britain's permanent places on the UN Security Council, convinces itself that its history - much of which is undeniably impressive - lends it a weight and privilege internationally that even America is beginning to be aware is unsustainable.
EU foreign ministers make bold and often condemnatory statements about the doings of governments far away, apparently unaware that their words are greeted with a mixture of annoyance at their presumption, and amusement that they imagine anyone could care less what they say. The EU itself continues to act as though there is a moral force in its very being - as though the countries of Europe still so fear going to war with each other that they should be praised for binding themselves together - while ignoring or batting away every referendum that does not go its way and displaying a monumental disregard for the wishes of the peoples it ought to exist to serve.
Its young, on the other hand, having been raised to expect so much, are reaping bitter harvest after bitter harvest. No jobs for graduates, now saddled with debts; sagging or non-existent welfare safety nets; a culture dominated by celebrity but in which they are extremely unlikely to experience even the 15 minutes of fame Andy Warhol once said everyone deserved. They protest, yes, and they form camps, storm buildings, rail against the political establishment and spend no doubt fruitful hours communicating by tweets and texts. But here any similarities with the youth of the Arab Spring end. In Cairo and Tunis and Tripoli they were fighting, and being beaten and imprisoned, for rights and freedoms that Europeans have long enjoyed. On the other side of the Mediterranean, that continent's youth are angry at political, economic and social failures that have been generations in the making. And the truth is that not only is there no palatable solution, there is not even a genuine acceptance of the problem.
In his masterly new book, A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia, the Princeton academic Aaron L Friedberg quotes the French poet Paul Valery. In 1919, he asked: "Will Europe keep its pre-eminence in all things? Will Europe become what in fact it is, that is to say a small corner of the Asian continent?" Nearly a century later, Valery's words seem less contemplative than prophetic. No wonder Europe is in crisis.
Sholto Byrnes is a contributing editor of the New Statesman