Most people in Europe know the fable of the ant and the grasshopper. The grasshopper sang all summer long, while the industrious ant spent the warm months building up a supply of food. When winter came the grasshopper was hungry and asked the ant for food. The ant replied: "You sang away the summer, now dance."
During the past year of crisis for the European Union, the role of the wastrel-grasshopper has been played by the countries which built up debts they could never repay - in particular Greece, Italy and Spain. The penny-pinching ant has been Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel has effectively told the prime ministers of Greece and Italy to go away and dance, to be replaced by technocrats who understand ant logic.
No one fits the role of grasshopper better than the former prime minister of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi. He used to be a cruise-ship crooner and marked his departure from office with the release of an album of love songs.
But the crisis has not stood still. Today's summit meeting of European leaders is the seventh this year. Each one has failed to stem the contagion, and with every passing month the stakes rise.
The US president Barack Obama has now been warned by his treasury secretary, Tim Geithner, that a euro-zone collapse will sweep away his chances of re-election, however wacky his opponent. Mr Geithner is joining the European summiteers in Brussels to try to protect the president's career.
As Europe has contemplated the collapse of its single currency, and failed to find any way of ejecting Greece from the euro zone without spreading worldwide banking panic, the roles in the fable have changed.
On Monday, Mrs Merkel cast aside her habitual caution and the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, swallowed his pride. They announced a joint plan to press ahead with economic and monetary union among the 17 countries that use the euro.
This would mean oversight - effectively by Germany - of their taxation, spending and borrowing policies. Countries would give up their right to set a national budget, an alarming, but necessary, transfer of sovereignty if the euro is going to succeed as a currency.
This big Franco-German idea has a simple purpose: to show the markets that Europe has the political will to grasp the problem and solve it. But once confidence is shaken, it is hard to restore.
The US ratings agency, Standard & Poor's, whose job is to assess the creditworthiness of borrowers, issued a warning within hours of the Merkel-Sarkozy announcement that it was considering downgrading 15 euro-zone members, including France and Germany.
Once again the thinking of the market was a step ahead of the politicians. There was outrage at the idea that Germany was being reclassified as a deadbeat grasshopper, which would rule out raising the war chest needed to bail out the at-risk countries.
But there is a simple truth here. There are more powerful actors in the world than sovereign states. This balance of forces is veiled in the good times, but brutally displayed when countries get into debt. However you look at it, Germany is going to be picking up the tab for rescuing the euro, so that ultimately has to affect its credit rating.
Today's summit has been billed as the date with destiny, the end of a 10-day countdown to save the euro. Will it succeed? Or will it be financial Armageddon? Most probably neither.
The politicians are still behind the curve but probably they will achieve enough to keep the euro afloat. It will be further muddle, until some diplomatic and financial fudge is found to enable the European Central Bank to fund the most indebted euro-zone countries. The problem is that the Bank is specifically barred from funding sovereign states.
There will be howls of rage in Germany if this is allowed to happen, with predictions that the last bastion of fiscal rectitude is to be breached. It is not clear that anyone has a better idea.
The muddle might last for a decade, amid growing recriminations. Once the threat of currency collapse abates, the usual divisions among the 27 members of the European Union will reappear - between the federalists and the nationalists, and between the 17 members who use the euro, and the 10 still on the sidelines.
The split is most clearly seen in Britain, which has stayed out of the euro thanks to Conservative opinion which distrusts any grand European scheme, correctly in the case of the euro.
Conservative members of parliament have been whooping for joy at the euro's problems, like arsonists watching their neighbour's house burn down. At some risk to his political career, David Cameron, the prime minister, has taken the view that Britain's interest is in financial stability in Europe, not pouring petrol on the flames.
For years there has been a two-speed Europe - a division between those inside and outside the euro zone. The crisis is going to exacerbate all the differences and contradictions. Soon there could be a four or five-speed Europe, with countries graded according to their indebtedness and ability to repay. France will not be in the top tier, for all the Sarkozy-Merkel hugs.
Japan famously suffered a lost decade in the 1990s after its property bubble burst. But it enjoyed the advantages of a quiescent political culture, ethnic homogeneity, successful export industries and a healthy global market for its products. None of these exist in Europe, with its plethora of languages and political cultures and racial issues always simmering below the surface.
So the issue is not really whether the euro will collapse. There is political weight behind its preservation at the moment. The issue is whether Europe - the so-called "lifestyle superpower" - can survive a decade of declining living standards. Or rather, how do you turn grasshoppers into ants?