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John Humphrys: Could the European Union really collapse?

John Humphrys in Athens

As leaders gather in Brussels, the founding principles of the European Union are under threat as never before, says the Today programme's John Humphrys.

Stand by for another boring European Union summit. Too cynical? Probably, but every time the leaders meet we are told to expect momentous decisions about incredibly important matters and we are almost always let down. This time we have been let down at least in one sense even before it begins. We have already been warned that the question at the top of this country's agenda - David Cameron's attempt to get a new deal on Britain's membership - won't get an answer. There's not enough agreement and anyway there are more pressing matters on the table.

It's hard to argue with that. Indeed, it is hard to think of a time when the dream nurtured by the EU's founding fathers 70 years ago has faced so many threats.

I try to imagine those founders - long since dead of course - peering down at the summit table from whichever part of heaven (or maybe hell) is reserved for politicians and diplomats. The first thing I suspect they would do is slap each other on the back. And so they should. They had dreamed the ultimate dream - the end of war between the mightiest powers on a continent that had spawned the bloodiest conflicts in human history. And that dream has been realised. France and Germany might have their difficulties, but now they are settled over a negotiating table or possibly a slap-up dinner with the tinkling of crystal wineglasses as their soundtrack, rather than a corpse-strewn battlefield and the roar of artillery.

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Image caption 1945: German soldiers surrender in France

Twenty-eight leaders are now seated at that table from mighty Germany to tiny Malta. Its borders stretch from the western beaches of Portugal to the eastern mountains of Bulgaria. It is the greatest trading bloc the world has ever seen. It has its own flag and its own anthem and even its own currency. It also has a treaty which promises the free movement of people within its borders - the Schengen Agreement.

The ghostly observers would nod approvingly at all this and wonder, as they settle down to monitor the discussions, how their creation will be taken even further forward. The driving force, they will recall, was their belief in an ever-closer union and their ultimate vision - the United States of Europe.

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Image caption 1957: Europe's foreign ministers sign the Treaty of Rome, establishing the EEC

But soon their smiles will fade, their confidence that once again they are present to witness history being made perhaps undermined by the fear that this may be as far as it goes. They sense deep concern among the men and women who now run Europe that there is a series of crises all coming together that may threaten their beloved project.

True, the journey to this point in the EU's history has not been smooth, but whatever roadblocks have appeared have been fairly easily dismantled. If the people of one country decide to vote against a particular measure? No problem. Just get them to vote again. If that truculent member across the English Channel says it wants to opt out of the single currency or the Schengen Treaty, let them.

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Media captionCould the European Union collapse?

And here, even as they watch the British prime minister deploying his famous charm, they get their first sense of where it might all begin to go seriously wrong. Because this time the United Kingdom is not threatening to opt out of a specific agreement - it is threatening to opt out of the union. It will, after all, be the British people who decide and not Mr Cameron and his colleagues. And the people cannot be taken for granted.

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I have spoken to politicians from several EU countries over the past few weeks and they all, without exception, have told me that the departure of one of the union's most powerful members would be a devastating blow.

Still, our unseen visitors at this summit may find some comfort in simply refusing to believe it will happen. They tell each other in their ghostly whispers: "The British will step back from the brink when they stand in the polling booth... won't they?" To which the only answer is: Who knows?

They may find it harder to seek even that small degree of comfort when the leaders turn to talking about the economy of Europe. The euro has been a success, they might observe. Is it not used in every home and shop and bank in 19 of the eurozone countries? True, there was a great crisis only a few years ago precipitated by poor countries borrowing massively more than they could afford, but it survived and Greece may be effectively bankrupt but it's still in the euro.

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Image caption July 2015: A Greek protester burns the EU flag in Athens

Yet again, though, I found few politicians prepared to say the crisis is truly over. Will there be enough money to rescue the banks and treasuries if they get into serious trouble again - especially a country like Greece that is still struggling desperately to recover? Can any single economic system really suit countries as different as Germany and Greece? More unanswerable questions.

And the final crisis will deepen the frowns on the faces of our unseen visitors. It is a crisis of which they have personal knowledge. They saw the mass movement of refugees, made homeless by war, in those terrible years following World War Two. Now it is happening again - on an even bigger scale. And nobody knows what to do about it.

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Image caption June 2015: Refugees arrive at the coast of Lesbos, Greece

Millions are on the move from Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia - all countries ripped apart by war and terrorism. By the end of the year almost a million will have landed on the shores of Greek islands, desperate to get beyond Greece into the richer countries of the EU in search of a safer and better life. Angela Merkel decided in the summer to throw open the borders of Germany and by the end of the year more than a million asylum seekers will have descended on her country.

The migrant crisis has set country against country in the EU. Slovakia is taking Brussels to court because it refuses to accept a quota system. Razorwire fences are once again scarring the face of the continent - thrown up to keep out foreigners. The Schengen Treaty is in total disarray. Internal borders that had been thrown open are now closed again. The free movement of people - one of the founding principles of the European Union - is being challenged as never before.

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Having heard all this, our ghostly observers may by now be feeling rather more despondent than when they arrived. They take themselves back to their heavenly abode and exchange views. One of them, Winston Churchill, reminds his colleagues that he had once forecast "a kind of United States of Europe" which Britain would play a key role in helping to create and that, notwithstanding the setbacks and the problems that lie ahead, is what has happened.

Jean Monnet, who became recognised as the Father of Europe, recalls a speech he had made in the Royal Albert Hall more than half a century ago. He said: "Human nature does not change, but when nations and men accept the same rules and the same institutions to make sure they are applied, their behaviour towards each other changes. This is the process of civilisation itself."

St Peter, standing in the background, nods approvingly. Doubting Thomas looks uneasy.

Listen to John Humphrys' full radio report on Today, on BBC Radio 4 on 12 December, or on the programme website here

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