It is past midnight in Athens' Exarcheia Square and groups of young anarchists and students are assembled around a fire made of old boxes, pieces of dilapidated furniture and branches cut from the nearby Patission public park. Alongside them, jobless immigrants from Bangladesh and Pakistan, fearful of being tracked and harassed by neo-Nazi militants of the Greek Golden Dawn movement, spend another night without a home.
Such gatherings take place daily in the Exarcheia Square, and I happened to spend an evening there recently on a tour organised for journalists by the Greek government. Greece and Italy, two southern European countries at the centre of the continent's financial crisis, will each be presiding over the European Union for a semester this year. For Athens, whose presidency will be officially launched today with a visit to Greece of the full college of European commissioners, the challenge looks far tougher.
First, the country is far from seeing the end of the crisis tunnel, with an unsustainable public debt still hovering over 170% of its GDP, despite two European rescue plans worth 240 billion (10 trillion baht).
Second, Greece will be chairing the EU while two crucial events are scheduled: the 10th anniversary of the Union's 2004 enlargement to 10 new member countries from Central and Eastern Europe; and the problematic incoming European elections which, at the end of May, could be marked by an all-high abstention and a much-feared rise of ultra-nationalistic and Europhobic political parties.
Viewed from Asia, where most emerging economies continue to boom despite political convulsions, inherent problems of infrastructure development and a worrying accumulation of private debt, Greece's difficulties seem to provide a very telling story of Europe's prolonged derailment. Nothing, indeed, could be more symbolic of what the old continent faces than Athens' crowds of homeless people and rebels.
On the one hand, here is a city known worldwide for its famous Acropolis and its antic glory: a quasi-perfect snapshot of Europe, with its great history, museums and monuments, plus a nearby island made legendary by Homer's Odyssey. On the other hand stands a modern Greek capital, whose urban heart is covered with graffiti, rigged with explosive youth unemployment, endemic financial crises and unstoppable immigration.
Fortunately for Europe and the world, a deeper look into Greek statistics and EU achievements last year provide a different tale of events. Yes, the "old" continent is still facing a serious economic crisis. And yes, its economic difficulties and the resentment over a single currency forcing governments to impose harsh austerity measures to achieve some kind of budgetary balance have given birth to immense political frustrations, exploited by extremist parties. But it has also fuelled, for the first time in many years, a strong thirst for more Europe, and a certain rebirth of a pro-European movement among educated youth.
In Brussels and Strasbourg, respective headquarters of the European Commission and the Parliament, European federalists from various political forces _ from liberals to greens _ are promising to campaign together for a stronger EU. On the financial side, an agreement, though not perfect, on the much-expected banking union was finally brokered last December. Moreover, although the social impact of austerity measures is harsh, entrepreneurs all over Europe are finally making their voices heard to resist more tax pressure.
Even French President Francois Hollande, a socialist advocating a strong state, has promised in his new year address to decrease taxation, offering a "responsible partnership" to the private sector. Another remarkable change, rather cosmetic but very significant in an area of global "brands", is the renaming of Eads defence and aeronautic conglomerate, under the famed "Airbus" name. At least, the EU now has wings to take off.
Europe may also benefit this year from the demise of its geopolitical and commercial rivals. The global controversy over extensive digital spying by the US government has proven once again the danger of an uncontested American leadership. The political difficulties experienced nowadays by promising Asian economies like Thailand or Indonesia, show European investors the danger of betting it all on faraway markets. The many remaining questions on the resurgence of Japan, doped by Abenomics, and the risk of a financial default by China's overstretched "shadow banking" network are fuelling legitimate doubts.
On the contrary, at least on paper, 2014 looks like a year when European businesses and European voters can start to rediscover the potential of their own continent. A number of new laws in Greece are decartelising a country paralysed by a flawed political system based on patronage. Portuguese exports are rising. Spain, after avoiding a rescue plan from Brussels, seems to be progressively back on track, though confronted with Catalonia's aspiration for independence.
Ireland will soon start to borrow money again from international capital markets. UK conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, lecturing constantly his EU partners on the need to reduce public spending, tackle EU bureaucracy and implement ultra-liberal reforms, is banking on an upgraded growth prospect for 2014, from 1.9% to 2.2%.
Contrary to what is often written these days in the corridors of the Brussels-based European Commission, the EU does not need a "new narrative". Spending millions of euros in contracts for PR companies and consultants, ahead of the European elections, will not help unless European governments and mainstream political parties stand up firmly in favour of Europe in 2014.
A century ago, in July 1914, Europe's prosperity was giving birth to the most formidable mass grave producing machine: World War I. Two centuries ago, in September 1814, Europe's battlefields still soaked with the blood of Napoleonic wars, were giving birth to the Congress of Vienna and the first diplomatic initiative to find a durable compromise between power-hungry monarchs. 2014 has all it takes to be a decisive European year.
Richard Werly is an international correspondent for the Swiss daily Le Temps, associate fellow of EU Centre in Singapore and DiploFoundation in Geneva.