There are many possible readings of history, and one of them is to see it as a continuous struggle to create structure, in the face of the ineluctable forces of entropy.
By structure I mean macro-level order, aggregation, alignment, unification, centralization; the structure is information-rich, the system is more complex than its parts. Think music (not necessarily good music). Think discipline.
By contrast, I use the short name of entropy for the absence (or looseness) of overall organization, for atomization, divergence, fragmentation, dissipation; an entropic system is information-poor (meaning, the system as a whole can be described through simple formulas and statistical randomness), but its different parts may have more intrinsic complexity. Think noise. Think freedom.
This dichotomy is of course over-simplified, and should not be understood as a value judgment; life is made of the duality of these forces. In some cases the macro-structure may be aimed at promoting harmony and stability; but at times it can also become a straitjacket, repressive of individual liberties. And there are several possible levels of aggregation (e.g. in terms of social order: community level, national, international/regional, global) that sometime go against each other: for instance, some people advocate for strong national states and against supra-national integration. Many conspiracy theories are predicated upon the alleged drive by secretive groups (such as the Freemasonry) to control the world and impose a global macro-order.
The story of the Tower of Babel suggests that beyond a certain level God dislikes the human effort towards aggregation; or perhaps - depending on whether you are a believer or not - that there is a natural limitation to how much a structure can extend before it collapses under its own weight. History can be seen as a recurrent attempt to build castles on quicksand; there are many examples of seemingly eternal macro-structures that eventually collapsed - from the Roman Empire to the Third Reich to the Soviet Union.
The last 60 years or so have seen consistent efforts to create macro-structures at the international or supra-national level. In the bipolar world of the Cold War, both the West and the Communist bloc were aiming at the ultimate aggregation of a world order based on their respective ideologies; the United Nations tried (rather successfully) to patch a global governance regime of sorts over the East-West dichotomy while also incorporating the 'non-aligned' nations; the collapse of communism two decades ago seemed at the time to open the way for a unified international system dominated by liberal democracies, and in which regional and global integration processes would converge.
But nowadays the tide has turned.
In the wake of the global economic crisis (which, of course, is much more than just economic), entropy is creeping up, and structure is taking a beating. If you were wondering why suddenly so many things that we used to take for granted (e.g. the relative stability of key currencies, the solidity of your bank, the Western supremacy, the expectation that contracts and agreements are observed, the idea that some jobs are secure, the notion that European integration is a unidirectional process etc.) have become so uncertain and unpredictable, the answer is: because the macro-structure is cracking.
The European Union's slow undoing is a good illustration of this trend. The symptoms are multiplying, and the pattern is that increasingly member states tend to focus on their individual interests at the expense of common interests; and that in the process of trying to save themselves individually, they tend to undermine the macro-structure and even to break the established rules and treaties. When the going gets tough, few care about such romantic niceties as playing by the rules.
About this time last year, EU Commissioner Viviane Reding took a refreshingly blunt and firm stand against the ethnic discrimination of the Roma by France. I saluted it at the time as a courageous defense of ground rules and fundamental principles (like: in Europe, we don't discriminate by skin color or ethnicity); but in retrospect, it appears that Reding was fighting more of a rearguard action. She eventually was forced to tone down her rhetoric (to her credit, she resisted pressures to apologize) and the issue was quietly buried, while France by and large continued the same policy. And since then, the European Commission has taken a decidedly lower profile and has been threading more carefully in its role as guardian of the treaties.
The example of the Schengen Agreement, which has seen its meaning diminished in a matter of weeks last spring, is also illustrative. Borders are re-emerging in Europe, reversing a previous decades-old trend of integration (I wrote in more detail about this at the time).
The unilateral reintroduction this summer by Spain of labor restrictions for Romanians sets a new precedent, as never before has a liberalizing, integration measure been reversed in such way. This is far from trivial, as thus far the implicit understanding of all concerned (EU old and new member states, candidate and potential candidate countries) has been that the European integration process may go at faster or slower speeds, at times might even stall, but is by and large irreversible; the consequences of eliminating this assumption may be potentially serious for instance in the Balkans, where the prospects for EU accession have been an essential ingredient of stopping ethnic conflicts. Though Spain's justification for reversing the earlier liberalization and - while doing that - targeting a particular nationality was rather flimsy, the Commission went along. Somehow more surprisingly, even the targeted country - Romania - chose not to make a fuss, reinforcing the perception that not all EU members are equal partners.
But the most serious challenge by far is the debt crisis in the Eurozone, which poses an existential threat to the EU. After almost two years of energy and money wasted on half-measures that irked voters but failed to reassure the markets (including the partial bail-outs of Greece, Ireland and Portugal in exchange for draconian austerity programmes that these countries have been struggling to implement), the Eurozone heavyweights eventually came to realize that the only way to prevent the break-up of the common currency is to take a radical new step towards integration and centralized economic governance. In other words, the only way to save the crumbling macro-structure is to reinforce it with even more structure.
I am rather skeptical that this could work in the current political climate and given the centrifugal trend described above. Plus, there is a fundamental difficulty in bringing Southern and Northern economies on a convergent path under such a restrictive set-up.
But even making the bold assumption that it will work, and that the Eurozone will introduce a fiscal union (to complement the monetary one) and centralized budgetary controls, there will be a side effect that is barely mentioned by anyone - namely the fracturing of the EU along an insider-outsider fault line, where insiders are those already in the Eurozone, and outsiders are the other EU members, which still use their national currencies.
When Eastern European new members joined in 2004 and 2007, the eventual adoption of the Euro currency was part of the obligations that they assumed, and each of them adopted a plan to this effect. Since then, Slovenia, Slovakia and Estonia have made it into the Eurozone, but the others have been mostly reconsidering their plans and postponing the dates. If the Eurozone arrangement changes as proposed by Germany and France, then everything is automatically reset, including the other countries' commitments and plans to join; and joining will become a lot more difficult, with entry conditions likely to get significantly tougher (we have an early taste of this with the stalling of Romania's and Bulgaria's accession to the Schengen area, even though they have fulfilled all the initially stated requirements). This will create a 'two-speed Europe' - which means that even in the unlikely eventuality that a radical strengthening of the Eurozone is successfully implemented, the EU as a whole will still take a hit structurally.
For the above reasons and others, the EU is now the frontline of the secular battle between structure and entropy, and will be very interesting to watch in the coming period.