This is the year of make or break for Europe

There is something poignantly symbolic about the fact that it is under a Greek presidency that the EU faces 2014 – a year which could determine whether or not the post-second world war process of closer European integration not just halts but goes into reverse. But while Greek mythology provided many of the cultural icons for European unity, the fate of the European project will not be shaped by Greece alone.

There is no reason to suppose that the coming six months with Athens in the EU chair will be any less effective or efficient than any other presidency. The more productive ones in the past have come from the smaller EU countries.

The biggest immediate challenge to the goal of an ever-closer EU comes from the unresolved eurozone crisis. European leaders must execute a policy U-turn and abandon the present austerity strategy if a renewed crisis is to be avoided later this year, given the feeble economic recovery.

This is not some idealistic Europhile judgment, but something also recognised in the more cynical world of international finance. But has the penny dropped in Berlin? Unless the new German coalition accepts that without a new strategy based on progressive debt cancellation and a concerted drive to boost investment in the economically exhausted southern "periphery", there may be no way to avoid a second, potentially deadly crisis.

There are three reasons for some heavily qualified optimism that this may yet come to pass. First, growing numbers of German economists, impressed by the virtual disappearance of inflation, have come to see the crisis in a new light. Second, the German Social Democrats – now part of the government – fear that without a change of policy, fresh eurozone political and social turmoil could undermine a key German objective of the past 70 years: a politically stable Europe.

A third and possibly decisive factor is the evidence that, within the next year, the Greek people could elect a leftwing government determined to lead a revolt against the mindless policy of mass impoverishment, millions of Europeans and their societies.

The Syriza party's growing popularity is matched by its determination to fight for a new Europe-wide economic and social strategy and to reject any facile, nationalist or populist move to quit either the EU or the euro. That would make a future Syriza-inspired demand for a radical change of European policy all the more difficult for current rightwing political EU leadership to resist.

Indeed, the prospect of such a revolt may lead some in Berlin and Brussels to begin making these concessions while they still have their increasingly desperate conservative allies in Athens clinging to government. The precarious signs of slight economic recovery are unlikely to be enough in themselves to avert a future eurozone breakup – something from which the German economy might well emerge as the biggest loser.

Of course the eurozone crisis is only one expression of a deeper political challenge to the European cause. The rise of far-right nationalisms presents a potentially deadly challenge to the goal of a democratic, peaceful and socially just Europe. Anyone who doubts this need only await the results of the forthcoming European parliament elections.

Success for the far right will not, of course, bring them to power anywhere. But big gains will lend credibility to their increasingly strident campaign to block and then fragment the EU, and their determination to give expression to the kind of blind nationalism which has so often led Europe to disaster in the past.

On the other hand, success for a Syriza-led campaign for a fundamental change of EU policy could demonstrate that there is a better alternative to mindless hate, fear and bigotry. It could yet breathe life into the cause of a Europe of peace, democracy and social justice.

John Palmer is a former Europe editor of the Guardian.

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