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Unmaking Europe

Mixing a single currency with 17 national polities has created a witches' brew.

March 29, 2013|By Timothy Garton Ash
  • Supporters of the far-right party Golden Dawn hold up Greek flags and a sign that reads in German "Merkel get out" during a protest outside the Germany embassy in Athens.
Supporters of the far-right party Golden Dawn hold up Greek flags and a sign… (Thanassis Stavrakis / Associated…)

"We have made Italy, now we must make Italians," goes the old saying. Today we have made the euro, and the crisis of the euro is unmaking Europeans. People who felt enthusiastically European 10 years ago are reverting to angry national stereotypes.

"Hitler-Merkel" read a banner carried by young Cypriot protesters this week. Next to those words was an image of the European flag, its yellow stars on a blue background crossed out in red. Sweeping negative generalizations are heard about "North" and "South" Europeans. As parts of Europe became more anti-German, so parts of Germany became more anti-European. A vicious spiral looms into view, like a twister in the American Midwest.

We should note with relief what has not happened, at least not for the most part and not yet. With the exception of neo-fascist parties such as Golden Dawn in Greece, European rage has not been turned against immigrants, minorities and imagined fifth columns. Germans do not blame their woes on rootless Jews, Muslims or Freemasons; they blame them on feckless Greeks. Greeks blame theirs on heartless Germans.

Nonetheless, this is dangerous. To be sure, 2013 is not 1913. Germany may be calling the shots in the Eurozone, but it never sought this place in the sun.

The EU as a whole is the most reluctant empire in European history, and Germany is a reluctant empire within this reluctant empire.

The risk of interstate war in EU Europe is tiny. There is, however, a real danger that the bonds of sentiment and fellow feeling essential to any political community are being rent asunder.

Remember that for countries like Cyprus, the worst is yet to come. What if some unemployed and mentally unbalanced Greek or Cypriot youth were to take a potshot at a German politician? With luck, the shock would cool the overheated rhetoric and bring all Europeans together. But we should not wait until a shot rings out.

Why is Europe in this downward spiral of mutual resentment? Because of the basic design flaws of the euro, certainly. Also because of mistaken economic policies in some of the "peripheral" countries of the Eurozone and, more recently, in the northern core. Meanwhile, each short-term Eurozone fix sows the seeds of another Eurozone crisis. Thus, a 50% haircut for holders of Greek government bonds, agreed to in autumn 2011, helped topple Cypriot banks into the abyss.

Yet the deepest cause is the mismatch between a single currency area and 17 national polities. The economics are continental; the politics are still national. What is more, those politics are democratic. If this is not 1913, it is also not the 1930s. Instead of the "Europe of the dictators," we have a Europe of democracies. Instead of Trotsky's "permanent revolution," we have permanent elections. Some leader somewhere in Europe is always having to trim the jib and pull in the mainsail because of an imminent vote.

This year, it happens to be Germany's Angela Merkel, whose general election looms in September. Every one of the Eurozone's 17 and the EU's 27 national leaders thinks first of his or her national politics, media and opinion polls. Tempting though it is to say "We have made Europe, now we must make Europeans," the truth is that in this respect we have not made Europe.

So what is to be done? An ingenious Italian professor, Giorgio Basevi of Bologna University, recently sent me a proposal for alleviating the problem by synchronizing national and European elections. It's a brilliant idea and, of course, a nonstarter. Others suggest that the next president of the European Commission should be directly elected, perhaps with candidates nominated by each of the main party groupings in the European Parliament. Well, why not? But if you think this will make unemployed Greeks and resentful Germans suddenly become all warmly pro-European again, you need your head examined.

For now, there is simply no substitute for national politicians going against the wind of their national public opinions to explain, in their own languages and idioms, that Greeks are not all feckless spendthrifts, or that Germans are not all heartless Teutons, and so on. They must seize every opportunity to enlarge on why, even if it is cold and wet in the European boat, it would be even colder and wetter in the water.

And if it takes a new enemy? As a scapegoat acceptable to almost all continental Europeans, I would usually be happy to suggest my sterling compatriots, the English. (We are used to it. We can take it.) But whatever else you may load on the English, you can't blame them for the shemozzle of the Eurozone.

Timothy Garton Ash is professor of European studies at Oxford University, where he directs freespeechdebate.com, and is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is the author, most recently, of "Facts Are Subversive: Political Writing From a Decade Without a Name."

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