OUT OF LONDON Much of the anger in the wake of the Eurozone crisis is being directed at Germany, one of the principal architects of European union
As the Eurozone crisis rumbles on with lights going out in country after country, and the contagion looks set to spread, the question being asked is: how did a project born out of such passion and invested with so much idealism go so horribly wrong?
The short, if cynical, answer is: precisely because it was so achingly idealistic.
The unravelling of the grand European project illustrates the limits of an idea based solely on idealism. It is now widely acknowledged that the dream of creating “One Europe” united in a common pursuit of prosperity and progress (sharing not only a common market but a common currency) was simply too Utopian.
Even those who enthusiastically backed the project at the time now admit that it was inherently flawed given the vast difference in size, resources and levels of development of its member-states. It was crying out to fall apart at the first hint of crisis — as it eventually did — but at the time any criticism was attacked by its supporters as Europhobia.
Essentially, the idea was driven by Germany’s guilt over its Nazi past which still haunted its relations with the rest of Europe. Germany genuinely wanted to build a new relationship with its neighbours and to create legacy that would remind posterity not of what it once did to Europe but what it did for it.
And it went for broke to achieve that end wilfully ignoring the truth that for all the apparent cheer generated by the so-called “end-of-history” moment (the collapse of east European communist states) Europe was still too politically, economically and culturally divided to be harnessed into one big happy family without causing a rupture at some point. Old memories, as it turned out, had simply dimmed, and not been forgotten.
The Eurozone crisis has unleashed a wave of mutual hate and suspicion and, ironically, much of it is directed at Germany — the architect of the big European dream. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has become a hate figure in much of Europe subjected to Nazi salutes and “Heil Merkel” slogans and accused of piling on further misery on her crisis-hit fellow Europeans by imposing an austerity regime that has left millions of people facing unemployment, homelessness and hunger.
Effigies showing Ms Merkel in a Nazi uniform have been burnt on the streets of Athens amid demands for “reparation” for war crimes. The run-up to the recent European Union summit saw a new wave of savage attacks on her in the European media with newspapers and magazines portraying her as a flesh-eating monster and a latter-day dictator in Hitler moustaches.
Spanish satirical magazine El Jueves renamed one of its issues Die Jueven to sound German and its front page featured a plump Merkel crushing Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and stamping on him.
The Independent drew on the theme of Goya’s painting, “Saturn devouring his son” to depict an evil-looking Merkel, with a Greek flag as a bib, devouring a Greek.
Tensions are running so high that Germans don’t feel safe in Greece. Germany is being blamed for a crisis that, it argues, was of individual countries’ own making — a result, especially in the case of Greece and Spain, of reckless spending, tax evasion, systemic corruption and irresponsible banking practices. Germans, with their memories of the 1930s financial crisis, are fanatical about fiscal discipline and are refusing to bail out countries who, they believe, have brought it upon themselves.
The problem with this argument, critics point out, is that the Germans knew full well what they were getting into when they admitted such a diverse cast into a single-currency union in a show of European unity and inclusion. It is now known that Germany and France were warned that countries like Greece, Spain and Italy were a ticking bomb, given their history of lax economic management.
Yet in their enthusiasm to see their dream euro project take-off, both Berlin and Paris chose to ignore the warnings. Officials involved in negotiations at the time have said that some of the countries which are now in trouble were allowed effectively to “cook” their books in order to qualify for euro membership. During the good times when everyone lived off what seemed like an unending supply of borrowed money, nobody bothered to notice that in Athens, Madrid and Rome, the emperor wore no clothes. But the first hint of crisis and the ticking bombs went off with a bang.
Ireland, Greece, Spain and Portugal have already exploded; Italy and Cyprus appear to be next in line. No country looks safe. Even countries such as Britain who are not part of the 17-member euro bloc are reeling because of their dependence on the European market and exposure to its crisis-prone banks. The reverberations of the crisis are being felt across the world, from America and China to India.
At the “emergency” do-or-die EU summit, an agreement on giving more breathing space to debt-ridden member-states was reached. It was interpreted as a German concession under growing international pressure, including from U.S. President Barack Obama, but since then Ms Merkel has made statements suggesting that the agreement was not what it was cracked out to be.
This is not the first time that hopes of a solution have been raised and then dashed within hours. Meanwhile, the nightmare that began as a dream to create a new post-war Europe — united, prosperous and rid of the old divisions — continues.