Culture & ideas Ideas

Debate: The Eurozone devalues Europe

11 September 2012
Ta Nea Athens

For months, both Greeks and Germans have been talking about the possibility of Greece leaving the euro. And one of the implications of this discussion is that outside of the single currency, there is no EU — a notion that Greek writer Petros Markaris remarks is divisive to the point where it encourages mutual disdain.

Let’s take a step back from the harsh reality of the 11.88 billion euros in budget cuts [that the government is trying to find and have approved by the troika]. Let’s set aside such topics as the mistakes that have been made and the failures of our political system, the inhuman burden weighing on citizens, and the cuts and the sacrifices demanded by the troika: issues that have been treated by so many writers and academics that they are now self-evident.

Let’s talk a little about substance, and the substance is the entity we call “Europe”. I am afraid that, encouraged by politicians, we Europeans have made the fatal mistake of identifying Europe with the euro. Especially since the beginning of the crisis, those who follow the news, not just in Greece but also in Europe, have the impression that Europe cannot exist without the euro. We have reached a point where a virtual certainty that non-Eurozone countries are not really European has taken root in the minds of Europeans.

Striking examples of this mentality are everywhere in the Greek media. Over the last few months, I have been closely following daily updates on the psychodrama with Germany. Up until Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’ visit to Mrs Merkel [on 24 August], the general sentiment was that the Germans wanted us out of the euro. Now that has changed to a more reassuring fifty-fifty outlook.

While the first act of the psychodrama was going on, anxiety was not solely focused on the disastrous consequences that leaving the euro would have on the economy and the lives of Greek citizens, but also on the fact that Greece would become something of a pariah state.

There was a united Europe before the euro

This sentiment was also mirrored in Germany where those who insisted that we should be kicked out did not solely base their argument on the fact that Greece is struggling to cope with the euro, but on the assumption that the country should be publicly shamed and punished for its lack of punctuality, or at least incarcerated in a detention centre for delinquents.

All of this begs the question: are all the states which are in the EU but not in the euro pariahs? Should the United Kingdom, Denmark, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and five other non-euro states be treated as delinquents? Does that mean that Germany, which destroyed Europe twice, is more European than the United Kingdom which saved it? There is no denying the UK’s many idiosyncrasies, but it has always been there for Europe.

I am afraid we have become stuck in a rut. Ever since the beginning of the crisis, I have hardly seen any articles about non-Eurozone countries in the European press. The only exception to this rule has been the UK, and even then the focus of attention has been on the complications that result from UK policy for the Eurozone.

To avoid any misunderstanding, I would like to make it clear that I am not a supporter of a return to the drachma. I have no issues or scruples about using the euro, just as long as we bear in mind that it is a currency among thousands of others, a means of exchange. It is not the keystone of our existence. There was a united Europe before the euro, even if it was not called as such. The difference between pre-euro Europe and the one we have now is not just a matter of the single currency.

Before the euro, Europe was not just an economic community. It was also the expression of the vision of the fathers of European integration and the initiative to bring together countries with different languages, histories, and cultures under the common roof of European values.

We have lost sight of the human beings

Let’s not forget that the countries of the former socialist bloc were not solely motivated by the common market and the prospect of better living standards when they joined Europe, but also because they wanted to restore the common European values which they had been denied for 45 years. The last statesman to focus on these issues was Jacques Delors. After Delors, debate on this ambitious project was forgotten until the launch of the single currency, when the euro devoured all of the common values.

The unity of the EU has been replaced by the unity of the Eurozone in a Europe which is entirely dominated by economists and politicians. This is why the debate is so superficial, like most of Europe’s leaders, and unidimensional, like traditional economics. What is lacking is a wider view of Europe, because writers, artists and intellectuals express themselves so rarely.

For me the dilemma is not about the euro or the drachma. The question is: What kind of Europe do we want? There was a Europe before the euro. Will there still be a Europe if the euro collapses tomorrow?

Central and Northern Europe have been marked by the spread of popular opposition to the idea of giving more money to the useless and wasteful Southern Europeans. No doubt this is annoying, but we can hardly blame them. We would feel the same in their shoes, and so too would the Spanish, the Italians and the Portuguese. Does anyone know a rich man who is willing to share his wealth with the poor?

At the same time, in southern countries, where every day brings a fresh decline in living standards, people are beginning to feel angry with their rich neighbours in Europe. The Greeks are not alone in this regard. The Spanish, the Italians and the Portuguese feel the same way, and we can hardly blame them either. This is precisely where the problem lies: if the euro is not sustainable, there is no guarantee that Europe will survive when the currency has gone.

The most likely scenario is a Europe split in two camps that blame each other for the failure of the euro, and have nothing but disdain and hatred for each other. I am not saying that we should leave the euro. But it is worth wondering if we should allow it to divide Europe into opposing camps, if it should be allowed to destroy structures that were painstakingly built up since 1957. The real tragedy is that in running after figures, we have lost sight of the human beings. I hope I am wrong, but it looks as though we are headed for a civil war mentality in Europe.

 

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