30 Jun 2015

After Greece, can the EU remain the world’s most popular club?

It is ironic that the only moment of calm and sobriety in last Friday’s EU emergency summit, punctuated by fist waving and table thumping over migration and Greece, was provided by the man who is usually shunned as the bad boy of the club. David Cameron and the danger of Brexit provided a soothing interlude to all the existential midnight angst.

Now, there’s an irony – although as he outlined the requested concessions necessary for him to sell continued membership of the EU to his country, the prime minister may have been wondering what kind of Europe the UK would be asked to stay in or opt out of next autumn let alone in 2017.

The assumptions that underpin the European Union and that were born out of the blood-letting of two world wars seemed untouchable a few years ago: democracy, prosperity, solidarity.

There was America, the military superpower whose might always seemed increasingly at odds with its professed humanitarian ideals. American exceptionalism rubbed up against incarceration levels, the death penalty, income inequality, Guantanamo Bay and drone warfare.

European leaders smugly pointed out that theirs was a lifestyle superpower, that had learnt its military lessons in the boot camp of history, that had shunned extremism and embraced moderation, compromise and consensus as the only way forward. After the cold war, Europe “ended history”, and its boast was expressed in numbers: the number of countries that were separate to join up.

The EU seemed like the most popular club in the world. A year ago on the streets of Kiev I saw how Ukrainians mounted the deadly barricades draped in the EU flag. Brussels could not have received a greater compliment.

Demonstration calling for a 'NO' at referendum in Greece

And yet to this day that compliment has been repaid with insufficient generosity of spirit, imagination and funds. Europe’s leaders are too interested in good housekeeping to become the bold statesmen and women the continent deserves and needs right now.

Some of the blame has to fall on Angela Merkel, an instinctively cautious physicist, and her Swabian finance minister Wolfgang Schauble. The best-known phrase in Swabian German is “Schaffe  Schaffe  Hausle baue!” – toil, toil to build a little house. For him the Greek crisis is all about the rules of finance that must be obeyed.

On one level he is, of course, right. Despite the suffering of the last five years, the Greeks have preferred to see themselves as more sinned against than sinning. Just ask the Spaniards, Italians and Irish who have very little sympathy with Athens.

Yanis Varoufakis, the flamboyant Greek finance minister – the Bob Geldof of euro-finance – upset the Italians, for instance, when he told them in February that Greeks and Italians were in the same anti-German boat. “No!” was the response from Rome. “We are different.”

So yes, the Tsipras government has made big mistakes. But three years ago Mario Draghi, the head of the ECB, declared that he would do whatever it takes to save the euro. He is not doing whatever it takes to save Greece, even though that is probably also the best way for now of saving the euro and indeed the credibility of the EU.

Monetary union without fiscal union was always going to be problematic on a continent which combines divergent economies with national governments. The euro has become the Heath Robinson construction from hell, and if the currency survives this existential crisis intact, whoever is left standing will have to think long and hard about how to make it work in future, how to reconcile democracy and economics in the strange European mansion

Increasingly separate Washington is watching and hoping that Europe pulls through. Vladimir Putin, one presumes, is also watching and hoping. For the opposite.

In hard numbers Greece may only represent a fraction of Europe’s giant economy. But this week in everything else that can’t be easily measured by the IMF or the ECB, it represents so much more.

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