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.

Follow @MattFrei on Twitter

Tweets by @mattfrei

7 reader comments

  1. Philip Edwards says:

    As usual……far right propaganda. Right down to “Ukrainians…draped in the EU flag.” That’ll be the same Ukrainians draped in swastikas – but of course no mention of that. No mention either of Yank airborne deployed as “advisors” – you know, as in Vietnam and everywhere else prior to US invasion and genocide.

    This headline should read, “After IMF/ECB, can the EU remain the world’s most popular club?” You could throw in mention too of that Armanised, orange-faced, beak-nosed gangster’s moll La Garde. But I won’t hold my breath.

    The whole piece stinks of Yank style jeering, the kind of thing you peddled for years from Washington.

    I know if I needed a nationality in a trench next to me it would be one of the Greek dissidents. Not a fully paid-up member of the far right Creeps Club like you.

    1. susan galea says:

      I must have read a different article. ” 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.” Please explain how this represents ” Yank style jeering… bla bla…”?

      The author expresses equal consternation about the much vaunted European ideal and how it now translates into practice. He worries about the imposition of debt repayment not being restructured and the lack of the mechanism to produce the solidarity to help the poorer southern Europeans- fiscal and political not chiming. How on earth do you interpret this -by inference- [as] ” a fully paid-up member of the far right Creeps Club”?

      I’m baffled by your response. Perhaps you would have been happy if he’d stuck to slamming the Permatanned Christine Lagarde instead of explaining the overarching problems facing the institutions of the EU and how this impacts both Greece’s travails and the other European countries. What is wrong with his analysis? It’s absolutely objective and intelligent, in my view.

      You seem to be doing nothing less than complaining about the good writing here, and the fact he doesn’t indulge in your kind of hyperbolic subjectivism which gets us precisely nowhere.

  2. Philip says:

    Despite the pro-Russian propaganda immediately above, it was evident to anyone who knows that part of the world that the cause of the crisis in the Ukraine wasn’t “Ukrainians…draped in swastikas”, but ordinary Ukrainians who wanted closer association with the EU and the West, because they’ve had centuries of knowing what Russian domination is like, whether directly under Soviet rule or indirectly via corrupt Russian stooges like Yanushkvoych. Those of us with a heritage from the Baltic States understand that the EU has immense problems & drawbacks, but it’s still a million times better than being run by an authoritarian ex-spy whose interest in free speech is zero and who operates mostly for the benefit of a kleptocracy, of which he is a significant member. The ideals of the Soviet Union died in the gulag & the Molotov/Ribbentrop pact….followed by the “privatisation” of much of the economy into the hands of said kleptocracy. Regrettably, the world isn’t neatly black & white….and the Ukrainians, like ever true resident of the Baltic States (i.e. not the forced Russian migrants) regard the EU as a significantly whiter shade of grey than Russia.

    1. susan galea says:

      Philip, You’re at it again. He doesn’t mention swastika flags, but EU flags. This mis-reading by you has provoked yet another rant based on false information . Why not read, digest and cogitate before sounding off?

    2. Allan McDigger says:

      Philip, if you really knew the Ukraine you would know that it is a country of two halves, historically the western half was part of the Austro Hungarian empire and the eastern half was part of Tsardom of Russia. Having recently travelled across the country after the revolution in 2004 it was very clear that this divide remains exactly the same.

      So west of Kiev is European and east of Kiev is Russian, its quite easy.

  3. Christine Pearce says:

    I was upset by Matt Frei’s interview with the Greek lady minister tonight. He was extremely rude even in “aggresive interviewer”mode, which so many of his ilk seem to think is necessary. I thought the lady was extremely restrained, in view of his constant and bad tempered interjections, then turning his back on her as she had barely finished speaking, i would bave been tempted to clock him just to shut him up! An arrogant man……..needs to listen to the answers to his questions once in a while.

  4. John Hill says:

    After 5 yrs of imposed (by EU ECB) financial “German Order”, the poor Greeks who had little past experience of running a financially stable government, are told (by imposed German Gruppenfuhrers) how to make their economy work!!

    As that failed, perhaps Mrs Merkel and Legarde could have took a considered approach.

    Fast forward to new Greek Government(elected by majority…no change…EU still playing hard man!!
    Greeks now hold a referendum.
    EU tells them they want to have a say in how referendum worded (very democratic!!).

    Greece holds referendum…result a massive NO NO NO!!! to EU!

    Greek Leader expects EU to at least HONOUR the result of the referendum.

    Of course, that is not the way the EU works…(Remember Ireland voted NO once and were told by same EU…try again til answer is YES!!)

    I see that all media is blaming Greece as usual taking a partisan line!
    What about DEMOCRACY within European Union???

    If said EU Crats can reject a GREEK referendum, they can reject a GB referendum.

    The only answer to EU Crats is to state what nation is to do, then DO IT!!
    What can Brussels DO anyway? INVADE???

    Cameron has a choice.
    He can keep on going round EU begging, or he can do as Thatcher did, and swing a handbag to get his own way.

    As for media response, it is pathetic. A sovereign nation is bullied into submission by unelected crats and Lamestream media in GB never mentions it!

    Perhaps Greece should deal with Russia and begin to use the Rouble??
    Or Maybe China? I am sure they would love to support Greece in its struggle with the hated Capitalists!
    Either way.all our craven politicians, all in some way happy with the EU Gravytrain, are not woman or man enough to actually STAND UP FOR DEMOCRATIC PRINCIPLES!!!
    EU seems at a point of no return. Absent real democracy. Absent real agreement.Absent Real democracy the EU begins to look a bit like Germany was in 1933. And we all know where that led!!
    Democracy as delivered in GB has swept the world…even Egypt wrote one to get over the Muslim Brotherhood problem.
    EU is determined that EU will stay the cosy autocratic club for the cosy unelected and undemocratic elite!!
    As for the Ch 4 Journo.giving Greeks a hard time interview. He just proved what I have just expresed is true. Media are a bit like Medieval Jesters, careful not to Upset the new “monarchy”
    EU has acted disgracefully! And NO media outlet has expressed the TRUTH!!
    All citizens can SEE but media avert their collective gaze as they push their own AGENDA! (Be nice to know what that is. Any bets it doesn`t involve supporting national democracy or the proper rule of law!!)

Comments are closed.