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Essays

How to Destroy Europe, in 8 Easy Steps

by Axel Gelfert

 

1. Forget the past

The project of European integration following the devastation of World War II is, arguably, one of the great success stories in history. Starting with France, Germany, Italy, and the smaller Western European countries and, from 1990 onwards, extending to Central and Eastern Europe, the process that led to the European Union has ensured peace and relative prosperity for more Europeans than ever before. True, it is easy to get used to the absence of war, mass poverty, and dictatorship, but is it too much to ask that European politicians and the public should remember Europe’s pre-EU history of war and unrest, culminating in two World Wars, and acknowledge the collective achievement that is the EU? (And, in light of Germany’s disastrous role in the first half of the 20th-century, shouldn’t German politicians be especially concerned when they come across to others as Zuchtmeister?)

 

2. When you remember the past, do so selectively

Germans today, most of whom weren’t alive during the 1950s, still like to think of the Wirtschaftswunder as an unprecedented historic achievement: A whole country, destroyed by a war it had caused after having been gripped by a genocidal frenzy of nationalism and racial supremacism, pulling itself up by its own bootstraps. Or, in any case, that’s what West Germany achieved. Except that it didn’t – at least not without direct and indirect help from the very countries it had been fighting (and, in many cases, had brutally occupied). You don’t hear Wolfgang Schäuble talk much about the Marshall Plan these days, or about how 60% of Germany’s foreign debt was cancelled in the London Debt Agreement in 1953. But historical amnesia and selective memory work both ways. When members of Greece’s ruling Syriza party rabbit on about what Europe owes their country – the land of Plato and Aristotle, the birthplace of European culture, etc. – they perhaps likewise need to be reminded that, as Haridimos Tsoukas recently put it, ‘if Greeks had really taken national pride seriously rather than espoused it merely rhetorically, they would have made different political choices: They would have elected governments that would have seriously reformed the state, would not have borrowed imprudently, would not have wasted European Union money, and would have genuinely cared for the country’.

 

3. Dismiss democracy
Not all there is to Europe: new headquarter of the European Central Bank (photo: Epizentrum, used under CC BY-SA 3.0 Creative Commons License, source: Wikimedia)

Not all there is to Europe: new headquarter of the European Central Bank (photo: Epizentrum, used under CC BY-SA 3.0 Creative Commons License, source: Wikimedia)

One of the cornerstones of the European project is its professed belief in democratic principles. Unlike other regional bodies such as ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations), the EU has never counted military dictatorships among its members, and where individual member states had been found to be on a slippery slope towards authoritarianism—as most recently in the case of Hungary—the EU took (sometimes, no doubt, half-hearted) steps to ensure a return to some semblance of liberal democracy. Yet the European Union’s institutions still suffer from a democratic deficit. Though the European Parliament’s rights have been strengthened over the years, it is largely limited to responding to initiatives coming out of the European Commission. And political parties at the national level have failed to take elections to the European Parliament sufficiently seriously. Instead, they continue to send off politicians well past their prime to EU institutions as a ‘pre-retirement gift’ and often campaign for European elections on thoroughly domestic agendas. One might think that, with democracy at EU level being in such a poor state, there would be more respect for democracy at the level of member states. Wrong. The recent Greek referendum is a case in point, even taking into account its severe flaws. By putting a convoluted question about a no longer valid compromise to the vote, days after a deadline had passed, the Greek government did not exactly pay much respect to democratic process. And yet the result was clear: the Greek people stood behind its government in insisting that a debt haircut or some other meaningful restructuring of Greek’s debt was necessary. How did Eurogroup leaders, notably Germany’s finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble, react? Instead of trying to find a face-saving compromise, they offered a punitive deal, with conditions worse than what was originally offered, sending the clear message that any attempt to use democratic means to challenge technocratic rule—if not politically, then at least morally—will be punished.

 

4. Indulge in ideology

When historical memory is being erased and democracy is respected only insofar as it rubberstamps technocratic decisions, it is perhaps no surprise that ideology fills the void. The rise of fascist, xenophobic, nationalist, and Eurosceptic parties across Europe—from Greece’s fascist ‘Golden Dawn’ in the South to the anti-immigration ‘Sweden Democrats’ in the North—attests to this fact. But ideology is not only—and not necessarily—located at the political margins. Indeed, as the history of the Green movement shows, political issues that first emerged at the margins and which were initially dismissed as ‘ideological’ may, over time, become widely accepted and even take on a ‘post-ideological’ flavour. In addition to extremist ideologies on the far right and far left, there is the insidious tendency of ideology to creep into the political centre. Take the example of austerity, which is being fetishized by political leaders across Europe, from David Cameron to Angela Merkel. Where it has gone beyond tackling the worst excesses of public spending, austerity everywhere has failed to deliver on its promise of generating growth and improving the livelihoods of working people (not to mention its notorious blindness to the plight of those who are out of work). As Paul Krugman notes, ‘all of the economic research that allegedly supported the austerity push has been discredited’, with central statistical data turning out to be empirically mistaken. Yet so strong is the grip of ideology that centre-right politicians across Europe don’t seem to acknowledge the manifest failure of their policies—even attempting to turn the tables, as Poland’s Donald Tusk did earlier this month in an interview with the Financial Times, when he dismissed anti-austerity arguments and any criticism of free-market fundamentalism as ‘anti-European’.

 

5. Moralize everything

The current crisis is the joint result of design flaws of the Euro, the 2008 global financial crisis, trade imbalances, and the increasingly complex interdependencies between European economies. Yet it is being framed as a moral issue for which, depending on perspective, either irresponsible debtors or greedy creditors are to blame. So great is the moral distrust, that any sense of solidarity between the different countries of the Eurozone seems to have evaporated. Germans appear to view Greece as a country of profligate spendthrifts who lack all self-discipline (recall that the German word ‘Schuld’ means both ‘debt’ and ‘guilt’!); Greeks, in turn, view German demands for fiscal discipline as punitive acts of a ruthless hegemon. What would be needed is an acknowledgment of causal—and moral—complexity. Past overspending in countries like Greece was not the result of deeply ingrained ‘national character’, but was opportunistic in nature, thanks to the low interest rates and ready access to credit brought about by a flawed Euro system—a system that was designed (and, let’s not forget, tweaked in favour of Germany and France when it seemed opportune!) by such financial illiterates as the former German finance minister Theo Waigel.

 

6. Cultivate resentment

Ideological attachments and a sense of moral superiority are the perfect breeding ground for resentment. In the absence of anything resembling a European public sphere, parts of the national media in individual EU countries have gleefully promulgated prejudice and stereotypes—hence the ubiquity of caricatures depicting Merkel as Hitler in the Greek media and the German tabloid Bild’s (approving) depiction, earlier this month, of Merkel wearing a spiked helmet, ready to drill some discipline into ‘these swindling Greeks who are out to destroy our Euro’ (as Bild put it in March of 2010). Feeding such resentment and prejudice based on national stereotypes risks opening up old wounds, which the political project of European integration was meant to heal.

 

7. Take it personally

“I shall wear the creditors’ loathing with pride.” Those were the words of Yanis Varoufakis as he rode off into the sunset on his motorbike, shortly after having resigned as the Greek finance minister. What may have seemed as yet another silly bit of posturing at the time, in fact points to another dysfunctional aspect of the ongoing negotiations: their high degree of personalization. As if it weren’t bad enough that a problem of EU-wide significance had turned into a showdown between Greece and a ‘troika’ of institutions, the series of negotiations and public statements at times seemed to descend into a shouting match between incompatible personalities. What hope is there for fruitful negotiations when the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker—the former Prime Minister of Luxembourg, the country with the highest direct EU spending per capita—accuses Greece of trying to ‘pull a rabbit out of a hat’, and the (then) finance minister of Greece, Varoufakis, retorts by accusing Juncker of not having read the documents? And what should one conclude about the current state of the EU’s political elites when such public exchanges are no longer startling, other than that it is in a state of near-total disarray?

 

8. Value numbers, not people

From the very beginning, the project of European integration was conceived of as a political project, aiming at overcoming old divisions along ethnic and national lines, putting solidarity between European countries above political feuds. Europe was meant to solve its problems together, not through rivalries between nation states. There is a reason it used to be called the European Community. In the last decade or so—certainly since the European debt crisis started to unfold from 2009 onwards—this communal aspect of the EU has all but evaporated. The Eurozone, and the larger European Union within which it is embedded, has turned into a project of safeguarding the wealth and status of the select few—what Jürgen Habermas has characterized as a ‘hybrid actor’ consisting of the ‘institutions’ (i.e. the ‘troika’), private and institutional investors, and financial conglomerates. Private banks, mostly French and German, were bailed out in 2010, at the expense of the public, and countries such as Greece found themselves unable to meet their financial obligations. But just because a country hasn’t paid up, doesn’t mean that it hasn’t paid a price: Greece’s GDP has dropped by nearly 30% since 2008 and unemployment stands at more than 25%. No one, not even the Greek government, is asking to be let off the hook for past failures and mismanagement. But there has been failure and mismanagement all around, from incompetent French and German banks which made risky loans (perhaps unsurprisingly, given that they had already proved to be clueless when it came to deals involving collateralized debt obligations) to political leaders who burdened public finances with irresponsible long-term debts. If EU leaders really wanted to stay true to the guiding ideas of the European project they would need to look beyond the numbers and start valuing people. The only question is: Will they have the courage to do so?

Axel Gelfert is the editor of The Berlin Review of Books.

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(c) 2015 The Berlin Review of Books

 

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