As paralysis continues to grip the corridors of power in Brussels and Berlin, even the dark humour for which central Europeans are noted is in short supply. But at least, so the line goes, the Greeks managed “to get it right” at the ballot box on Sunday and won’t be forced to vote in another election until they do manage to get it right. That, after all, had been the fate of other European Union member states such as Ireland when constitutional referendums didn’t delivered the results that Brussels bureaucrats wanted. In the case of Italy, impending economic crisis saw technocrats assume power without even the fig leaf of an election. For now, it seems, and across the euro zone, so deep is the fear of life outside of the tottering single currency that voters will opt to continue to take the austerity medicine.
In Greece, victory for Antonis Samaras’s conservative New Democracy Party came at a time when many Greeks know that the choice lies between a rock and a hard place: permanent economic stagnation and austerity, courtesy of the euro zone, or massive capital flight and sudden devaluation should Greece revert to the drachma.
No one should underestimate the real fear that stalks southern Europe, as the contagion risks spreading to Spain and to Italy. This is the fear of the unknown. Once upon a time, EU membership, and the badge of recognition conferred by joining the single currency, meant that countries had somehow “arrived”. To bite the bullet and opt out of the single currency is something fearful southern Europeans are still not quite prepared to risk.
After all, it wasn’t all that long ago that Greece and Spain were dictatorships, and in truth democracy is a relatively new concept to many countries in Europe. That is why the sight of strutting, leather-clad neo-fascists on the streets of Greek cities strikes fear in the hearts of many.
As world leaders gathered in Mexico for the G20 Summit over the past two days, one senior official was quoted as saying that the crisis in the euro zone “is the biggest threat to the global economy”. For his part, the president of the European Commission, Manuel Barrosso, attempted to spread the gloom – or perhaps the blame. “The challenges are not only European, they are global,” Mr Barrosso said.
Such utterances offer precious little hope to the Greeks. They have seen their economy contract by a nearly unbelievable 30 per cent and with little or no hope of economic recovery (as long as Germany continues to resist the almost-universal demand for massive, state-engendered, demand-led economic growth).
Yet for the austere German bankers, “process” is key, and massive national debt unsustainable. For German Chancellor Angela Merkel, there are domestic considerations: why should German workers, who have struggled through a prolonged wage freeze, be forced to risk all in bailing out much of southern Europe?
Ms Merkel’s party has seen poor election results in North Rhine Westphalia; she knows most Germans do not want to try to repeat what took almost two decades for them to achieve in the former East Germany. Given that Europe’s leaders have still not managed to sort out the banks – which tipped the euro zone, with all of its contradictions, into crisis in the first place – it is hard not to have some sympathy with the Germans who are now expected to bail out a euro zone that, in truth, probably cannot be bailed out.
In debt-laden Britain, now in a second period of recession, Prime Minister David Cameron has urged companies to look to emerging economies such as China, India and Brazil for the opportunities that are fast disappearing from the euro zone. Britain narrowly avoided joining the single currency, yet the crisis will not leave Britain untouched. Already, as The Guardian reported this week, about 2.2 million British children are living in poverty and millions of working families are one push from penury. Heavy cuts in welfare budgets have yet to kick in, with all the fears of suffering that follow from a disappearing social welfare net.
If the single currency can be blamed for making Europe’s recession much worse, then it was Anglo-American deregulation of the financial sector that allowed the euro zone to be undone so spectacularly from within. But five years into a global recession, a recession that has lasted for almost as long as the Second World War, Europe’s leaders have simply failed to come up with a solution.What a stark contrast to the period 25 years ago when the communist bloc unravelled across central and eastern Europe. Back then, there were US and western European “five-point plans” designed to develop fledgling democracies and nascent market economies. Fears of economic collapse and mass migration were never realised and, in the short period since, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and the Baltic states have all emerged as strong, growing economies.
Their relative economic confidence may, of course, be related to the fact that most of them have not yet joined the euro zone – something the leaders of all these countries were once very keen on doing.
This article first appearred in The National newspaper.
Mark Seddon is a former UN correspondent for Al Jazeera English and a UK political commentator.