A step at a time over the past seven years, the true victim of financial, economic, social, and now political crisis has emerged. No, it’s not the Greeks, or the Spanish or Portuguese, not the Irish or the Italians: It’s the European Union itself, in whose name the fight to recover has been waged.
With Greece’s debt crisis unresolved and with Prime Minister Cameron’s landslide re-election in Britain last month, we now stare at two unthinkable scenarios: Greece’s exit from the euro and the U.K.’s from the E.U. altogether. A Grexit, destabilizing all by itself, threatens a chain reaction. A Brexit will remove one of the biggest stones in the union’s foundation and could turn the English Channel into the world’s sixth ocean.
Let’s not get too dire: Both of these questions could come good. But neither, at the moment, is heading in the right direction.
There have been other tough passages in the E.U.’s history. In the 1960s, France bridled as supranational powers passed to Brussels and in proper Gaullist fashion, stood against Britain’s membership in what was then the European Economic Community. Post-Berlin Wall enlargement and the Maastricht Treaty did not come easily. By the late 1990s, “euro-skepticism” was a legitimate and too common term.
In my opinion, no past moment of difficulty since the seminal Treaty of Paris in 1951 equals the perils of this one. Misusing the word along with everyone else, the threat out in the middle distance looks a little existential.
The immediate facts of these two cases are plain enough.
The Tsipras government in Athens can’t get a new debt deal out of Brussels that allows it to remain answerable to its electorate. Even if Greece makes its June payments of $1.8 billion on time, the now-strong possibility of a Grexit won’t evaporate.
Syriza, the anti-austerity party elected to power in January, is now split on the euro question. It wasn’t six months ago, and the internal argument now—desirable to no one—is a consequence of the failure of Athens-E.U. talks thus far.
“This is a dysfunctional union that doesn’t serve the interests of most of its members,” Costas Lapavitsas, a prominent Syriza parliamentarian, said in an interview published in the Los Angeles Times last week. “To me it’s only a matter of time before this is recognized.”
Ominous, especially given the rise of other populist parties—in Spain, France, and elsewhere—of either right or left persuasion.
In Britain, as soon as Cameron clinched his reelection it was clear his anti-European right wing was going to assume a new prominence. In no time, and no surprise, the British leader was hoofing it through Europe, completing a tour of the Netherlands, France, Poland, and Germany last Friday to gauge how difficult it will prove to negotiate a new deal for the U.K. within the union.
Difficult, in a word. Suddenly, Brexit is front-burner stuff.
Cameron’s dilemma is stark. He owes his electorate a referendum on E.U. membership or Brexit by 2017. Either he gets the Continent to accept a “full-on treaty change,” as he put it last week, or he could prove to be the prime minister who ushered Britain out of the European project—or back in time, if you prefer.
The French are against any treaty change at all, and Chancellor Merkel went only so far as to say it can’t be “completely ruled out.” It’s doubtful that’s enough to let Cameron sleep well at night.
Apart from the pressing politics now weighing on the Greek crisis and 10 Downing Street, I see even more serious cause for worry on two counts. First, there are questions of history. Second, there is the failure of Brussels technocrats to register said questions.
In the case of Greece, you have a political culture with a long record of opposition to free market orthodoxies and a wide stripe of pink, scarlet, crimson, and every other shade of red running through it. Its ambiguous position between West and East has been a matter of record since Herodotus wrote The Histories.
In the British case one could arguably go back to the Norman Conquest, but let’s keep the count to a few centuries. Gideon Rachman, the astute English columnist, took it all apart in a very fine explainer in the Financial Times last week.
“Britain’s debate about Europe echoes arguments that were taking place nearly 300 years ago, when Sir Robert Walpole became the first prime minister,” Rachman writes. “Robert Tombs, the Cambridge historian, notes that Walpole, a Whig, believed Britain should play a ‘major role in Europe,’ while his Tory opposition preferred ‘overseas trade, not European commitments.’”
History, political and cultural traditions, what we might get away with calling national sentiment—these things can’t be ignored in a project as complex as Europe’s since 1945. Gaullism falls in this file and it caused problems. Now it’s right-wing Toryism and Greek leftists with long memories and a lot of pride.
No surprise these things now weigh very heavily on the E.U.’s future. The surprise is that Brussels has been so wrong for so long in its approach to European integration.
Technocrats have long directed the European project, and therein lies the error. They’re trained in liberal economics but not history, politics, or cultural studies. This renders them ill-equipped. The task should never have been to erase all difference—we will all eat bananas of the same shape—but to recognize and accommodate difference.
In practical terms, Brussels should have been assigned less power and Strasbourg, where the European Parliament sits, more. Ask yourself, when was the last time you read news of some big decision or policy datelined “Strasbourg?”
I rate problems of history and institutional design deep sources of concern because they’re very hard to address and no one’s seems to be doing so. The Greeks may find a way through, and the British may decide to remain in the European family. One hopes so.
But the Grexit and Brexit questions are merely symptoms. The underlying malady is Europe as it’s now conceived and constituted.
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