11/12/10

There is more than the Euro at stake

  
Παρασκευή, 10 Δεκεμβρίου 2010 11:10
dp_101210
The governments of Europe are playing with fire. What is at stake in the on-going and never-ending discussions in Brussels is much more than the survival of the common European currency: it is the future of the peaceful, democratic political order erected on our continent after the Second World War.
A number of economists, among them some very respected ones, take a rather relaxed view of a possible breakup of the euro zone – whether the euro is retained by some of its members, or it is altogether relegated to the junkyard of History. From their purely technical standpoint, they see no ground for particular worry. Indeed, in their opinion, such an outcome may even prove beneficial: The stronger northern economies will no longer be weighed down by the laggards; and the latter, after going through a financial purgatory, will emerge equipped with a new-found competitiveness. So roughly goes this technocratic narrative.
It is an approach, however, that leaves out a major parameter. It completely overlooks the momentous political implications of the economic upheaval in question. Chancellor Merkel has rightly stressed that the future of the EU – at least of a meaningful EU, one may add – is dependent upon the fate of the euro. It is true that, if the euro zone were to disintegrate, Germany and a number of other countries would most probably emerge from the ensuing economic turbulence relatively unscathed and perhaps even strengthened, at least momentarily. The whole European project, however, would have received a death blow – the consequences of which would in all likelihood prove disastrous for all concerned.
The assumption, that in such a case, thanks among others to the devaluation of their re-introduced national currencies – or of a euro no longer shared with Germany, in the event that Berlin simply opts out – the weaker euro zone economies would make a satisfactory recovery, and that, for the rest, life in Europe would go on as usual, is pure fantasy. It stems from a dangerous underestimation of the impact of “Europe’s promise” on the domestic scene of the more vulnerable EU members; and, also, of the repercussions of unwelcome political developments in these countries on the rest of the continent.
An instructive case in point is Greece. On the verge of bankruptcy, largely for reasons of its own making, no doubt, Athens resorted to the financial succor of its European partners – and, on their insistence, of the IMF, as well – agreeing, in return, to implement a grueling austerity program. And, despite the understandable grumblings and even loud protests of those affected, and they are many, the Greek public has by and large borne the ensuing pain unexpectedly well – fundamentally because it counts on European solidarity for the success of an otherwise highly uncertain enterprise. While, largely also due to the EU’s ideological ascendency, Greek political discourse, irrespective of political affiliations, has at no moment deviated from the democratic norm.
These attitudes could change, however, in case the European Union ceases to be a source of hope and inspiration, and, consequently, is no longer perceived as a standard of political behavior. In other words, if, in the face of a major economic crisis, Greece can no longer turn to, and rely on the EU, popular reactions could get out of hand; with the authoritarian temptation resurfacing, in some form or other.
What is true of Greece – an old, hitherto relatively stable EU and NATO member – is even truer of the rest of the Balkans. In our part of the world, social and economic conditions are volatile and democratic institutions fragile; while tensions between nations are constantly present just under the surface, when they are not in full view. The vision offered by the EU has been one of the two major stabilizing factors in the area – the other being the presence of NATO. (Despite, it should be noted, the costly errors committed by both of these organizations in their handling of the Yugoslav crisis.) But with the attention of Washington now focused mainly outside the European continent, South Eastern Europe has effectively become mainly an EU responsibility.
One may well ask: Why should developments in the Balkan periphery of Europe be of particular concern to the prosperous Europeans in the north and west of the continent? The answer lies in the relatively recent past. If EU cohesion were to be further eroded, it would not be long before the bigger European states would engage once more in a dangerous game of spheres of influence – inevitably drawing in outside powers as well. This is one of the principal risks the present euro zone crisis carries. While, in light of European history, it would also be foolhardy to ignore the hazard of regime contagion.

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