Europe is in financial turmoil. The euro wobbles on the instability of a few of its members as the continent slides further into recession. Officials in Brussels and Berlin may stress the need for unity and to support fellow Europeans, but take aside a German Finance Ministry official at an unguarded moment – “Mehr Kirschwasser, Herr Schultz?” – and the tone might be considerably different. Europe is in crisis because the PIIGS are swine: irresponsible, childish, and not fit to govern their own finances, finally requiring Big Brother Germany to sort out their infantile mess.
Official rhetoric disguises whatever personal vitriol in favor of snide, backhanded commentary. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble thinks that Greece would have to “relinquish some of its sovereignty.” Eurogroup President Jean-Claude Juncker, believing that Greece can’t monitor itself, called for increased “surveillance” and “tighter oversight” of Greek finances. The message is overwhelmingly clear: go sit back down in the corner, we’ll handle it for you.
This childlike inability to handle oneself – like the other, proper, grown-up European nations – is why they can’t have nice things.
Nice things like education, affordable health care, paid civil servants, the cost of living, and a generation (or two) that can pursue their own aspirations and get paid a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work. You know, luxuries.
The roots of Europe’s financial crisis are muddled by short-sighted policies on all sides. Suffice to say that to blame a handful of European governments for the woes of the entire continent and the anxieties of a few central bankers would be woefully incomplete. As the acquis communautaire – the legal glue that holds the European Union together – Europe is in it together. But the rhetoric from journals and official communiques seems intent on placing sole responsibility on the Greek people – and are expecting the Greek people to suffer for it.
The need to denigrate Greece’s path to ruin is essential to maintaining the euro zone’s essential narrative of financial strength. The problem, as viewed from Brussels and Berlin, was not that unregulated finance, hot money, and casino capitalism triggered a global financial crisis. No, it was simply the profligate, irresponsible, and reckless governments of Europe’s south – awash with unwashed welfare-dependent masses, riddled with cronyism – that plunged the continent into its current predicament.
There is something intensely morally satisfying to be in control of such a narrative and it is easy to see how tempting it would be for Europe’s powerbrokers to weave such a story. By focusing ire on the south’s irresponsibility, they indirectly absolve their own careless tendencies to follow the last decade’s easy money.
This isn’t the first time chronic infantilism has been used by the European world to chastise lesser-performing economies. The Latin American nations that unwisely picked up the new-fangled – and Western backed – economic doctrines of neoliberalism paid for it with a “lost decade” and numerous citations of failure, weakness, and childish overreach.
When the East Asian financial system convulsed in 1997, European nations were only too happy to prescribe Asian naiveté as its root cause. As East Asian capital flows to stabilize Europe’s financial roof from caving in, smug silence –not even a hint of referencing Europe’s previous off-handed dismissals – pervades Asia’s European spending spree.
The real tragedy is that the European powers that be, while pushing for stricter controls over its financial peripheries – or, depending on the mood of the commentator that day, jettisoning them (so much for “fraternité” and “alle Menschen werden Brüder”) – have made no real, concrete plans to police and monitor the financial institutions that have played, at the very least, a significant part in this whole mess. There’s no (serious) demand for greater rational restraints – and lesser still for binding legislation. While Greece, Spain, et al. are remonstrated for spending recklessly on education, public works, and health care, financial institutions gambling on derivatives and make-believe goods are not at all depicted as irresponsible – instead, they're treated as being mistaken but wholly understandable.
One really has to wonder just who the child is. On the one hand, we have the states that extend a protective arm around its citizens – and who would like to continue to do so. On the other, we have bullies who indulge in name-calling, strong-armed tactics, and are oblivious to the short-sighted gambles around them. Is that the real reason why Europe can’t have nice things?
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