July 3, 2015 1:26:33 am
Midnight at Berlin Hauptbahnhof, the glass palace of a train station shimmering in the city’s heart. You took a train from east Berlin, where cocktails cost Rs 350 and shops accept only euros. On the walkway leading out of the station, as it was inside the east town bars, you run into a wall of youth, seriously joyful youth. Cheap beer cans are flowing out of bins, little paper plates on which vendors serve snacks are sprinkled around lamp posts like street art. Some are playing guitar, some singing. The lightness of broke youth is moving. The spectacle is not as posh as in Paris or as expensive as in London. But Berlin is again the capital of Europe — a symbol of Germany’s achievements since its reunification.
Yet, in the jollity of the street party lies a terrible disappointment: That sinking feeling called the European Union. For an Indian used to a rowdy democracy, it’s hard to get what the fuss is all about. They get welfare money for pet dogs in Germany, don’t they? And doesn’t one euro cost 70 of our precious rupees? But the project to achieve an ever-closer union of Europe had set itself noble, if difficult, goals. The EU was fumbling in 2012. Today, it is openly mocked.
Something unthinkable happened on June 30. A eurozone country defaulted on its loans. On a continent where people are jailed for walking off from a bakery with a croissant without paying, a sovereign borrowing billions of cheap money and not paying it back has hit the idea of Europe right on the frontal lobe. Financial probity, keeping a deal — these used to be inviolate ideas. It’s hard to accept, but harder to sympathise with.
Europe was meant to be a political union of equal democracies. But the most powerful people in the EU are those running its unelected institutions, like the European Central Bank. There was a promise the continent would be a social union that would rise above the nastiness of nation-states. But the Greeks put a Hitler moustache on Chancellor Angela Merkel in protest posters. Europe promised to lead the world, to spray soft Alpine mist on territories scorched by the American military machine. It turns out no one listens to it, not Iran and not Israel.
A political idea needs success stories to succeed. But in the past decade, the EU has let crises fester. There were massive bailouts in Ireland and Spain in 2012, costing several hundred billions. The Irish have been stoically serving the loan shark. The Spaniards have shown admirable penance after a housing binge that left the country with a third of all unsold houses in Europe. It’s Greece that’s doing grievous damage to the European project, both in terms of money and politics. By now, it’s clear that Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his finance chief Yanis Varoufakis are the Arvind Kejriwal and Manish Sisodia of Greece — smart politicians who think they can revolt against the mathematics of running a government, hold rallies against data. But they are products of the European crisis. The cause lies in Brussels and Berlin, and in Paris. The stink and suffering from Athens lie heaped on the doorstep of Merkel.
The EU was created by Germany and France to achieve two principal goals: Blunt fears of German power by making it serve the larger cause of peace and prosperity for all Europeans; and to eliminate the legacy of war between the two top continental powers. However, in this marathon, Germany kept sprinting while the Greek and French fought over who got how much of their shrinking pizzas. Not Germany’s fault, but the reluctant leader has been called upon to solve the Greek crisis for years — and it has failed.
The options for the EU are stark and odious: Take massive losses on its lending and let Greece walk off as a loan cheat. Or print mountains of euros and funnel billions more into a country that has just thrown a needless referendum in the face of its creditors. To save the EU’s future, Germany and its rich buddies must take the haircut, as Punjab must for a struggling Bihar. And to save the eurozone they must start the euro printing press. It’s a terrible dilemma, but it’s decision time. The continent’s press, as diverse as Danish dairy and Sicilian lemon, is now united in one thought: the voter does not anymore trust its leaders to do the tough job. It’s an “anti-Europe” they live in now.
Mishra is a London-based journalist.
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