December 16, 2011
As the reality of ‘seven lean years’ sinks into the consciousness of the peoples of Europe, resignation and reality is crystallising in the minds of the peoples of Europe. Such a mood amongst the electorates of Europe is the essential precondition for any political or economic settlement of Europe’s current woes.
The mood is not a matter of Left or Right, as it has been a matter of chance as to who was in office when the recession struck. It was the Left in Greece and Spain and the Right in Italy and Ireland. What matters more is the particular national ‘hard times’ to which the mood is anchored.
I first came across the mood in Athens during the riots in the summer. You could sense an emerging realisation amongst all classes and political parties that the country had been living in a fantasy world that was no longer tenable. The Greeks had hoped that they could combine an Ottoman version of the state, with jobs available on the basis of patronage, and generous welfare benefits paid for by cheap borrowing and the falsification of the national accounts. As the crisis deepened faith in the political class evaporated and a deeper sense of the Greek people’s ability to survive grew stronger. For some this took the form of wartime memories; for some it was the horrors of the Greek Civil War; for those with long memories it was the centuries of enslavement following incorporation into the Ottoman Empire.
In Ireland the mood is also of remembrance and waking up to reality. Irish friends will tell you now that they always knew that the dream of the Celtic Tiger was too good to be true and was exploited by corrupt politicians and ended in a bogus property boom. The mood since the bailouts has been one of rolling up sleeves and getting back to work. There is no shortage of hard times in the Irish folk memory, just as there is no shortage of intelligence or hard work amongst the Irish people.
In Spain the generational divide is all important. The baby boomers who managed the transition from Franco to democracy had rewarded themselves with prosperity, but gone beyond it into an ecstatic property speculation. For the under-thirties, who are faced with clearing up the mess, have to make contact with their grandparents to recall the perseverance of the Spanish during the Spanish Civil War. Indignant or not, they have an heritage of steely perseverance in the face of suffering on which to draw.
In Finland the eruption of the eurosceptic ‘True Finns’ looks like an anomaly until you realise that the roots of the True Finns lie in the Farmers’ Party. Rural Finland was always suspicious of the easy cosmopolitanism of the new, largely urban Finland that emerged from the long self-disciplined era of ‘Finnlandisierung’. The days when Finland topped every league and Nokia shares were the toast of Europe seem suddenly distant. No one who understands the history of Finland should be surprised that their reaction is a quiet and determined return to yet more hard work.
Their distant cousins, the Hungarians, are re-enacting their own historical pageant of national pride and national suffering. The images of the Hungarian European Presidency were all designed to stress that Hungary had history and that Hungary was different. The Fidesz Government shows how a Liberal Party can move to the Right and re-root itself in national fears and trauma when the going gets tough. Whether it is the Treaty of Trianon or the perceived betrayal of the 1956 Revolution, Hungarians can always be roused by talk of betrayal or their attention distracted by a well established set of scapegoats. Luckily for Europe their political class have retained an awareness of how to play the game in a multi-national political entity.
An increasingly harsh rhetoric is not limited to the Eastern marches of the Union. The recently published British Social Attitudes Survey shows a public opinion becoming harsher and less open to the suggestion that the state can solve all problems. This should be seen alongside other material suggesting a rejection of some of the debt-fuelled self-deception of the Blair years and a renewed interest in the nature and lessons of British history. A return to intolerance regarding the display of great wealth would be an entirely British response in line with an idealised memory of wartime equality. Appeals to the ‘bulldog spirit’ indicate one rather unhelpful bolthole for a country faced with a moment of truth in its relationship with mainland Europe. One could extend such examples to The Netherlands, to Italy and to the rest of the Union. Each in their own way laying aside the myths and temptations of the last two decades in favour of a recognition of reality.
All this is necessary if the electorates of Europe are to give their political classes one last chance to find a solution. However none of it is sufficient without a parallel self-awareness in Germany. The Germans maintain that they have been entirely virtuous and that memories of the inflation of the 1920s prevent them from taking on the fiscal responsibilities consequent on their prosperity. No progress at European level is possible until the Germans understand that their successful exports were built, not just on their own virtues, but on the European Single Market and the way in which the euro itself has opened up Southern and Eastern Europe to German manufacturers.
One can well understand the German desire to be just a ‘normal’ country, but the sad truth is that Germany is just too big to be ‘normal’. Its global exporting success is rooted in its European home market. The recent failure of an effort to raise funds via German bonds will be regarded by historians as the moment when the reality of their situation was brought home to the Germans. They, more than any other nation in Europe, know why European unity is not a fad, or a fantasy. It was constructed with them in mind. While the sight of Helmut Kohl on a bicycle was always slightly worrying, the Germans know why the European bicycle will fall over if it does not continue to go forward.
Author : Tom Spencer