Sometimes big news stories seem unbearably dull. The euro crisis is often presented as an apparently endless stream of technical titbits that only a financial geek could love: alchemical recapitalisations of possibly insolvent banks, and the subtle differences between the European Financial Stability Facility and the European Stability Mechanism. But the mind-numbing details hide an exciting drama about the dysfunctional European family of nations.
Think of Greece as the wayward uncle who never seems to settle down and who keeps asking for a little money to tide him over. Spain is a younger sibling, finally interested in school but still reluctant to admit that she needs to change her ways. Italy is a voluble middle child, talented but with a taste for mischief. Germany is the slightly priggish older brother, who has trouble sympathising with his relatives’ weaknesses – although he usually relents in the end.
As in some tribes, the European family has appointed various councils of elders to guide group decisions. For the most part, the central authorities have worked well, but they have to be careful not to anger big brother Germany. Then there is the European Central Bank. When it was set up, most family members thought it would be just another elder-group, but the monetary authority is increasingly behaving like a sort of powerful Godfather to the whole clan.
If those stereotypes don’t please, others are available. The point is that the current debt crisis is a chapter in a story that started more than 2,000 years ago, with the ancient Roman conquest of Gaul and Britain. The European Union is the latest effort to create harmony within a group of diverse personalities, who are tied together by history and location and separated by history and character.
Will this chapter of European history end like that of Romulus and his twin brother Remus, who vied to found Rome? Their family struggle led to fratricide. Murder and war are not on the agenda now. Neither is the traditional technique for papering over European disputes – royal marriages. Instead, the members of the euro zone have to find a modern solution to the mess.