Europe’s reckoning is delayed…but for how long?
Everything in Europe has a ‘but’ attached to it these days. Spain got a bank bailout last week, but it hasn’t convinced the markets. Mario Monti is a great economist and wise man, but he’s losing support for his premiership of Italy. Angela Merkel is listening to the voices that try to persuade her that Germany should bankroll growth, but she hasn’t done anything yet.
The New Democracy party, a grouping that, broadly, wants Greece to stick with the euro and bear more austerity (though it will bargain hard for less) has won… but what its leader, Antonis Samaras, has just got for himself is the worst political job on the continent, and may not be able to deliver. If, in democracy’s cradle, he can forge a coalition, keep to the terms of the bailout his country has received, enact rapid and deep reforms, and preserve democratic rule, he will deserve a place in the pantheon – a Greek word, after all, meaning a temple for the gods.
And so far, he’s been no god. A fellow countryman, the Yale political scientist Stathis Kalyvas, wrote in Foreign Affairs in June that Samaras “is widely seen as representing the corrupt and ineffective Athens political establishment that led the country to ruin”. Yet it’s this man, with all of his history, faults and frailties, on whom the future of Greece – and by many measures, the future of the European Union – depends.
That the fate of the vast enterprise of a Greater Europe should come down to the calculations of one Greek politician is terrifying. But it’s the way great projects go. At many turning or tipping points, one event, move or person is – consciously or unconsciously – critical.
The European Union has always been a high-wire act, a fragile thing, rooted less in history than in hope, idealism and an envious desire to be a great power.
Idealism was its first expression. After World War Two, the Union’s founders wanted to make European war again unthinkable. Since nation states had created war, their nationalism needed to be suppressed in favor of a greater, more peaceful, order.
But idealism faded. The sheer success of European rebuilding, the rise of postwar generations, official and unofficial links between the states strengthening, the political unity formed by opposition to the Soviet bloc – it all meant that the founders’ dreams were rewarded… and progressively forgotten. There was union, but it grew comfortable, it grew to be taken for granted.
Another bond was needed. It came from an earthier source, from money.
The best expression of the leverage money can have came ironically from a very idealistic philosopher, the 18th century German Immanuel Kant, in his “Guarantee for Perpetual Peace” (1795):
The spirit of commerce sooner or later takes hold of every people and it cannot exist side by side with war … for among all those powers that belong to a nation, financial power may be the most reliable in forcing nations to pursue the noble cause of peace.
Well, commerce is surely a powerful spirit. In Europe it has certainly seemed to help peace. In buying and selling, acquiring and consuming, we express the secular, practical, everyday manifestation of peace, as we contentedly graze. For some Europeans, notably the British, this was enough. So long as the market fundamentals were free and respected, and a spirit of cooperation prevailed, what need of more?
But political ambition to build a great state, the richest in the world, remained strong. Kant’s commerce was the lever for a larger goal: political union, come to be seen as a necessary accompaniment to the union of finance and the market. And it is that lever that now bends with the strain, and is like to break.
The reckoning is now.
For those who press for a closer, more united Europe, the crisis, though dangerous, is also a large opportunity. If the only way to avoid making cynicism into reality is to convincingly mutualize the debt, then a credible banking and fiscal unity must be quickly achieved. For that to be acceptable, political mechanisms must be developed – and a European government with real power will begin to take shape.
But those who would turn disaster into triumph are cursed with a paradox – well expressed in a recent speech in Sweden by the Economist writer David Rennie:
On the one hand, Europe’s single market represents Europe’s best chance of pursuing rational strategies in the face of globalization. On the other, it is an affront to democracy … in country after country, voters would rise up against it.
The voters of Greece did not, on Sunday, rise up against it. That would have meant giving the radical left-wing Syriza party a mandate, and they narrowly avoided doing so. But they may yet, for their choice carried the large but – but Samaras spends a season in a circle of hell constructing a coalition, and a longer season in a lower circle trying to govern a country under largely German-imposed conditions on largely German-organized assistance. The exercise of democracy is a Pyrrhic victory for New Democracy, and no kind of victory at all – at least not for years – for the Greek electorate. For people used to instant gratification from their politicians, that will be hard to bear quietly.
As citizens, we are now obliged to understand that the assumption of good and peaceful times may no longer hold. In Europe; in the Middle East, where Egypt now stands on the brink of more – and more bitter – protests against the military’s reassumption of power; in a Russia locked in a struggle between civil society groups and the presidency over human rights; in a China whose outgoing prime minister, Wen Jiabao, has warned of a return to dictatorship if democracy is not developed – in all these and more, the dangers and the crises spread and grow, and every improvement has a “but.”
This is not yet a global disaster movie. Africa now grows, quite strongly in places. Latin America remains largely democratic, having convincingly shaken off the military “saviors” that plagued its 20th century. Even in Europe, not all is dark: The decisive victory of French President François Hollande’s Socialist Party in the weekend’s parliamentary elections will put more, and more convincing, pressure on Germany to go for growth. Above all, the U.S. and Canada remain strong and free, and – as the dean of “Soft Power,” Harvard’s Joseph Nye, asserts – the former remains the world’s hegemon and is likely to remain so for some decades.
But how much more of a pounding can democracy take without an eruption, perhaps one greater than we have seen since the war? How much longer must we put “but” behind every event?
PHOTO: Conservative New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras is greeted by supporters in Athens’ Syntagma square June 17, 2012. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis