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.