We could find ourselves back in the Europe of our nightmares

World View: Everyone knows what needs to be done but doesn't want to suffer the consequences

Peter Popham
Thursday 29 January 2015 21:35

Europe has got into the habit of advancing by leaps and bounds – and only then being forced by events to confront the consequences of its rashness.

With one leap it acquired a single currency, and thus became, in a stroke of legerdemain, an entity which both deserved and required a single currency, which is to say a single country, or to put it pejoratively, a superstate.

And during the fat years, all the poor bits, which in the normal course of things would be living from hand to mouth and occasionally devaluing to stay in business, enjoyed the most tremendous blowout, which it seemed would never end – until it did end, in the most horrible way, with the crash.

Then in the seven lean years, the poor bits learnt quickly that the party was over and that they would have to queue up at the door of the workhouse because they were not really parts of the same vast country at all, but shiftless, corrupt, ill-governed, tax-evading countries – “debt colonies” as Greece’s new Finance Minister put it this week – whose relationship to the northern realms approximates to that of some wretched ex-colony to its former colonial master.

This state of affairs forces us to ask: is the architecture of the eurozone, and perhaps of the union itself, so fundamentally flawed that it would be better to knock it down before it falls down and buries all within?

The Charlie Hebdo massacre made the whole Continent think very hard about the nature and limitations of freedom of expression, a debate which is still going on. And now the victory of Syriza in Greece’s general election this week is forcing a similar bout of brain-bashing about the EU.

In the seven lean years, Greece has seen its debt rise to 175 per cent of GDP, and a generation of those young Greeks who choose to remain at home struggle to find work of any sort. The skies of Athens, as our correspondent wrote this week, are covered by a pall of smog because many Greeks can no longer afford to heat themselves using gas or electricity and instead burn rubbish, old doors, anything that comes to hand.

As the old proverb goes, when poverty comes in the door, love – including love for the European Union – flies out the window.

Members of London’s Frontline Club last Friday had the opportunity to see a film which offers a rich and nourishing contribution to this debate. Entitled The Great European Disaster Movie, it was due to be broadcast by BBC 4 on 8 February but curiously it has been bumped from the schedule. The Corporations’s official comment is “we are actively looking for a suitable moment to schedule [the film]”.

Directed by Annalisa Piras from Italy, it is an hour-long wake-up call for all those for whom departure from the union could not come a moment too soon and would be the one-stop solution to all our ills, from immigration to health-and-safety nannying. The film does not spare the EU’s failures and follies, focusing squarely on machine politicians such as Jean-Claude Juncker and the lack of popular sympathy with or interest in EU bodies that appears to be universal. It underlines, nonetheless, the unprecedented boons union has brought, including especially freedom of movement and generations of peace.

The film’s credentials are bolstered by the presence of Bill Emmott as executive producer – the former editor of The Economist whose first claim to authority was his lapidary book about Japan, The Sun Also Sets, which predicted the bursting of the Japanese bubble in the late 1980s. And Emmott sees significant similarities, as Europe begins to discover the meaning of deflation.

“I’ve been watching Japan since the bursting of the bubble,” he says, “and there has been a great rigidity in what we thought of as a very flexible place, the difficulty of making substantial changes, even when everyone understands what the problem is.

“We’ve seen the same thing in Europe for 20 years – everyone knows what needs to be done but doesn’t want to suffer the consequences of being the first to do it.”

The overall message of Ms Piras’s film is: be afraid – be very afraid! If we are not careful – if we do not somehow find a way of falling in love with our unlovable European arrangements – the day after tomorrow we will be back in the Europe of nightmares.

Fear is entirely understandable on the Continent, where by the end of the Second World War most countries had been occupied by hostile forces. But the trouble with fear is that it tends to freeze creative thought – and in the process can bring about exactly the consequences most feared.

King Laius was warned by the Oracle that he would be murdered by his own son Oedipus: that fear dictated all his actions, which, with bitter irony, culminated in his death at his son’s hand.

Britain is not quite so tormented by fears of disintegration, which explains why British commentators, including this newspaper, have been notably less anguished in contemplating a possible Grexit.

Of course there would be turmoil and banks would go bust, but in the long run Greece would have a currency under its own control: that’s the gist of their thinking. It’s time that good people on the Continent – not merely the racist, nostalgia-ridden far-right – began thinking the unthinkable, too, before it crashes over all our heads.

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