‘Wherever I travel, Greece wounds me.’
– George Seferis
After the ugliness of last few days in Brussels as we watched a country being humiliated and a new form of economic colonialism being imposed on a people who have struggled to assert their wishes by means of an impeccable commitment to democracy, it really does feel, as this morning’s Guardian editorial puts it, that Europe after the Greek talks ‘resembles a battlefield the day after the armies have stumbled away – wreckage everywhere, and everyone counting the cost.’
What seems amazing is how committed Greek people of both left and right remain to the idea of ‘Europe’ (as Paul Mason observes in his opinion piece here). Due respect to such strength of faith: for myself, I have felt my faith in the European dream evaporate as the Greek saga has rolled on. I used to be a believer, now I’m ‘losing my religion’. I once taught European Studies, so I know that the structural weaknesses of the European project – including the problem of the ‘democratic deficit’ – go back decades. I understand, too, the illogicality of establishing a single currency without full monetary union, including a European treasury.
But, we must ask, can full political and monetary union ever be possible in Europe? Europe is not the United States (which enjoys full monetary union). The reality of European democracy remains national – because Europe consists of 28 states (19 of them inside the eurozone), each with its own language, history and cultural identity).
As Timothy Garton Ash (whose essays I would once recommend students to read) wrote last week: ‘With 28 versions of Europe, it’s no wonder we barely recognise each other‘.
So there is not just one Greece, but 28 different ones, according to the country you are in. The Estonian and Latvian “Greece” would barely be recognisable to Italians, let alone Greeks. Equally, there is not just one Germany but 28: and few Germans would recognise their country in the Greek media’s “Germany”.
These drastically contrasting narratives are fed by national politicians, who emerge from every Brussels summit to trumpet their own successes and blame any concessions on other governments and nasty European institutions. The Belgian foreign minister rather amusingly says he is the only one who can’t blame it on “Brussels”.
“Among a people without fellow-feeling, especially if they read and speak different languages,” wrote John Stuart Mill, “the united public opinion necessary to the working of representative government cannot exist.” Europe has yet to prove him wrong. I have been in six European countries over the past six weeks, and the lack of fellow-feeling between them has been painful to observe.
What is clear now is how deep is the chasm of the democratic deficit in Europe. A government elected to resist the imposition of the economics of austerity on a people already upon their knees and whose mandate was firmly renewed in the referendum two weeks ago has been forced to accept terms as humiliating as those forced upon Germany at Versailles in 1919.
Quite apart from the tax rises, spending cuts and siphoning off billions of euros of assets into an EU-managed fund to reassure creditors that their bills really will be paid, seeing a sovereign nation forced to rush through legislation that even includes changes to Sunday trading laws fills one with despair.
As Larry Elliott argues, this ‘deal’ is no solution:
For the moment, Greece remains in the euro but it should be obvious by now that there are only two ways of resolving the crisis. The first is to write off a large chunk of its debts. The other is to allow it to grow at a pace that allows it to service its debts. This deal offers neither. Its one minor concession is that there will be talks about giving Greece longer to pay its debts provided it takes steps that are certain to lengthen and deepen the recession. This is not a solution. It is a chink of light filtering through the bars of the debtors’ prison.
As for the future of the European Union – the consequences of these July days are likely to be significant. How will British people vote in next year’s referendum? What impact will this all have on the French and Italian electorates, amongst whom support for nationalist parties advocating EU withdrawal is already strong?
We imagine that with resolve and daring
we will reverse the animosity of fortune,
and so we take our stand outside, to fight.
But whenever the crucial moment comes,
our boldness and our daring disappear;
our spirit is shattered, comes unstrung;
and we scramble all around the walls,
seeking in our flight to save ourselves.
– from ‘Trojans’ by CP Cavafy