Notes From the Margins…

Europe and Greece: digging the EU’s grave?

  • February 13, 2012
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While street battles raged and buildings burned in the streets of Athens, the Greek parliament approved the draconian bailout conditions imposed by the EU/IMF troika yesterday, in a decision that is likely to have unforeseen consequences for both Greece and the future of the European Union itself in the longterm.


The protests were not confined to the Greek capital. Violent incidents were reported in cities across the country. The Greek Prime Minister Lucas Papedemos declared, as politicians always will, that ‘Vandalism, violence and destruction have no place in a democratic country and won’t be tolerated.’

Maybe not, but  the proposals that his government has agreed upon are also a form of  violence and vandalism, that will reduce large swathes of Greek society to poverty and despair for the indefinite future.

As for democracy, well the EU/IMF troika has insisted that its conditions must be irreversible, and that no future government will be able to overturn them.  But if the protests continue like this,  then it may well require the declaration of a state of exception and the intervention of the Greek military to ensure that these commitments are met.

The German finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble was indifferent to the actual or potential consequences of the bailout package yesterday, declaring that ‘the promises of Greece aren’t enough for us anymore’ and hinting that he would not be particularly bothered if Greece leaves the EU.

You don’t really expect someone like Schaueble to shed too many tears over the social impact of the bailout package, given the importance of low waged labour to the German economy, where workers can earn as little as 55 cents an hour.

But the country that has done so much to promote European unity and which has benefited so much from it really shouldn’t be so complacent. Because the ruthlessness of the bailout conditions is one thing. But they are also stunningly shortsighted and may well turn out to be politically disastrous for the whole of Europe.

The humiliating surrender terms imposed on Germany after World War I were a major contributing factor to the rise of Nazism and the outbreak of World War II.

Greece is not being punished for starting a war, and I’m not suggesting that some Greek Hitler will emerge to set Europe on fire.  But the fact the whole of Greek society is effectively being asked to pay for the fiscal malpractices of its financial and political elites – malpractices that are by no means confined to Greece itself – bodes ill for Greek democracy and for the future of the European Union.

Apart from access to loans and capital markets, there is really no reason why most ordinary Greeks would want to be part of the European Union at all. In the years to come Greeks are likely be even more embittered towards the EU and Germany than they are already.  Their loathing of the politicians responsible may well translate into a more general contempt toward the whole notion of democracy, from which the far-right is likely to benefit, as in a way, it already has, with the entry of the Popular Orthodox Party (LAOS) into the coalition government last year.

All over Europe, political formations with a similarly extremist nationalist, populist, anti-EU and anti-immigrant message are currently in the ascendancy. If austerity measures are imposed on other countries – a process that is already underway across the continent and looks set to intensify – then these forces are likely to prosper still further.

In his brilliant analysis of twentieth century European history Dark Continent, Mark Mazower argues that one of the reasons why so much of democratic Europe succumbed to fascism in the 20s and 30s was simply because too many Europeans had come to hold the very idea of democracy in contempt.  As Mazower observes:

Though we like to think democracy’s victory in the Cold War proves its deep roots in Europe’s soil, history tells us otherwise.  Triumphant in 1918, it was virtually extinct twenty years on.   Maybe it was bound to collapse in a time of political crisis and economic turmoil, for its defenders were too utopian, too ambitious, too few.   In its focus upon constitutional rights and its neglect of social responsibilities, it often seemed more fitted to the nineteenth than to the twentieth century.    By the 1930s the signs were that most Europeans no longer wished to fight for it; there were dynamic non-democratic alternatives to meet the challenges of modernity.

If the European Union has nothing to offer its citizens but Greek-style austerity and the tyranny of the markets, then it may well meet a similar fate.

This would be a pity, because the EU, for all its flaws, has been an attempt to promote Europe’s best political traditions rather than its worst, and most of the continent’s anti-European politicians belong firmly within the second category.   The architects of the European Union aimed to construct a new Europe with human rights, democracy and solidarity between its member states as the core principles of European unity.

These worthy aspirations are now being undermined and endangered by the kind of economic model that is being imposed on Greece, and by a craven subservience of the continent’s politicians to the demands of the markets.  In its willingness to bury the Greeks,  the EU appears oblivious to the possibility that it may also be burying itself, and it is difficult to imagine how any of this will have a happy ending, either in Greece or anywhere else.


  1. Herbert Baierl

    13th Feb 2012 - 11:08 am

    I do not want to comment on the fallacies of debt based money systems in general, or the poor conditions of the low wage sector in Germany, but one aspect should be clear: With the single currency the most effective country survives the longest and there will always be a weakest country, which will finally go bankrupt. So if Greece is gone some others will inevitably follow until the strongest (Germany) will be alone.

    Inside Germany this was recognized in about 1950, when the “Länderfinanzausgleich” was established. The different states with their different economies were forced by the federal government to support each other. Without this measure, maybe Germany would have fallen apart. Do politicians not see that the situation in the EU is much the same?

    • Matt

      13th Feb 2012 - 11:38 am

      Clearly they don’t, or if they do then they’re unwilling or unable to take the kind of action you suggest. Not being an economist, I’m interested in the inevitable chain reaction you describe. Even if there ‘will always be a weakest country’ why should that country necessarily go bankrupt?

  2. Herbert Baierl

    13th Feb 2012 - 1:18 pm

    A simplified version goes as follows:
    You and three friends play a card game for money (in Germany typically Skat)
    You = ECB (you do not play, you observe!), Friend 1 = de, Friend 2 = it, Friend 3 = gr
    They have no money, so you lend it into existence at say 2% interest, every friend 1€.
    Your friends play one year, de wins two cents, gr and it loose 1ct, interest payment is due. Friend de can pay his interest the others can’t:
    de: 1€, gr: 97ct., it: 97ct., YOU: 6ct.
    Reiterate some years and the outcome is clear.
    For further info look at the comment section of:

    Search for Herbert Baierl

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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