Maybe the problem IS those southerners lolling in the Mediterranean sun who overspent and tax-dodged their way to ruin. Or maybe it’s the northerners, rigid beyond reason, so gloomy in their own grey little lives that they’re determined to see the southerners suffer.
Such, at least, are the resentful stereotypes that are increasingly jumping from pub conversation and tabloid pages into the mainstream political discourse.
It’s all a sign that a psychological fissure between northern and southern countries in the European Union is deepening under the strain of the financial crisis. Analysts say the rift threatens Europe’s currency union every bit as much as interest rates and deficits. Maybe it’s just Merkel being extra grumpy given the lousy Summer northern Europe has had to endure.
Vincent Forest, a London-based economist with the Economist Intelligence Unit was quoted as say “National resentments in Europe are rising to dramatic levels. By taking so much time in solving the economic crisis, the Europeans are creating a political and social crisis.”
The 17 countries that use the euro have been struggling for the past three years with the problem of debt: Countries, such as Greece, Portugal, and my own beloved Ireland can’t cope, ans Spain is still pretending that they’re not in crisis mode. While other countries, namely the Netherlands, Germany, Finland and to some extent France, have plenty of demands about how best to manage it. Economies across the region face deepening recessions. Spain and Italy, the two chief trouble spots, are threatened with a financial collapse that could tear the 13-year-old currency union apart and rock the global economy.
Fears are mounting that Spain may be the next to seek a bailout, following Ireland, Greece, Portugal and Cyprus. Italy faces the daunting task of keeping a handle on its huge debt load while fighting a recession, which is glorious news for Berlusconi, who fancies his chances of a triumphant return to Italian and European politics as the hero du jour and shining example of Italian capitalism and industrial might at its best.
In Greece, which has been in recession for five years, Germany is seen as the unbending force that has insisted on a diet of ever-increasing budget cuts that have thrown more and more Greeks out of work. Politicians and journalists have even alluded to the Third Reich, fuelling public anger against the Germans. One wonders if it’s all simply a ploy for ze Germans to get their hands on prime waterfront real estate at bargain basement prices, thus avoiding their need to get up at 5am before everyone else so they can lay claim to the sunbeds.
In Italy, cartoonists have made German Chancellor Angela Merkel the subject of vulgar humor. And on Monday, the respected La Stampa newspaper ran an article that used a derogatory term for Germans. The article cited an adage that says that Germans love Italians but don’t admire them, while Italians admire Germans but don’t love them.
Of all the euro countries, ze Germans have been the most insistent on enforcing austerity, warning of the “moral hazard” of bailing out countries that have not suffered enough for their sins, and therefore may be tempted to lapse again. It seems that Germany’s Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, has never heard of “Quantitive Easing” or “Supply Side Economics”. Or maybe it was just that his wheelchair didn’t fit down those particular aisles in his local library when he was studying economics
German condescension toward southern culture however is not limited to the economy.
In January, the influential German weekly Der Spiegel ran a commentary on the capsized Concordia cruise liner, whose Italian captain is being investigated for manslaughter and abandoning ship while passengers were still aboard.
“Does it surprise you that the captain was Italian?” the columnist wrote, asking readers if they could imagine a German or British captain abandoning ship.
No surprise then that the column sparked outrage in Italy.
German attitudes toward European unity have a special historical significance. The prime motive for working towards a united Europe was a desire to contain Germany after the two world wars. A generation ago, West Germans were great champions of unity because it gave them a sense of respectability (the ability to say “We are Europeans”) that had been squandered.
But now it is primarily Germany that is blocking the idea of the eurozone pooling resources to issue joint debt, or so-called “Eurobonds”, which would deepen European integration while easing the crisis.
German citizens opposed to more help for Greece are quick to jump on the fact that the government fudged its budget figures, playing on stereotypes of Mediterranean dishonesty.
Putting up more money would, in the minds of most Germans, be the biggest mistake Germany could make. The fact that the Greeks ran up deficits and debts upon debts, made a complete mess, and then lied about it, cooked the books should warrant their being kicked out of the euro altogether.
Spain will shortly begin to receive a bailout loan of up to €100 billion from the other countries in the eurozone for its banking sector. The loan has come with strict government spending and tax conditions. And ze Germans are seen as the main author of these conditions. Already posters across Spain are calling for a boycott of all German goods. Moustachioed Merkel is seen as punishing Spain unfairly and tightening the screws.
But there ARE people in Europe trying to act as conciliators.
French President Francois Hollande, whose country stretches from the English Channel to the Mediterranean, is pressing for some relaxation of the austerity being forced on countries receiving bailout loans.
And Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, who is also president of the Eurogroup of finance ministers warned Monday in an interview on German TV of the dangers of the current tone of conversation.
“That means what was history, and what we thought we had definitely buried, it resurges fast,” he said. “European integration remains a highly fragile undertaking. One has to deal carefully with European sentiments and not think history is history. No, no, history is present and we have to treat each other carefully.”
The real question for me though, is what are ze Germans REALLY up to? A collapse of the euro is not in their vested interests, because it means their ever growing order books and exports will suddenly dry up as the euro becomes worthless. And companies who, unlike their European neighbours, CAN actually get their hands on liquidity and loans will suddenly feel their coffers squeezed tighter than a pair of nun knickers bringing to a halt any ideas they had about expansion or investment, or worse, resulting in lay-offs.
The tactic of not playing nice will back-fire. So ze Germans better hurry up and learn how to play nice in the sandbox.