Sunday, 2 September 2012

Sunday Salon: We're not just losing a Currency, we're losing a Dream

Today I am sharing this space with my dear friend Bettina. Which is really exciting. Because Bettina is way smarter than me an can put her amazing thoughts into really pretty words whereas I just make it up as I go along. In real life, Bettina is a political scientist and has a passion for Europe and Latin America. Her second passion is literature which she is channeling into her own literary blog - liburuak. Today, Bettina is writing about the Euro Crisis and how it is about a lot more than just our shared currency or about a mountain of bureaucracy but how we are in danger of giving up on ideals that should unite us and a system that most young people seem to take for granted (and that both Bettina and I were able to take advantage of when we went and did our undergraduate degrees in this place far far away called St Andrews). I hope you enjoy today's post!

First of all, let me thank Katharina for hosting my rant on here. I've been waiting to get this off my chest for a while, and with this, I had an excuse.

Let me start with the obvious. A lot is wrong with the Euro, a lot is wrong with the EU, and a lot is wrong with how the crisis is being dealt with. I have to admit I have no idea how to fix it and, most likely, neither do the "experts", really. The Eurozone, and more importantly the world economy is one of those complex systems where if you tighten one screw, another one will come loose somewhere else.

The economic effects of the crisis are frightening, but what frightens me just as much or perhaps even more at this point is how easily we have let go of a dream Europeans had previously been constructing for six decades.

Before all economic hell broke loose, I never thought we could go back to old stereotypes so easily. Anyone not living under a rock will have known that they were still around within Europe, but I honestly never thought they would get this nasty again this quickly. From German "newspaper" Bild naming the Greeks almost exclusively with the word "bust" in front,* to Greeks burning German flags and equating Merkel with Hitler, negative national stereotyping has become wide-spread in Europe at an alarming speed. You see, Bild is the most-read "newspaper" in Germany. It's not just some idiotic right wing nutters who are going crazy here, it's a mass phenomenon.

Equally fashionable, closely related and nearly as scary is the Europhobia - because what we are seeing here is beyond Euroscepticism - that is spreading like wildfire across Europe. The crisis-ridden countries of the South blame "Europe" for strangling their economies, while the less afflicted countries blame it for having to fork out "their" money to finance Southern mismanagement. It seems as if many, if not even a majority of Europeans couldn't care less if Europe were to fall apart. And nowhere have politicians risen above exploiting the crisis for national and even sub-national electoral purposes.

What worries me most is that for the first time, Europhobia is gaining a strong following in Germany, traditionally a very pro-EU country, and for good reason: the standing we have in the world, economically and politically, we have thanks to European integration. And we are forgetting that.

This is not only a German phenomenon, though. All over Europe, we are forgetting what Europe really is: an idea, a dream. A dream that we can work together to live in prosperity and in peace, in tolerance and in freedom. What is at peril in the crisis is a European Dream that is just as great and possibly even more ambitious than the American Dream. Because while the American Dream is about achieving your aspirations by working by yourself, in Europe for decades we have dreamt of achieving them by working together.

We have good reason to be proud of Europe and its achievements. Because apart from creating a number of bureaucratic monsters - although bans on bendy bananas and curvy cucumbers are largely mythical - Europe has done an awful lot for each and every single one of us. We have come to take these achievements for granted, and it seems to me that people are just not aware of all the amazing things that would disappear if the European Dream were to break down. Let me give you a few mundane examples.

Thanks to the European Dream, can travel freely across Europe. Wherever you go, you are covered by health insurance just by waving a little blue card with the sexy name EHIC (if you're interested, it stands for European Health Insurance Card). You can work in another country, earn pension rights, and take them with you when you leave. Granted, it's a little complicated in practice, but at least you can do it at all. Thanks to the EU, my boyfriend and I can live in the same country without one of us having to worry about residence and work permits or visa. We just live.

You can study abroad thanks to an elaborate party scheme called Erasmus. You can study abroad outside the Erasmus framework and be spared having to pay ridiculous overseas fees because the European Union deemed discrimination among different EU nationals illegal on your behalf. If you return to your home country or move somewhere else, your university degree will be recognised. You may have to jump through some hoops, but you will get there in the end.

Throughout the Eurozone, you can pay with the same currency. If you're a little older than the Euro, you'll have (hazy) memories of how much of an enormous pain it used to be when you had to exchange money everywhere you went. In fact, if you've recently travelled outside the Eurozone, you will have quite a vivid memory of it. Thanks to the European Commission's "regulation fever", mobile roaming fees are getting lower and lower (they are still excruciatingly expensive, but we're making a start).

If you are travelling outside Europe and find yourself in trouble - say, you've been robbed or lost your passport - in a country where your home country doesn't have an embassy, you're not alone. You can go to any other EU country's embassy and they will help you as if they were your own. The idea is so awesome it gives me goose bumps.

Listing these things harbours the danger of boiling the European Dream down to a few practicalities. These are just a few of the achievements the European project has brought to our everyday lives in the EU.

But the European Dream is so much bigger than that, and we are watching it crash and burn without doing much about it, indeed some seem to be betting on its failure and spurring it on. At the first sight of adversity, we are letting the dream that we can live together in a space free of borders go in favour of a bunch of narrow-minded, simplistic stereotypes.
And the world is watching us, with many onlookers shaking their heads in disbelief. Because here's the thing: the European Dream is not just our dream. In many places, more or less successful attempts have been made to recreate what was perceived as a zone of economic prosperity, democracy, and personal freedom. We're not just endangering our own dream, we're destroying the aspirations of many who wanted to live in an environment a little more like Europe.

Believe me, I am aware of a lot of the one-size-fits-all, sometimes neo-colonial external relations the EU has been involved in where it hasn't exactly covered itself with glory. I am also aware of "fortress Europe" that has sought to shut others out of our prosperity and freedom by building high external walls.

But even so, it is my belief that if we continue to watch the European Dream shattering around us, we make ourselves responsible for other, similar and more fragile dreams being suffocated before they have even been fully born. As European citizens, we bear a responsibility that goes beyond our own borders.

Let's keep dreaming, and let's work to rescue our European Dream. Let's rescue Europe.

* I tried hard and unsuccessfully to find a translation that would even come close to the demeaning term "Pleite-Griechen" Bild is using. There's a linguistic connotation here with the word "Pleitegeier", originally from the Yiddish and meaning someone who goes bust (Wikipedia enlightened me on that one). "Geier", however, also means vulture in German. Mix that together and you hopefully get exactly the yucky feeling that overcomes me when I hear the term "Pleite-Griechen".


  1. I just realised that clearly, I need to learn how to spell "borders"...

    1. And I have realised that I shouldn't upload things when I'm too tired to find typos....
      Fixed it....gave the text a whole new subtext though :)

  2. Bettina, this is so well written and spot on! (Just like your book reviews are!)
    I'm living in Bulgaria at the moment and travel a lot in its neigboring countries. It seems to me that the beauty of the European idea is more apparent here in the Balkans than among us "old" EU citizens. Even the Euro is less contested here. Sure, people talk about wether it will last. But I can change my Euros anywhere in former Yugoslawia to a good exchange rate, while they will usually not accept the currencies of their neigbors who speak almost the same language...

    1. Do you think the reason it's easier to exchange your Euros because most of the local currencies are pegged to the Euro? Or do you think it has more to do with how people feel about the Euro?

    2. I think it's mostly because - no matter what German newspapers write or how American rating agencies rate - they are convinced that the Euro will still be there tomorrow and even if some national economies crash the others will remain reliable and take responsibility for the Euro and their fellow EU countries. The Eurozone looks a lot more stable from the "wild southeast" than from inside...

  3. I have that feeling too, but I'm wondering whether their enthusiasm is going to last long. Even the Czech Republic, one of the newest EU members, is pretty Eurosceptic these days. And I also read that Bulgaria has actually abandoned its plan to join the Euro zone. Understandable under these circumstances but on the other hand, not a very good sign.

    1. There is not much EU-scepticism in Bulgaria - according to a recent poll a huge majority of Bulgarians wants the EU to control the Bulgarian government even more than they already do in order to improve the quality of political decisions and reduce corruption.

      There is more scepticism towards the Euro. The Bulgarian government says that they will not join the Euro because of the crisis and this is an understandable reason. But honestly, at the moment they wouldn't fulfill the criteria to get in anyway. Also you have to know that Boyko Borisov, the Bulgarian prime minister, loves to portray himself as one of Europe's smartest brains in terms of fiscal policy. Whenever the EU Commission critizises Bulgaria for its lack of judicial independence, its bad media policy or whatever, Borisov goes on tv and says, "Who cares! We have less debt than Greece and Spain!" Which is absolutely true but also already part of his election campaign for next year.


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