London Calling

Brother, Can You Spare a Euro?

The European Union is supposed to promote amity among its members. The result has been the opposite: hatred.

By From the July 2010 - August 2010 issue

The blundering efforts of European leaders to save the ultra-profligate Greek economy may bring down the euro, sooner or later, by forcing the Germans, in their own self-interest, to pull out of the common currency and revert to the Deutschmark. If that happens the French will leave it too, resurrecting the franc. The rest of the mechanism will then simply disintegrate, and the European Central Bank will have no function, and will disappear.

Will this be a disaster? Why should it be? The rush to create the euro, a decade ago, was an ill-judged move. You cannot have a responsible common currency without a responsible common financial policy, and that means a common government. The European Union has not got one -- it is a misnomer. The other EU states, and the Central Bank, had no control over the antics of the Greek government, which has pursued comic-opera policies for many years now: borrowing money to pay the inflated salaries and pensions of its vast, largely idle public sector and to leave a hefty residue for the politicians to steal by printing sovereign bonds on the security of the euro, which effectively means the German economy. Not for nothing do Greece's friends and enemies alike refer to the country as a "kleptocracy," which means "government by thieves."

The Germans are full of rage at being forced to lend hundreds of billions of euros, which they have accumulated by hard work and providence, to lend to Greece, knowing that the money will never be returned and that there is no chance the Greek political ruling class will mend its ways. The Greeks are quite unrepentant. One of them said recently: "The Germans invaded us in 1941, without any excuse or provocation. They tortured and killed tens of thousands of Greeks. They wrecked our economy and carried off anything of value, from machinery to works of art. Many Greeks died of starvation in German prison camps. After the war, we never received one word of apology or one drachma of compensation. Now is a good time to take these barbarians for a ride."

If Germans now hate Greeks, and Greeks hate Germans, that is but one symptom of the way national antipathies have been fed by ill-considered and premature attempts to bring about union. The EU is supposed to promote amity among the peoples who have been brought together in it. The result has been the opposite: hatred.

The French and the Germans now hate each other more than at any time since the Second World War ended 65 years ago. France's boss, Nicolas Sarkozy, and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, can scarcely endure being in the same room together. At the sight of her, Sarkozy begins to sweat, grow red in the face, and bang the table with clenched fist. She puts on her "Bismarck" face.

The Germans have recently turned on the Austrians, whom they now rate as only marginally less spendthrift than the Greeks. Germans, especially in the north, have always abused Austrians for being lazy, profligate, light-fingered, and frivolous. The Austrians in turn brand the Germans as overbearing, dictatorial, censorious, and mean -- braggarts, bullies, and skinflints.

The Danes have hated the Germans since the Prussians, under Bismarck, stole Schleswig-Holstein from them. They have never forgotten the cool insolence with which Nazi armored columns launched a German war of aggression against them in 1940 and imposed a terrifying occupation, which lasted five long years. The Germans reply that the only thing the Danes are fit for is breeding pigs and that they need German Kultur. There are comparable fierce feelings of resentment along the German-Dutch border. And even among the smaller states there seems to be a rising tide of bitter resentment as each country feels the other gets more from the EU in the way of subsidies, capital infrastructure loans, cultural budgets, and bureaucratic jobs. The Dutch are particularly resentful that Brussels has three-quarters of the central EU structure and, as a result, has become a richer city than Amsterdam.

The Portuguese and the Spanish have never been exactly friendly, for Spain has invaded and occupied Portugal many times. But they jogged along together perfectly reasonably until the EU came along. Now there is tension, at a personal level, all along the border. During a recent visit I found, for instance, that Spanish police stop Portuguese tourist buses and subject them to detailed inspections which may last an entire day, hoping to find something wrong so that an on-the-spot fine can be exacted. In one case I know of, a five-hour search of the bus produced nothing until, in the end, the Spanish police claimed that the pressure in one of the tires was below the standard imposed by EU regulations, and insisted the driver hand over 1,000 euros in cash (more than $1,000). An American lady told me that, having just crossed the border into Spain from Portugal, she felt cold and unthinkingly ordered a glass of port, the national Portuguese drink, in a hotel. The waitress snarled, "Impossible," and not only refused to bring the drink but threw down her wiping-cloth in a rage. Another U.S. lady involved herself in a scene by using the Portuguese term for "Thanks," obligado, instead of the Spanish gracias.

At the same time I get many reports of Italians, who by nature are among the most courteous and friendly people on earth, being gratuitously beastly to other EU peoples, especially the French and the Germans. And the French, needless to say, have used the financial crisis to fortify their unrivaled reputation for lack of cooperation and rudeness.

Much of the troubles of the European Union are very deep-rooted. Nearly 60 years ago, when I was working in Paris, I recall Jean Monnet, the founder of the European movement, saying that it could never succeed unless it carried the peoples of Europe with it. That meant it had to be democratic, to move by consent, and that it had to employ the absolute minimum of bureaucrats and impose as few regulations as possible. All this wise advice has been totally ignored. The EU is one of the least democratic organizations on earth. It employs vast numbers of highly paid and arrogant bureaucrats, each of whom generates an opposite number at national level in each of the member states. As for EU regulations, they are now numbered by the million.

Jean Monnet, who knew the United States well and greatly admired Americans, said the EU should study the way in which the United States of America was created, the consultation with the peoples of the 13 states and the public debates, which ensured the union was successful, stable, and durable. This advice too has been ignored, the Brussels attitude being "We have nothing to learn from those beginners."

Does the world have an interest in keeping the EU and the euro afloat? This has always been the assumption of the White House and, still more, the State Department. But I doubt its wisdom. The EU has singularly failed to act as a united force on the world stage, and as a military entity it is negligible. The world financial system has more to gain from a strong Deutschmark than from a weak euro. Financial scallywags like Greece and Spain are more likely to put their houses in order outside a common currency than within it. Sovereign governments ought to be held responsible for their financial mismanagement, rather than take refuge in a supranational currency at the expense of the prudent. The EU might dissolve itself, or reduce itself to a central core. The worst solution of all is to stagger on as it is, lurching from crisis to crisis, and delaying the upturn in the world trading economy.

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About the Author

Paul Johnson is the author most recently of Churchill (Viking). His books include Modern Times, Intellectuals, and A History of the American People