It is a basic precondition for every group that its members believe that it is in their greater interest to cooperate for future benefit rather than each put their short-term benefits above those of the group. The group’s cohesion depends on a vision of what can be attained, by leadership that inspires confidence in the cause, and by the fear of the unknown if the group falls apart. This happens in all groups ? from two individuals to constellations of nation states, such as the European Union. As long as there is confidence in the project, as long as everyone expects more benefits, the members take part without much friction or questioning of their course; when the difficulties start, when trust is shaken and the fear of losses worms its way into the debate, we face the risk of panic and disintegration.
Today, even as the EU’s members recall their common vision and declare that they want to preserve their monetary union and move toward deeper union, the economic crisis is creating such political and social tensions that it is shaking them apart. They all understand that the only way to save the euro is to hasten economic and political union, yet each country wants to look after only its own interests: fearing that it will lose something ? either money or sovereignty ? it undermines confidence in the common cause. This was first revealed last October in the ?fear? of Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy that a referendum on reform in Greece could lead to our country leaving the euro. That was the first, very forced mention of the fear of disintegration; we have now reached the point where rich countries themselves are threatening to pull out of the common currency, undermining it further.
The Greeks are battling with unexpected waves in the formerly stagnant waters of their domestic politics and economy; the Germans, Finns and Dutch are angered by the fear that they may have to pay others’ debts; the British government, which is battling scandals in the news media and banking, and keeps printing money to shore up its economy, is ready to close its borders if it faces a flood of Greek migrants. The fear of discontent at home encourages politicians and news media to look for scapegoats abroad, so they stoke up populism in an effort to deflect passions from themselves.
As long as the crisis continues, the differences and suspicion between member-states will worsen, as will tensions between citizens of each country. Because everyone believes that he will be deprived so that others may gain, the need for scapegoats grows. Issues are oversimplified, to the point that they become a clash between ?us? and ?them?; consequently, decisions are taken solely on the basis of national interests. The management of Europe’s debt crisis started from the wrong position, with an exaggerated emphasis on Greece and its problems. This led to decisions that were both late and wrong ? at huge cost to both Greece and the eurozone ? as the markets were given reason to doubt Europe’s resolve to protect the euro. Furthermore, in a very short span of time, relations of great friendship, cooperation and trust between Greece and Germany were shaken; national stereotypes and historical traumas flooded back to the forefront, encouraging the forces of populism on both sides and making even more difficult the effort to rescue Greece and the euro.
We are living with the result: Greece’s participation in the common currency is continually questioned by the markets, but it is also undermined by the ambivalence of a shaken and weak political system and by the impatience and mistakes of foreign officials. The collapse of the two main center parties has released political and social forces which provide voters with many new options but also encourage populists and make the future completely unpredictable. So far, the vast majority of Greeks wants to remain in the euro. But if the tension with our partners continues, if our politicians do not provide a vision and do not deliver change, discontent with the present will overcome fear of the unknown future and may lead us to pull out of the euro.
Greece symbolizes the EU’s inability to keep alive the vision of a united Europe and to provide leadership. It is a commonplace that it was a mistake to put monetary union ahead of economic and political union – but looking at today’s picture of disarray, one has to wonder whether the member-states ever had the political will to place the common good above their short-term, national interest.