OPINION

Europe’s political question

?It’s not just about economic questions, but about deeply political questions and thus also about the future of Europe as a whole,? Chancellor Angela Merkel said last Wednesday, talking to reporters about Greece, two days before meeting with Prime Minister Antonis Samaras. She was right: the Greek economy’s dysfunction is a deeply political question; the amateurish handling of the Greek crisis by Europe’s leaders, however, is also an issue of great political import. Whereas everyone knew from the start of the crisis that politics were at its heart, all acted as if it were simply an economic issue. Now the Greek debt crisis has become a crisis of confidence in the whole eurozone: along with widening recession, many countries face serious political problems, posing a threat to the very vision of a united Europe.

Although Angela Merkel’s words point to the heart of the European problem, Germany has so far not adopted a policy that would allow the European Central Bank, whose executive board meets on September 6, to ?do whatever is necessary? to support countries that are struggling to borrow in the markets. In other words, Berlin has continued to focus on the economic and not the political dimension of the problem. For Germany, the political question remains Greece’s credibility in sticking (or not sticking) to its commitment to impose further austerity and implement reforms. Of course, it is of paramount importance that Greece’s politicians manage to extricate the country from the debt trap. But the greater challenge is for Europe to manage ?- at the central, national and local levels -? the political consequences of the rapid decline in its citizens’ living standards.

Merkel is aware of the political nature of the crisis with regard to her own country. Repeatedly over the past two years, in elections in states of the German federation, she has had to explain her policy, combining the need to support weaker members of the eurozone with the unwavering demand for strict austeriy -? with her eye always on the national elections that will be held in 2013. She is aware also of the importance of September 12, when her country’s highest court will rule whether the eurozone’s support mechanism (ESM) challenges the authority of the German constitution. On the same day, the Netherlands will hold elections — with a euroskeptic, leftist party leading recent polls. In short, September 6 and 12 will determine the economic and political future of the eurozone and the behavior and demands of our creditors.

The German government knows that it has to manage very carefully the feelings of its own people (who are tired of supporting weaker partners) while playing a leading role in the eurozone; yet, at the same time, it finds it difficult to see the political fallout of the crisis in other countries. In Greece, the fragmentation of the political center, the rise of the extreme left and right, the feelings of anger and injustice (justified or not), the increased bigotry, are a challenge to the European values of democracy, personal freedom, peace, open borders and human rights in general. To some extent, the same dynamics threaten other EU countries. Already, popular discontent is rising in six eurozone countries that are in recession (Greece, Portugal, Italy, Spain, Cyprus and Malta), as well as in others: some are tired of austerity, others have ?donor fatigue.? This threatens the future of the EU itself. Without the desire for stronger union, with a vision, there is no hope -? without hope there will be no tolerance for further sacrifices.

The Greeks have to survive new cuts to their revenues and even higher taxes and, at the same time, protect their social cohesion and stability until economic growth starts again. This will be achieved when citizens are made to believe that their sacrifices will secure a better future. This depends on the EU making it clear that no country will be forced to leave the eurozone, that pensions, health care and bank deposits are guaranteed -? that European values are not only strong but that they will lead us out of the crisis. Maybe it is time to talk abouta single European tax service, a single pension and health system, about banking union.

Without doubt, the Greeks (like every other country) bear the responsibility for the course of their nation and for what needs to be done to succeed. But for all of us who believe in a united Europe, it is time for a stronger union and greater solidarity among the European nations. This is the question posed by the Greek crisis, the deeply political question with which Europe must deal.