Sometimes a foreign observer’s fleeting, offhand comment can cast new light on our problems, showing something that we could not see because we were too close to it. I was struck by such a phrase near the end of a book review in Wednesday’s International New York Times. “As El-Erian makes clear, dysfunctional government bears a large share of the blame for our inadequate economic performance. The European Union is, of course, a swamp, but deepening polarization of political parties in the United States has also left Congress gridlocked,” wrote Steven Rattner, who was counselor to the treasury secretary in the first Obama administration.
“The European Union is, of course, a swamp…” Harsh words from someone who has firsthand experience of economic decision-making, as Rattner was involved in the rescue of America’s car industry. His review concerned recent books by noted economist, consultant and commentator Mohamed El-Erian and consultant and former banker Satyajit Das, both of whom focus on the US and global economies. Rattner’s reference to Europe seems almost condescending, as an extreme example of dysfunction, close to a lost cause. In Greece we have become inured to the idea that we are Europe’s weak link; it is interesting to see that others look beyond Greece and note Europe’s weakness as a whole. Greece is a weak link in a weak chain.
It is worth remembering how former US treasury secretary Timothy Geithner described European leaders in his memoir, “Stress Test,” in 2014. “America’s stimulus-versus-austerity fiscal wars has been raging since President Obama took office, but the chaos in Europe took me by surprise. I couldn’t believe that Europe’s governments would set themselves on fire and risk another worldwide inferno so soon after we put out the flames of the initial crisis,” Geithner wrote of the G7 meeting in Canada in February 2010, before Greece’s bailout was agreed. Greece did not escape harsh austerity, but the American intervention, as we later learned, was decisive toward keeping our country in the eurozone.
Greece has serious problems to solve in order to make its economy viable. The difficulties are compounded, however, by the fact that the European Union is in midstep between stronger union and fragmentation. The economic crisis, the wave of migration and the increased fear of terrorism have given new impetus to xenophobic forces in many countries, increasing tension between member-states. Even though only collective action can deal with such challenges, every move toward closer union strengthens nationalist forces and, consequently, widens divisions.
Torn by these dynamics, Europe cannot act decisively, choosing to fudge issues and delay decisions, thinking of domestic voters rather than the collective good. Dependant on its partners, Greece cannot do much to pull Europe out of the swamp. In its perennial turmoil, though, our country must do all that it can to save itself.