Fighting (for?) Europe How European Elites Lost a Generation
Part 4: Dragged Along by the Crisis
The organizers of the protest movement use Skype to stay in touch with young people in other countries, in Spain, France and Portugal. The Spaniards are pressuring the Greeks to take things a step further. The Greeks are the worst off, they say, which is why the experiment should begin in Greece.
They don't elaborate. But they do tell stories about people who were poor for a long time and were always peaceful, but who stopped being peaceful when they realized that nothing was changing.
The Greek parliament will vote on the next major austerity program on June 28. Large protests like the ones that took place in late May are scheduled for the evening before the crucial vote. The organizers expect more people turn out than ever before. Óxi!
Many like to compare the rebellious Greeks with the peaceful Irish, who are expected to perform the same balancing act of cutting costs while trying to stimulate growth. In Ireland, as in Portugal, a stronger Europe could have prevented worse things from happening. The island nation -- exhibiting a lack of solidarity still tolerated by the EU today -- built itself up as a tax oasis, sucking vast sums of foreign capital into the country. The banks were poorly regulated and it was widely known that their executives were in bed with the government.
When the roller coaster of the global economic crisis dragged Ireland along with it, the small country announced that it was prepared to guarantee its banks' liabilities to the tune of 440 billion -- a sum more than twice as high as the country's economic output at the time. It would not have come to this if the EU had had the gumption to at least try to stop Ireland's low-tax policies years ago, and if Brussels had had the power to impose tighter controls on the banks.
It is evening in Dublin, where a banker and a young Irishman are having an argument at the Porterhouse Pub. The Irishman stacks beverage cases by day, but now he has a stack of paperback books in front of him. The title of one of the books is "Marx Today." "Tell me something," says the banker, a man in his early 40s, wearing a gray suit with cufflinks, as he points to the books, "what exactly do you Irish expect to get from this shit, from Marx, from the theories of the 19th century?"
"At least these theories didn't get us into the shit."
The banker chews on that for a moment. Then he sticks out his hand. "My name is Johan," he says. "I'm a Dutchman, and I'm pissed off."
"My name's Karl, and I'm an Irishman," Karl says amiably, "and I'm pissed off, too."
Karl Gill, a bearded redhead with a round face and a round belly, was born in Dublin, the fourth of four children. His mother was a seamstress and is now a housewife. His father, who used to work for a telephone company, is now the janitor at a school called the Scoil Lorcáin. Karl still lives with his parents in a tiny row house in the town of Dún Laoghaire, only a few kilometers away. Getting his own apartment would be an impossibility. He is 21, but he seems older and more mature. He studied sociology and political science at the university, and for the past three years has been a member of the Socialist Workers Party. He is something of a leftist rising star. He hopes to be voted into the Dublin City Council and later into Ireland's parliament.
Benefiting from the Boom
"Why, Johan," he asks, "are you so pissed off at the Irish?"
"Because I think it's unfair that countries that keep their finances in order, like the Netherlands, should pony up for others that live beyond their means. The protests and the outrage on the left, these are just smoke screens to cover up unrealistic demands. Why should a Dutch worker pay for a Greek protester, someone who doesn't produce anything, who contributes nothing to Europe?"
"Good point," says Gill. "But you mustn't forget that it wasn't the countries that were living beyond their means and benefiting from the boom, but always individual classes within society "
"Oh come on, classes?"
"Okay, then individual groups. While other groups did not benefit, or hardly at all, and certainly had no power to make decisions. And in Ireland those who are not responsible for this mess are supposed to pay the bill? Do you think that's fair? I don't. That's why I'm fighting back."
"What about the Spanish mothers?" the Dutchman asks. He sounds irritated.
"What do you mean?"
"The Spanish mothers! I recently read about this in a study or an article. They would rather send their kids to a football school, where they learn to dribble, because they have dreams of their sons becoming strikers, instead of encouraging them to learn something worthwhile -- a trade, or math or languages. Instead, it's football! That's supposed to be Europe? Are we supposed to prevail in the world market by watching each other play football? And we're supposed to pay for that?"
"So it's a cultural problem?"
"Absolutely," says the Dutchman.
They toss sentences back and forth at each other like actors in a revolutionary drama.
Saddled with Debt
"Look at me, for example, Johan. I'm a student. Just because I happen to be Irish, I'm supposed to be responsible for some of the government's debt, and suddenly I'm saddled with thousands and thousands of euros in debts? What about the retirees whose pensions have been cut? What about the students who don't have rich parents? We are supposed to tighten our belts for a party to which we were never invited."
"You have to start somewhere," says the Dutchman.
"That's true." Karl uses his fingers to list his points. "We have to start by reforming the tax system. The big companies that were lured here with low tax rates need to pay more now. By the way, what's your profession, Johan?"
"Banker, uh, consultant," says the Dutchman.
"Where do you work?"
"I'd rather not say."
"Oh." Karl reaches for his glass and empties it.
"I have to get going," says Johan.
Are Karl Gill, Kostas Dekoumes, Julien Boyer, Paula Gil and Oleguer Sagarra dedicated Europeans?
No -- they don't want more out of life than other young Europeans. Sagarra wants to work as an engineer, somewhere in Europe. Gil doesn't want to be a second-class European or live in a colony of the IMF. Boyer wants a democratic Europe, not one that's run by bureaucrats. Dekoumes wants a real motorcycle. That's his idea of Europe. And Gill wants the same kind of tax system that exists in other European countries, a tax system that makes the rich poorer and the state richer, and everything a little more socialist.
None of this sounds like Jacques Delors, or like the Europe envisioned by statesmen like Mitterand and Kohl. The people of Europe looked on as these men shaped their policies, and they enjoyed the benefits. Now, as things become less comfortable and possibly more expensive, the European idea is being reexamined, precisely by those whose future is being influenced by this idea more than ever before.
And now those who in the past showed very little interest for the European Commission, the Parliament and the bureaucracy in Brussels -- because they assumed that they weren't expected to be interested in these things -- are reading daily about the strange things European statesmen have done with the European idea: things like circumventing their own regulations, falsifying statistics and breaking promises. They are responsible for an impressive number of rule breaches and untruths. Can anyone blame Europeans who, in the last few months, have learned more about Europe than they ever wanted to know, for being distraught -- to put it mildly -- over what their governments have done in their names and with their money?
The real paradox is that it is precisely those young Europeans in Lisbon, Barcelona, Lyon, Dublin and Athens who need a strong European Union. They need a union that redistributes work in Europe; that monitors the banks and speculators in different ways than national governments can; that regulates the handling of nuclear power, nuclear waste and energy policies on a European level; and that coordinates climate protection for the countries. In short, they need a union that exists not because political romantics from the postwar generation want to keep it alive. They need a union that exists because the Europeans of tomorrow see it as their greatest opportunity.
But perhaps the entire historic project has already been brought to completion. The European idea has made it possible to reconcile the destroyed continent after the war and get it back on track. Europe was helpful in surviving the chill of the Cold War era. The EU was able to help process the fall of the Berlin Wall and heal the most serious wounds of the division between East and West. With its two waves of expansion eastward in 2004 and 2007, it contributed to providing a continent -- long divided along artificial lines -- with a common form once again. The Balkan countries will still have to be brought home to Europe, and so will Ukraine, perhaps. The prospects for Turkey aren't looking so good.
But for the moment, the real question is this: Do Europeans recognize why they need Europe?
BY ULLRICH FICHTNER, JOCHEN-MARTIN GUTSCH, BARBARA HARDINGHAUS, RALF HOPPE, JUAN MORENO AND BARBARA SUPP
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan