Resentment in the North Rich EU Members Lose Patience with the 'Olive Zone'
The rich countries of the northern euro zone are bearing the brunt of bailing out their debt-stricken fellow members. Resentment is growing among their populations, helping euroskeptic right-wing populists to win support. But there is little awareness of how much the European Union has done for their own countries. By SPIEGEL Staff.
Officially, of course, the one-euro coin is worth the same everywhere. But given the current state of the euro zone, you could be forgiven for thinking that the coin with the Greek owl or Spanish king on its reverse is worth less than one bearing, say, a German eagle or the silhouette of the Netherlands' Queen Beatrix.
An invisible crack now divides the euro zone. With their triple-A rating from the American credit rating agencies, six of the euro zone's 17 member states are considered sound borrowers. And the more government finances in Greece, Portugal, Italy, Spain and Ireland are thrown out of kilter, the more the countries with the best credit ratings are expected to vouch for the euro. They include, in addition to Germany and France, Finland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Austria.
From the Austrians eating at sausage stands in Vienna to the regulars at fish stalls in The Hague, to Luxembourg bankers and Finnish businesspeople, many in the euro zone's model countries seem conflicted nowadays. They are torn between the strong suspicion that some of their hard work is going down the drain with the hundreds of billions that are currently disappearing into aid packages and bailout funds for threatened EU countries, and the hope that their political leaders, in their efforts to appease citizens, might be right after all.
This euro crisis is not only about rescuing a common currency. It's about fundamental questions of political union.
It's about the suspicions of many Europeans that people in the southern part of the EU, derisively referred to as the "olive zone," lived well at the expense of others, and that those who were more careful with their money are now expected to swallow the poison that is making its way northward. On the other hand, it is not clear whether the EU will be able to continue in its current form if some countries are effectively under receivership while the strong economies are in a position to call the shots in future. Is there a threat that Germany, the economic giant among the triple-A countries, could unintentionally become the leading power in Europe through its fiscal authority?
'We Wouldn't Stand a Chance Without the Euro'
Such issues are not at the top of Heikki Vauhkonen's mind. A cheerful businessman with thinning hair, he heads a publicly traded family company in Helsinki that makes sauna heaters and soapstone stoves. "Finland is a small country with big neighbors," says Vauhkonen. "No one in industry here would think of breaking up the euro zone or withdrawing from it. We live from exports -- we wouldn't stand a chance without the euro."
Anne-Catherine Berner, also from Helsinki, shares his views almost to the letter. With a degree in business administration, Berner represents the third generation to run the textile company established by her family. At the same time, she heads an association of family-run companies that employ a total of 170,000 people and generate 30 billion ($43 billion) in annual revenues. Berner, also a strong advocate of Europe, says: "Searching for individual solutions doesn't help Finland."
Finnish Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen seems to disagree, which might explain why his finance minister announced an agreement last week on "collateral" for Finnish bailout loans to Greece. Under the agreement, the Greeks are expected to deposit about 500 million into an escrow account with the Finnish state in return for the roughly 1.4 billion Helsinki is required to contribute to the 109 billion European aid package for Greece. Finland will hold on to the money, which will be invested in triple-A securities, until the debt is repaid or the collateral plus accumulated interest equals the Finnish contribution.
Critics across Europe see this solo effort as a foolish attempt by the Finns to limit their own risks at the expense of others. If only one of the donor countries, which may now be tempted to conclude similar agreements, were to reject Finland's special provision, the entire bailout package for Greece will fall apart. The Finnish premier is not impressed by such prospects. He sees the aid for Greece from the perspective of a businessman. "The other euro countries know that Finland will not participate in this package if we are not provided with any collateral," says Katainen.
Katainen, who has been in office since June, is clearly under pressure. Finland, next to Luxembourg and Estonia, is one of only three countries in the euro zone that are in compliance with the debt limits imposed by the Stability and Growth Pact. With its population of roughly 5 million, it is one of the biggest net contributors to the EU in relative terms. In 2010, Helsinki's payments to the EU exceeded the subsidies it received by 0.32 percent of its gross domestic product (as compared with 0.26 percent for Germany).
But since the established parties suffered a serious setback in the 2011 parliamentary election, in which the right-wing populist True Finns, under Timo Soini, captured 19.1 percent of votes, something of a sea change has begun in this northern European model country. The established parties are now trying to curry favor with the protest voters.
But they are not conveying their message as effectively as Soini does. He says that Europe suffers from "economic gangrene" caused by individual countries. "As long as we don't amputate what can no longer be saved, we risk poisoning the rest of the body." Polls indicate that some 23 percent of voters now agree with the diagnosis of the euroskeptic True Finns.
Finnish Minister for European Affairs and Foreign Trade Alexander Stubb openly admits that "the True Finns have backed us into a difficult corner," and that in the future the government will have to proceed "much more resolutely than before." Nevertheless, he promises: "We want to be part of the solution and not part of the problem."
Austria's Rising Right
Austrian Finance Minister Maria Fekter, who is doing her utmost to explain to voters why booming Austria should have to bleed for the starving olive zone, is fuming over the Finns these days. At the end of last week, Fekter sent her Finnish counterpart a venomous letter addressing their unilateral actions.
Fekter, nicknamed "Gravel Mitzi" because of her parents' gravel business (the name Mitzi is a form of Maria), is looking a little stern as she participates in an Internet chat with the online edition of the Austrian magazine NEWS. She has hardly had a chance to sit down before she is peppered with mean-spirited questions. "How can you justify giving away Austrian taxpayer funds to foreign countries?" one person asks. "How much longer will this euro dictatorship last?" asks another.
The minister puts up a good fight. She has seen the unflattering morning headlines in the popular newspapers about Belgium's Herman Van Rompuy, a center-right Christian democrat like Fekter who is now expected to lead a European economic government. She has read the criticism of the billions being sunk into the EU. Fekter is also familiar with the opinion polls showing that the right-wing populist Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) is now the strongest party in Austria, a country that has benefited more than most from the EU. The FPÖ's chairman, Heinz-Christian Strache, has called the euro bailout fund "a mass expropriation for the Austrians."
Fekter collects herself and straightens her body. Then she valiantly sends her message to the online readership: "The euro is a success story. It is one of the world's strongest currencies."
Only after her Internet flirtation with voters has ended, and she is already on her way out, does Fekter add that countries like Austria are paying close attention to the German-French approach to dealing with the euro crisis through bilateral meetings. "We small countries have a problem with two large countries getting together and then wanting to impose something on us." She insists that Austria is most of the time in agreement with the German approach, but adds: "I respect Angela Merkel, but I prefer to personally fight for the interests of my own country."
- Part 1: Rich EU Members Lose Patience with the 'Olive Zone'
- Part 2: The Benefits of Europe