It is a surreal scenario. Gigantic risks. Staggering sums of money. The degree to which the political debate has become polarized is likewise unbelievable -- both among European Union member states and within those societies themselves.
In the Greece of today, the government has to be protected from its own people. In the Netherlands and Finland, right-wing populist parties have made huge gains on terrain normally held by large, centrist parties. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel isn't even certain of a parliamentary majority when a second bailout package for Greece comes up for a vote.
It is the kind of escalation that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago.
Rescue efforts have been underway for three years now -- first the banks and then the countries. But instead of coming together in times of crisis, Europeans have become divided. And there is a lot at stake. A break-up of the European currency union has now become a realistic scenario. Indeed, the political climate has become so toxic that a collapse of the European Union and of the idea of European unity -- and the entire European postwar order -- also seems possible.
Governments across the Continent are currently working feverishly to prevent such a disaster. On Friday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel met in Berlin -- where they reached the smallest-possible compromise. And on Thursday and Friday of this week, European Union leaders will meet at an EU summit. There are still chances for the European project to succeed, but they are becoming increasingly limited -- as main actors in this drama have begun admitting in confidential discussions.
Germany Is Missing an Historic Opportunity
If the euro fails, the Germans will be seen in the end as having been the primary culprits. And rightfully so.
In 2009 and 2010, Germany suddenly found itself in the position of being akin to a European hegemony. It was the only large euro-zone member state that was economically healthy and had more competitive economic structures and less public debt than the others. Germany could have acted as a "benevolent hegemony" -- indeed should have. Similar to the United States after World War II, Germany should have been prepared to provide generous amounts of money very early on -- tied to the creation of new, more powerful European institutions, including a new European Union treaty. Merkel could have -- and should have -- led Europe towards a common future.
Instead, national politics in Germany became transfixed by state elections with leaders making populist claims that there was no money for feeble southern European countries. Rather than continuing the traditions established as far back as the times of former Chancellor Konrad Adenauer in the 1950s -- a period which saw European countries anchored ever more firmly in a European framework -- we are now returning to a balance-of-power approach. The common fate of the Europeans is no longer the top priority. Instead we are juggling national interests.
Or rather, what some consider to be their national interests. Just take the German government's wish that private creditors also be made to pay for part of the debt crisis. At the end of the day, it is little more than symbolism. Debt forgiveness wouldn't help Greece at all. On the contrary, it would remove Greece from the capital markets for many years to come and it would eliminate any possibility for the country to ensure its own credit for the foreseeable future.
Greek Bashing Is More Popular than Action
The German government also seems to care little that the European Central Bank is slipping into serious distress. Speculation is heating up, further exacerbating the crisis. Nevertheless, Berlin is still insisting on a haircut: as a matter of principle, but also because there are many in the government who would like to show the financial markets (and the Greeks) that they mean business.
Throughout the crisis, the German government has behaved as if we were still living in the 1990s, as if there were a serious alternative to today's currency club. And it has ignored the fact that our financial system is so tightly interwoven that if part of it fails, we could all fall. From the very start of the crisis, there was no other choice but to expand transfers within the euro zone. The same held true for a deepening of political union within the common currency area. Unfortunately, Greece bashing is more popular.
Now payback time has come. Germany is in the impossible situation of having ponied up hundreds of billions of euros but is nevertheless being pilloried. Some Greek newspapers refer to Germans as "euro Nazis," and not as a benevolent leading power. The fact that the situation has deteriorated so far does not speak well for statesmanship in Berlin -- and that is putting it mildly.
Instead of showing steadfast solidarity, the markets are testing the potential collapse of the euro. And that scenario is becoming increasingly likely -- not because anybody wants it to but because so many different players must come together to find a solution and it is quite possible they will not succeed in doing so.
If the euro-zone breaks apart, it is Germany that will be blamed -- because it was the country that could have saved the euro but didn't do so out of short-sighted self-interest. The damage, should it come to that, will be much more than monetary.