Twenty years ago I was working in Germany, staying in the small town of Burghausen on the Austrian border. The cycle of holidays that mark the progress of the daily life of the town festooned red, white and blue as they turned towards “French Week” early in the Bavarian Spring. Buses of people from their sister city of Fumel, France came in and the menus in all the restaurants were replaced with copies in French. Burghausen celebrated the arrival of their guests as a family reunion of sorts.
I asked Herr Miterer, owner of the Hotel Post where I was staying, if this “European Union” was going to be successful. His piercing Teutonic glance betrayed the seriousness before he said a word. “It has to,” he said quietly, “We’ve seen the alternative.” Without moving his eyes he pointed to a picture of on the wall of this beautiful little inn that he and his family ran, taken in 1945. The top floor had been blown off and rubble littered what had become the biergarten.
The earnestness of Miterer comes back to me as the latest round of Greek crisis bubbled through the news this week. We’ve seen the alternative. Yet, somehow, it is never quite enough for Europe, this strange forced marriage that stays together for the kids, for the ideals, and for the sheer obligation of it all.
There is little doubt that a deal will be made on Greece, yet again, even as the new government of Tsipras plays hardball with a Friday deadline. Everyone knows they have to give a sense of relief to the voters that elected them, and everyone in Brussels knows they can’t appear to give away too much. They will fudge a new agreement and everyone will claim that they are satisfied.
The dysfunctional marriage will continue. This comes even as many have decided that a “Grexit”, or Greek exit from the Eurozone, would not be a total disaster. It would only be a small disaster, after all, and Europe should be used to that as well. Nevermind.
All of this comes amid a European Central Bank (ECB) realization that the austerity programs that forced the original settlement on Greece were a horrible idea. European economic growth is essentially zero and unemployment remains horrifically high. The ECB finally decided to print €1.1 trillion in “quantitative easing” last month. It was an admission of defeat without any real admission at all, something we have to expect.
The Greek crisis has pushed Europe much harder than anyone would ever care to admit over the last seven years, testing the marriage more than anything else.
The harsh terms given to Greece were the main reason that the EU was forced to pass on an historic opportunity in 2013, when it could have taken Ukraine’s glance westward with a now cheap looking $20B or less. As sure as all politics is local, though, the example set by such a loan would never fly in the midst of harsh terms for Greece and other nations on the edge in Europe. The EU passed on the loan, forcing Ukraine to continue to look eastward for help – and causing the people of Ukraine to take to the Maidan in protest.
If Europe had been strong, none of this would have ever happened. But it is happening and Europe now has to face not just their dependence on each other but their crippling dependence on Russia.
The crisis of the week will dissipate and Brussels will find a way to fudge the results so that no one will look bad. That’s not the problem at all. Perhaps the Euros being printed will restart the economy and provide some opportunity across Europe for the first time in nearly a decade. That’s not the issue either.
The problem remains that Europe is whatever it is simply because it has to be. It has no greater nor no lesser purpose than that. It’s a terrible situation to be in because the world cannot count on it to be strong and stable as a genuine force that matches the great economic and demographic strength it has on paper.
There will be a Europe, and there will be a Euro. It will be up to the kids of this strange dysfunctional marriage to tell us all if it was worth it.