Sunday, October 21, 2012

Is the European experiment grinding to halt?

Greek protesters greet Merkel with Swastikas and Nazi salutes - Athens

Earlier this morning I got a call from a friend, saying that she'd found a job but I was at a loss whether to congratulate her or not, as she will not only leave her country but also her two young children as well. For the next nine months my friend will be teaching English at a private school in the Gulf States. In doing so she'll be following a path trailed by many other friends and acquaintances over the last few years.

Her children will remain here to be looked after by grandparents for the duration, a story reminiscent of the sacrifices that many Greeks were obliged to make in the 60's and 70's as guest workers who went north to find jobs in the booming economies of Europe and especially in German factories then powering the country's export led economic miracle.

As with so many other Greeks six years of recession has forced my friend to consider working abroad as the only alternative to a slow slide into poverty at home so repeating a story that has been told and re-told so often here over the last 100 years. However, this latest generation is both luckier and unluckier than their parents and forebears.

On the one hand many emigrating Greeks are highly educated and have university level qualifications and language skills that set them apart from previous generations. No longer are they the monolingual, sometimes barely literate villagers who went abroad, able only to obtain dead end jobs that post war northern Europeans were all to happy to spurn in favour of better paid, higher status ones in the service sector.

Austerity is working - Ask the experts

Yet young educated Greeks are sallying forth into a very different world, one in which jobs, even badly paid, low status ones are becoming more and more difficult to find. While some will find work that fully utilises their knowledge and skills many will find that a foreigner in a declining economy, not matter how well educated will always be at a disadvantage.

In addition the gap between earnings in the North and South of Europe has shrunk to a remarkable degree since the 1960's, with those in countries such as Germany often remaining static whilst those in the South have risen along with rising living standards.Gone are the days when an unskilled factory hand could earn a wage that would have been the envy of those back at home. So, the question that goes through many people's minds is why go through all the social and psychological upheaval of leaving home? Why uproot yourself when factories in east Germany pays just 6E an hour, just a few Euros more than can be earned at home, unless your only criteria is survival?

However, with unemployment at 25% (30% plus, if Greek trade union research is to be believed) and family and social security networks buckling under the strain, then survival rather than having a better standard of living may push Greeks as well as Spaniards, Portuguese and Italians north once again.

But with recession gradually mutating into Depression what reception will this new generation of gasterbiters receive? Even when cheap labour was in demand in the heavy industries of the Ruhr and the Rhine southern European workers were often grudgingly accepted, now that they are coming into competition for jobs in a shrinking economy the potential for ugly confrontation becomes a real possibility .

Given the campaign of virulent anti-Greek feeling that has marked German politics and media coverage of the current debt crisis, the groundwork for growing racist sentiment has been assiduously cultivated. Should the situation in other PIIGS start to resemble that of Greece how long is it before the myths of the lazy Spaniard and work shy Italian once more become part of the cultural and political landscape north of the Alps?

Then, the German far right, like Greece's neo-Nazi Golden Dawn,will happily exploit the opportunities given them by more “respectable” conservative forces. As the economic decline of the European South takes its toll on German export markets and the government will inevitably struggle to balance a commitment to the EU ideal of open borders with growing demands that German jobs and businesses be protected.

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Switzerland's military is already drawing up contingency plans in case of a deepening of the social crisis in the Southern EU, UK's prime minister, David Cameron talked of the possibility of closing the country's borders in case of a flood of Greek economic refugees is being considered and France's demand for the re-introduction of internal EU border controls set the tone  showing that the EU's policy of open borders could be reversed in a heartbeat, should national moods change.

How much of this is just right wing political opportunism, designed to win votes with a frightened electorate and how much of it points the way to a more disunited future depends on the depth and duration of the crisis. If the North follows the same pattern as indebted nations such as Greece and Spain then all bets are off as growing divisions may threaten to derail the decades of unification and reconciliation that the EU has wrought.

Racist poster outside the central courts, Thessaloniki

It's a sad irony of modern history that the years of hard work put in by successive German leaders since end of World War II to prove that Berlin can be trusted to rejoin the European family of nations is being thrown away by a new generation of fiscal hard liners who are willing to put their allegiance to dubious economic dogma ahead of the unity of the continent.

One of the lessons of the 1930's that German chancellor, Angela Merkel and many other EU leaders seem willing to ignore is just how quickly economic disaster changes the political outlook of people who've enjoyed years of financial growth and security. The frenzied growth of the 20's and the sudden loss of prosperity that hit the middle class especially in the Great Depression helped bring the extreme right to power in a remarkably short period of time. 

In just a five years, the percentage of the popular vote captured by the Nazi party grew from 2.6% to 43.9%, a political rise that is being eerily echoed by their modern day counterparts in Greece, who have increased their popular support at an even more spectacular rate, going from just 0.29% to 14% in three years.

In 30's the insistence of the political mainstream to cling to ineffective economic theories even in the face of dismal failure drove disenchanted voters into the arms of fascist parties across Europe and beyond. The, then widespread political belief that ordinary people would endure years of extreme poverty and suffering in the name of an empty promise that it would eventually bring about future growth helped bring down democracies across the world.

Does Europe need to lose tens of millions of lives once more to relearn lessons that ended up being so brutally paid for in the streets of Stalingrad and fields of Normandy?


ariadne said...

So well said!Thank you!AriadnefromGreece!

ann arky said...

As the financial Mafia plunder the public purse and the people's anger rises, so does fascism to protect the plunderers.

suej11 said...

The problem, dude, is that politics trumps economics every time, and after 15 years of no wage increases in Germany as they paid for German reunification, it's hard to persuade the German people to pay more to Greece. Unfortunately Greek politicians are overly focused on getting more money (of course that's needed, but at what price?) and on fighting last century's ideological games - and, failing all that, on blaming each other and permitting the low-level scapegoating that's now going on. It falls to various volunteer groups (of which Greece fortunately has plenty) to do the things the government should have done/be doing - but this doesn't address the key infrastructural and implementational issues Greece faces but which have high political cost. And that, it seems, politicians are cravenly unwilling to pay.

Ian Cox said...

The eurozone cannot survive for much longer and the sooner Germany leaves it, the better for everyone else.