The ‘European idea’: fact and fiction

A man comes in to his regular delicatessen shop and blurts out at the owner, ‘You need to help me out! The bank is cutting my credit line, just as a big instalment to my other bank comes due.’

Owner: ‘How did that happen?’
Customer:  ‘Why, because I spend more than I earn, obviously. What can I do? It’s not my fault my income is so meagre.’
Owner:  ‘Fine, I will help you. But promise me that you will start living within your means.’
Customer:  ‘You’re such a hypocrite! You have been the biggest profiteer of my profligacy. Most of the money I borrowed was spent in your shop. First you benefit handsomely from my spending spree, and then you preach prudence. How sanctimonious is that?’
Owner: ‘But… it’s not like you were doing me a favour.’
Customer: ‘And I’m not asking you to do me a favour either. It’s in your own best interest to keep me afloat. The more solvent I am, the more I will buy from you. Don’t you see that by bailing me out, you’re really bailing out yourself?’
Owner: ‘Of course I’d like to see you solvent. But aren’t there other ways? For example, how about if you cut back on clothing expenditure?’
Customer: ‘Look who’s talking. Wearing elegant suits yourself, and asking me to dress in rags. Why the double standards?’
Owner: ‘OK, sorry, forget it. Let’s try something else: When do you finish work?’
Customer: ‘Most days at 3pm, why?’
Owner: ‘See, I finish late in the evening. How about if you move your working hours closer to mine?’
Customer: ‘I can’t believe you’re being such a chauvinist. Are you implying that I’m lazy and feckless? You are just playing to stereotypes!’

The above is only a mild exaggeration of a peculiar narrative about the Greek debt crisis, exemplified by an article by Jakob Augstein in Der Spiegel. Effectively taking sides with anti-austerity protesters in Greece, Augstein labels his fellow countrymen as ‘bigots’ because too few of them are as enthusiastic about the Greek bailouts as he is. The Greek debt crisis, he argues, is partly to blame on Germany, where unit labour costs have been cut ‘excessively’. For Augstein, criticising early retirement schemes in Greece is ‘chauvinistic’ and ‘dangerous’. Those who are critical of the present volume of EU transfer payments have been ‘infected by the right-wing virus’. Taxpayers should stop making any demands of the Greek government: ‘It is absurd to believe Germany could force its ridiculous ascetic lifestyle on the whole of Europe.’ The Augstein point of view can be summarised in one sentence: hold your tongue, hand over your money, and be ashamed of yourself.

While journals like The Economist have, wrongly, portrayed German public opinion on Greece as uniformly hawkish, the Augstein view has been around since the beginning of the crisis. It is the ‘politically correct’ interpretation of the Greek crisis.

For friends of big government in Greece and elsewhere, people like Augstein are a blessing. In a place like Germany, where lots of people are easily impressed by moralist postures and cringe at being labelled ‘right wing’, such litanies help to keep angry taxpayers under control. Without them, the project of the transfer union may already have imploded.

However, the likes of Augstein should have the decency to stop waxing lyrical about the ‘great European idea’. Their kind of Europe is one of elitism, mutual resentment and moral blackmail.

Dr Kristian Niemietz is the IEA's Head of Political Economy. Kristian studied Economics at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and the Universidad de Salamanca, graduating in 2007 as Diplom-Volkswirt (≈MSc in Economics). During his studies, he interned at the Central Bank of Bolivia (2004), the National Statistics Office of Paraguay (2005), and at the IEA (2006). He also studied Political Economy at King's College London, graduating in 2013 with a PhD. Kristian previously worked as a Research Fellow at the Berlin-based Institute for Free Enterprise (IUF), and taught Economics at King's College London. He is the author of the books "Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies" (2019), "Universal Healthcare Without The NHS" (2016), "Redefining The Poverty Debate" (2012) and "A New Understanding of Poverty" (2011).

2 thoughts on “The ‘European idea’: fact and fiction”

  1. Posted 04/07/2011 at 14:19 | Permalink

    Sorry to correct your grammar, as I guess you’re not a native speaker (but most native speakers don’t get this right either) but it is important to the sense of your second-last paragraph. I think you mean:
    ‘Without them, the project of the transfer union might already have imploded.”
    If you use ‘may… have’ the implication is that it HAS already imploded, but we just haven’t realised yet. Whereas I think you mean, it might have imploded (but luckily, it hasn’t – yet).

  2. Posted 04/07/2011 at 14:59 | Permalink

    The Treaty of Maastricht, which established the euro, set out five requirements countries would have to meet before they would be ‘qualified’ to enter the eurozone (or Stage III of EMU — Economic and Monetary Union).
    Greece’s entry was delayed for two years; but of the other eleven countries only a single one — Luxembourg — actually met all five of the requirements. Yet a meeting in May 1998, chaired by the British prime minister Tony Blair, agreed nevertheless to allow all eleven countries in straight away. Later there was the Stability and Growth Pact, limiting countries to a maximum deficit of 3 per cent of GDP. France and Germany quickly dropped that (unpact it!) when it became inconvenient. And of course everybody remembers the ‘No Bailout’ clause, which has also been abandoned. One begins to wonder whether one can trust solemn international treaties signed by the likes of France and Germany.

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