There is a terrible poignancy to the current Greek crisis.
Its essence does not revolve around Greece’s role in the European Union or the Eurozone, per se. After all, before the fall, Greece contributed only 1.8 percent of the gross national product of the world’s largest trading bloc. Nor, indeed, as time goes on, is its Euro crisis likely to be unique: several other southern European economies appear moving into its tailwind.
What does make Greece special just now is it once again has become the focal point for an enormous decision in Western civilization.
In its ancient classic past, Greek city states fought off depredations from seemingly overwhelmingly powerful authoritarian pomp and power of neighboring Eastern empires, to maintain its own relatively free mundane, commercial society. Today it is the scene again of a decision on the nature of European civilization. The future of continental integration is likely to be decided there, and not as German and French politicians hope and plan, by the Eurocrats in Brussels.
If some way cannot be found to finesse the Greek debt without destabilizing its political system, not just the European Community and the Euro will fail. But more important, as southern Europe slides into the abyss, the whole effort to build universal post-Communist democratic regimes is on the bloc.
The see-saw negotiation now going forward between Greece’s creditors and Athens to find a remedy is not reassuring. The kind of bail-out now proposed is probably no more than a band aid for deeper and more difficult problems likely to drag on without end.
That’s because it was, of course, preposterous of the elitist Brussels “planners” to pull Greece’s third world economy into a common currency alongside the world’s industrial leaders in northern Europe. Looking back with 20-20 hindsight — although some of us argued it at the time — combining national economies through a single currency disregarding their level of sophistication and competitive advantage much less without central control over their macroeconomic policies was doomed.
Europe is now paying the price along with its trading partners, not excluding the U.S., as the Euro’s failure ripples out across the world economy. But perhaps more important, Europe is deciding, once again, whether it will take a more difficult road toward integration requiring bottom-up compromises among old and distinctive national and economic cultures. The alternative, now seemingly the choice to be set in place led by a powerful Germany, is a centralized command bureaucracy dictating every aspect of the new integrated society.
Instead of a massive refinancing effort to reset or, indeed, refit the Euro, Berlin’s [and Paris’] penny-ante game is self-defeating. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, styled as the new “Iron lady”, leader of Europe’s overwhelmingly largest economy, makes almost daily contradictory statements — a pale imitation of her namesake, U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. But she has little choice: her German constituents are not in the mood of Americans, granted overwhelmingly relatively well off at the end of World War II, to bail out a devastated Europe.
However valid criticisms of Greece’s living beyond its means, its corruption and inefficiencies, the austerity program being dictated by its creditors — Germany leading them — will not solve the problem. The kind of reforms required would take years if not decades to achieve. Meanwhile, the cutoff of credit and sudden demands to slash living standards are probably not sustainable with a voting public. There is not only a flight of capital but a brain drain of the young and talented at the cutting edge of any real economic progress.
In a way, all this was predictable. Greece, however thin the bloodlines leading back to the classics, in the 20th century has been a litmus test for all that ailed Europe. A nation state created in the 19th century out of the dreams of foreigners as much as Greeks, particular victims of Nazi brutality [and Mussolini’s jackals], then civil war beating off Stalinist totalitarianism [with President Harry Truman’s help] leading to incompetent military dictatorship — modern Greece has seen it all. Now the economic and political bankruptcy of Europe’s nanny states has its first test there. It’s only fitting.
So, indeed, there is merit in the chauvinistic Greek defense of its “rights”, even bankruptcy, for again, in its own way, this may be another Thermopylae in defense of true European values.
Sol W. Sanders, (firstname.lastname@example.org), writes the ‘Follow the Money’ column for The Washington Times on the convergence of international politics, business and economics. He is also a contributing editor for WorldTribune.com and East-Asia-Intel.com.
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