By Swapan Dasgupta
Every great event of consequence holds out larger lessons. Arguably, the big takeaway from the Greek monetary crisis that may yet (if not today, certainly in the foreseeable future) destroy a central pillar of the European project is something that should have been only too obvious: that the nation-state remains the principal arena of politics. By implication it reinforces the importance of national sovereignty in an increasingly globalised world.
This may be a restatement of the obvious to a large country like India where everyday engagement with the world remains woefully patchy and is principally confined to the financial and services sectors and culture/entertainment. However, for the Eurozone countries, blessed with convenience of a single currency that is as valid in Athens and Milan as in Hamburg and Dublin, the scope of national politics is seriously circumscribed by decisions taken by anonymous apparatchiks in Frankfurt and Brussels.
Even for European Union countries outside the Eurozone this is a source of profound dissatisfaction. A section of the British Conservative Party is, for example, miffed over the fact that in large areas of everyday life, European regulations take precedence over those approved in Westminster. This has forced Prime Minister David Cameron to try and negotiate a sensible accommodation of national sovereignty before a referendum on EU membership promised before the end of 2017.
The growing linkage between assertions of national sovereignty and democracy is certainly at the heart of the Greek crisis. Having won an election earlier this year on an anti-austerity plank, the Syriza Party led by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has successfully mobilised public anger against the presumptuousness of national pension payments and the rates of the Value Added Tax being decided by its German creditors. The anti-IMF sloganeering that often defines the Indian Left’s fulminations against the “neo-liberal” consensus is now the dominant political theme in Greece, and one that ‘pragmatists’ haven’t been able to puncture. The emotive question—“Will Greece be run from Athens or Berlin?”—has resurrected memories of the Nazi occupation and rekindled nationalist passions.
In Greece, this question is being asked by a ruling party that is, by European standards, on far-Left spectrum of the ideological gulf. But similar questions are being asked in France, Holland and the UK by those on the far-Right. As a sentiment, national sovereignty seems to easily outweigh the cosmopolitanism that is at the heart of the European project. And even in Germany and France—the main co-promoters of today’s enlarged EU—the social disruption caused by mass immigration has dampened the enthusiasm of the more rooted who are asking politicians a simple question: were we consulted?
Germany and its doughty Chancellor have, unfortunately, been painted as the real villains. This seems a travesty as Germany has, in effect, used its economic success and prosperity to subsidise less successful economies like Greece. It has absorbed the gratuitous taunts of fellow Europeans over its past with a great deal of equanimity. It is only after it has declared its further unwillingness to throw its hard-earned money down a bottomless pit and subsidise the over-indulgences of Greek politicians that it has become an object of derision. But Angela Merkel too has her domestic constituency to address, the constituency that is loath to allow taxpayers’ money to be used to bail a country that has got used to lifestyles built on other people’s money. Worse, in an insolent display of his sense of entitlement, the former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis has dubbed those who have bankrolled his country “terrorists” because they insist on debt repayment.
Greece is banking on the fact that Germany is too heavily invested in the European project to allow the surgical removal of a diseased branch. This gamble may well work because no one wants a ‘humanitarian disaster’ in Europe. But there is a time bomb ticking and unless Europeans voluntarily relinquish national sovereignty for the sake of prosperity, an explosion is imminent. Europe, to misuse Mahatma Gandhi’s comment on Western civilization, “would be a good idea” if only there is a greater measure of political union. Yet, asking people to be Europeans first and Greeks or Germans second involves a mental shift that most EU residents are still loath to accept.
Sunday Times of India, July 12, 2015