In search of a vision for Europe

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Central Brussels [Adrian Sampson/Flickr]

No matter what happens today, Europe’s leaders will be judged by history, not on how much they spent or saved, but for their vision, writes Petros Fassoulas.

Petros Fassoulas is Secretary General of the European Movement International.

When we thought we had seen it all, another twist in the Greek crisis comes to take the saga to new levels.

The outcome of Sunday’s referendum is perhaps the most dramatic development the past five years have produced.

In a move as defiant as it is self-defeating, the Greeks voted against the best available (emphasis on ‘available’ rather than ‘best’) solution to their current predicament, in a referendum that at best could be described as constitutionally… innovative.

The irony is that they were both right and wrong to do so.

They were right to reject a deal based on an economic prescription that has failed to produce the desired results. There are many reasons why Greece’s bailout deals haven’t done what they were meant to do: reduce Greek debt. One wouldn’t be wrong to blame Greece’s European and international partners who authored these programmes, as well as the Greeks themselves, who proved unwilling to implement them. Either way, the programmes failed to produce anything more than higher debts and unparalleled hardship. It is impossible to imagine how one can expect a nation not to reject something that is seen to have backfired so thoroughly.

But at the same time they were wrong to do so, not least because they voted NO under false pretences. Despite the terrible mistakes Greece’s debtors have committed over the past 5 years, this crisis is overwhelmingly of Greece’s own making. There are of course external historical, macroeconomic and geopolitical factors that contributed, but Greece’s current state is a result of chronic mismanagement and deep structural faults, which lie at the very core of they Greek economic and political construct. Without addressing and tackling those, a job only Greeks themselves could do, no longterm solution can be found.

So this is no ordinary story. Despite efforts by many to frame it in Hollywood terms, there are no good and bad guys here.

The Troika’s plans were born out of a simple fact. Nobody trusts Greek politicians. Whereas it was plainly clear from the start that what was needed was brave debt restructuring, followed by development aid and, once the country was on a sound financial footing again, deep structural reform, Greece’s partners focused instead on measures that were aimed to reduce expenditure and raise revenue so those hard-to-trust Greek politicians would pay their debts. Lots of money was thrown in, the EU’s generosity shouldn’t be understated, but most of it went to save the Greek and European banking system. Only a small portion reached ordinary Greeks or the government itself. We all know the result; suffering and economic as well as political collapse.

This allowed successive Greek governments to conflate the need for reform with austerity, putting the Greeks off much needed change and preserving a system based on clientelism and corruption, which has served them so well. Once again the Greeks were made to believe that somebody else, conveniently, as ever, of a foreign origin, was to blame for their predicament, letting off the hook the homegrown culprits who have brought the country to were it is, rendering a resolution impossible. 

Because Greece’s real problem isn’t debt, but a dysfunctional economy and political system. Failing to fix either is the true tragedy and for that both Greece and its partners are to blame.

So here we are. As these words are written, another Eurozone meeting is scheduled between the very protagonists that have brought us where we are. The outcome is uncertain but it is hard to be optimistic. 

One thing is for sure. Whatever the outcome of this (perhaps final) episode is, the European project has been severely damaged. Nobody should operate under any other assumption. I have no doubt that all those involved, in Brussels, Berlin, Athens or beyond, are good pro-Europeans. But the way the Greek crisis has been handled has painted the EU and its proponents in an unfavourable light among the people of Europe. Say what you may about rules and deficits, investment or austerity, borrowing and lending. Both those that would like to see Greece salvaged or abandoned will agree on one thing. Europe failed to deal with its problem. And nobody likes a loser.

Communications budgets mean very little when the EU is seen at best as incompetent and at worst as vindictive and punitive. Even if the EU isn’t any of the above, nothing wins hearts and inspires minds like benevolent success. At the moment the EU is seen by its people as neither successful nor benevolent.

If ever brave political leadership was needed, now is the time. To err is human, to forgive divine. We all contain the possibility of our own better futures. Now is the time to seize it. Now is the time to produce a solution that will make us all proud for being European.

No matter what happens today, the leaders of Europe will be judged by history not on how much they spent or saved, nor on whether Greece deserves what it gets. Our continent turns its lonely eyes to those gathering in Brussels in search of a vision for Europe, a plan to keep our currency union together and a way to chart a successful course for its peoples. After everything is said and done, that’s what really matters.