Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Lost Continent by Gavin Hewitt

The challenge with European democracy is its constantly shifting notions of demos - who are the people who should exercise political determination. The current Euro crisis - and the ensuing imposition of austerity policies on Greece and Ireland, Spain and Italy - demonstrate a democratic irony. As Gavin Hewitt points out, there is nothing democratic about the adoption of austerity; austerity is not a lifestyle choice struggling countries freely assume. The Euro crisis precipitated changes of government (left to right and right to left) in the affected Member States and fierce popular backlash. Yet Angela Merkel, the physician prescribing austerity to faltering countries, responds to democratic signals given by her German electorate (who balk on bailing out their neighbors). Hewitt constructs a story where the democracy of Germany is pitted against the democracy of Southern and Peripheral Europe. 

The Lost Continent focuses on national stories - and national leaders - and so at times has the feel of a tell-all. Silvio Berlusconi, to no-one’s surprise, comes off the worst. His cynical disregard for anyone’s interest saves his own marks, a new low in post-War Italian politics. Imagine how Angela Merkel felt upon receiving his ‘political’ advice to take on a lover. And even more respectable characters, such as Sarkozy, engage in behind-the-back smirkiness with regard to Merkel. But much of the focus falls on Merkel herself; we’re never quite sure whether she is (as she claims) acting just like a Swabian housewife, guided by common-sense and prudence, or whether she is the instrument of peculiar German obsessions outside her control.

And so The Lost Continent is to a great extent a German story of Europe (the UK barely figures). Germany is able to impose austerity on its EU partners because it is German resources that largely fund the rescue. Germany’s economic primacy permits it an outsized influence in contemporary European affairs - Hewitt and various of his informants note that Germany may be more powerful than ever. Germany has benefited from this new Europe; its products are consumed throughout. Its economic success permitted the reunification of Germany, an enormous political and social success (ironically, Merkel developed her political skills in the East).
Hewitt faces the challenge of conveying the human cost of the European crisis and does so in a somewhat manipulative way: he introduces the reader to various suicides provoked by the crisis with humanizing profiles suited to Olympic contestants. Here the dismal personal outcomes become predictable. It is extremely difficult to portray the damage of a 30-percent unemployment rate (did Steinbeck succeed?), but a processions of suicides (horrific as they are) leaves the reader numb.

In a grim chapter, Hewitt recounts the rise of proto-fascist nationalists in Greece - with the clear implication that a possible outcome from the current state of economic misery is a replay of the Nazi takeover of the Weimar Republic. Nationalism may indeed reassert itself - but nationalism has a distinctly national characteristic in each Member State. And anti-immigration sentiment in certain EU members is more directed at those from afar than at fellow European citizens. There are nasty thugs in every European country - and some have managed to fix themselves in national parliaments and governments. But European liberalism runs deeper than Hewitt is prepared to admit (for this diminishes the threat he depicts).

And can Europe remain a success if the Euro fails? I am more optimistic than Hewitt on this. After all, the European Union’s foundations are much deeper than just monetary and fiscal cooperation. I suspect the basic European freedoms (free trade, free movement of persons, trans-European investment rights) will survive a partial return of national currencies. The core EU states (at least Germany and France) might choose to retain a hard common currency while conceding the facility to devaluate to other EU members (which might include such powerhouses as Italy and Spain). Total collapse of the European project is hardly the only conceivable outcome to a fall of the Euro.

In many ways, Hewitt’s best chapter is his last, also titled The Lost Continent - where he raises compelling questions about the future of the Europe. He begins the chapter in Ypres, where a brief daily ceremony keeps alive the memory of Europe at its worst. Hewitt sees no way forward other than one continuing the European project. But Europe’s leaders have failed to lead their peoples to a new European self-conception. Europe cannot simply be a stage for Germany (or any other national) triumphalism. In the meantime, cooperation requires sensitivity and sacrifice, despite their political costs.

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