I was never a fan of Europe.
More specifically, I was never enthusiastic about the EU, the idealistically-driven political and economic integration of the many different nations and peoples that make up the European continent. The architects of the EU, elder statesmen who’d lived through the horrors of two world wars in the span of a generation and a bit, sold it as not only an economic solution to the problems of cross-border trading and tourism (I remember when a trip from London to Northern Italy meant changing currencies at least twice,) but as a permanent solution to nationalism and an end to conflict between the nations of Europe. Like all idealists, they discounted human nature.
My own skepticism stemmed mostly from aesthetic rather than practical reasons. When the UK decimalized its currency in 1971, I was dismayed. Our ancient, eccentric, and uniquely complex system of pounds, shillings and pence (a pound was made up of twenty shillings of twelve pence each; half-crowns were two shillings and sixpence; threepenny pieces were thick and octagonal; and then there was the professional unit of currency used by lawyers and doctors, who billed in guineas, a guinea being one pound and one shilling) had overnight been reduced to a thing of appalling simplicity, with pennies becoming the equivalent of cents and everything else, tradition, history and all, swept away as though it had never existed. Furthermore, although only in my late teens, I knew that much else that I valued would be lost: the individuality of nations, and the distinct character of each people.
Anyone who’s watched D.A. Pennebaker’s amazing documentary of the 1965 Bob Dylan tour of the UK, ‘Don’t Look Back’ will realize that England was like another universe in those days, with attitudes, habits and traditions radically different from those of mainland Europe. The same was true to a lesser extent of European nations—their peoples, customs, and architecture were fabulously distinct. Young as I was, I knew two things: first, that I didn’t want the nasty, vanilla homogeneity that a unified Europe would bring; and secondly, that it wasn’t going to work.
Just a dozen or fifteen years ago, as the reality of the Soviet Union’s demise had begun to sink in, a good many loopy people on the far Right had begun to worry about the sinister New World Order they saw emerging, in which the UN—dominated by the Antichrist and his demonic minions—would bring all nations together and plunge humanity into some kind of Socialist slave hell. I laughed in the face of more than one of these nutcases, pointing out that people everywhere were trying to secede and demanding independence, provinces shearing off from their parent states like ripe fruit from the tree.
People in the real world cleave—for good or ill—to tradition and sovereignty in a way that delusional idealists across the spectrum can’t possibly fathom. Whatever carrots the technocrats used to sway the electorates of the EU’s many nations to join (labour mobility, farm subsidies, economic integration, the creation of a world-class trading bloc, etc.), would never be enough to cement such disparate peoples into a single nation-state. As NYT columnist Thomas Friedman recently pointed out, Greeks are not Germans, and (fortunately) never will be.
So where does this leave us?
Well, for one, Greece will almost certainly default. Although whatever course it takes now is dangerous for its battered people, I believe it will ultimately default because all it has left, after the humiliation and suffering of the past year or so, is to reclaim some measure of sovereignty and self-determination. In the same way as lack of control and predictability are the circumstances which cause the greatest stress to primates, so it is with nations; and while a return to the drachma will likely precipitate a run on the banks and possibly a period of hyperinflation, the Greek people will have regained a measure of pride and a sense of being in charge of their own destiny. I wish them every success and a speedy recovery.
As to the rest of us, I’d say we’re in deep shit. A Greek default may well precipitate further defaults (Portugal certainly, Spain maybe, Italy… ugh), and just possibly the total collapse of the Euro. Although the masters of Europe have had some time preparing for such a disaster and have shored up their financial levees, their continued failure—like all politicians in all democracies, I’m sad to say—to do more than the absolute minimum required guarantees catastrophe. Who the winners will be in the ensuing flood of fear and uncertainty is impossible to predict. One thing is certain: speculators will do well, ordinary working people will get screwed, and politicians will continue to live in a fantasy-land all their own.