Last few weeks were probably the most interesting in the recent European political history, as there actually emerged a force that wants to take its country and promises seriously. The greatest value of Syriza are not the rather inflammatory (and somewhat true) invocations of neo-colonial treatment of Southern countries by the Euro-North (read Germany), nor the realisations that the Euro-North has rather profited from the South’s problems (e.g. though a lowered exchange rate and privileged trading position), but rather the fact that it decided to actually try and reform its own country, without the help of the EU, but by getting the buy-in from its own people, rather than Germany.
Whenever I speak to my fellow ex-pats (or is it immigrants?) from the South (or worse, the non-EU Europe) there is always much whinging about the state of their countries and often, especially among the very educated and capable ones, the faith, almost religious, that it will all be OK if the almighty EU makes their countries play ball. I shared this opinion for very long, believing that the EU will make it all right back home in Serbia (of the saddest non-EU Europe), by supporting the good guys (the reformist intellectuals) and striking down the bad ones (populist-criminal rent-seekers of the transition). After all, I thought, it DID support the anti-Milosevic parties when it mattered, in late 90s. It surely will all be fine with a bit of tough love from Brussels (or, rather, Berlin)?
But maybe it won’t: it isn’t in its long time members Spain, Italy and Greece (all blighted in various degrees by clientelism, corruption and criminality), it isn’t in new-joiners, (most egregiously Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia), and it certainly isn’t in Serbia, which is experiencing the most oppressive regime since Milosevic, with all but few eye-brows raised about crack-downs on media, and, possibly worse, incompetence demonstrated daily and often comically by the ruling party.
The truth is that, sadly, we all have to do it the hard way and do most pedaling by ourselves and actually try to make our countries better by engaging with each-other and our institutions, rather than foreign diplomats. It is easy to see why ex-pats and local elites dependent on the EU would believe in EU panacea: not only is it easier to wish that others will do your work for you, but also it is rather nasty to bite the hand that feeds you and that also presents itself to be a force for absolute good. Yet, for all the wishful thinking, anyone with a vague idea about what a hard and thankless task it is to fight corruption and try to make societies fairer will realise that it is certainly not a task that a foreign power will do. What the EU does well (and it is often no small task!) it to make countries OK, but not great – it seeks to establish a basic level of rule of law and human rights, at least sufficient to protect foreign companies from much racketeering after a judicious call from an appropriate embassy and, as seen in Troika treated countries, making sure the creditors are paid. All the rest either has a small and rather localised impact or is, sadly, a bit misplaced. Despite all grandstanding, the extra mile to actual functioning democracies, is, rightly, left to the local elites, who, sadly would rather not do that and, at worst, enjoy the (ill-begotten) rents from local racketeers or, at best, simply turn their backs and enjoy the more lucrative and peaceful careers and lives in London, New York, Brussels or wherever nice and stable. Although it isn’t dishonest to try and make one’s life easier, it is very dishonest to hide behind wishful thinking and avoid looking at the facts. This is not to say, that if we all tried a little harder that all would be better and that the more established countries or local institutions would make it easy for us – however would give us a bit of credibility.
So maybe, like teenagers, annoyed by their exasperated parents urging them to grow up, the Southern elites should try and take some responsibility – do some leg-work and (unlike many of Serbia’s intelligentsia) try to engage with their compatriots? If the Southerners want to make its countries a tad better, and not see them treated like colonies, maybe they should stop treating them like that themselves, and stop asking for the crack of the whip on their shoulders?