As we stand now, at the brink of Grexit, it may be good to think about how the situation escalated so quickly and so disastrously, before we look at the many existential challenges facing the EU, and Europe as a continent in the not too distant future.
Although there are many elements to the tragedy, with many of them beyond my knowledge and capability to analyse, one that stands out, rather painfully is the the willingness of the elites and the populace to willingly accept delusions, and blindly walk into chaos, thinking it will all be ok. Last month, I had the chance to spend quite a bit of time in Greece and what I found fascinating is how eagerly some very smart people (and myself) simply thought that all will eventually turn out fine. “We’ve had 7 years of crisis, it cannot be much worse than this”, a seasoned businessman told me, when asked to think about how badly things can go. “There will be a deal, in two, three days”, most people said, throughout this last month – we decided to be polite and not to remind them that we heard the same every week. Despite the evidence that their policies and demeanor are more based on maintaining an image than reality (a tragic fault shared with pretty much any other “left” academic-supported movement), I had faith in the current government: that they will manage to make a wise choice and accept a deal which would have had to be renegotiated after a few months anyway. What they did, however was to pretty much decide not play ball and let the Greek people deal with the fray, though a referendum about a done deed. Despite the hopes expressed in my previous Greece inspired post, little seems to have been done to tackle the actual problems in Greece and make it a strong prosperous country it deserves to be.
The same willing blindness is apparent on the side of Brussels, the IMF and many a rich European government. Firstly, after the 7 years of austerity, a stroll though Athens reveals that there is precious little that can be squeezed. Many shops are shuttered, and beggars roam the streets. Many cool enterprising cafes and restaurants have opened, but that is about it – there is no serious growth in sight despite the strangely optimistic forecasts by the IMF and the European Commission. It is clear that Greece cannot pay its debts and survive. There may be something to be said about saving face and postponing the creditor haircut for in a few years’ time to get the Greek governments to do something about clientelism, corruption and other things that got them into the pickle, but ultimately the whole bailout arrangement was fictitious from the start.
And this is just one instance of this institutionalised wishful thinking. The way that all the crises on European borders (Syria, Lybia, Ukraine) were dealt with reeks of the seemingly high-minded but rather shallow approach of believing that all things will work out just fine. Democracy, capitalism and peace all come together, right, even if non-democratic insurgents bring want to bring them about?
Most glaringly, many burning internal EU issues are routinely glossed over until they exploded: the technological displacement of the “working class” will sort itself out though the knowledge economy because everyone will become creative and we will all buy services from each other; although the people are living in (often self-imposed) ghettos, they will certainly want to integrate and live happily ever after; the poorer EU countries will develop ex-machina, on their own, without the temporary burden on the richer ones, because of the laws of magical convergence.
What all of this sadly suggests is that many institutions developed in Western Europe (and probably the US) cannot stand the test of crisis. What many institutionally-fueled anti-rhetorics (anti-EU, anti-Greece, anti-UK, anti-free movement) paint the EU as fair-weather union – it was all fine while it sailed on the top of the bubble and could afford its delusions. So what now?
If growing up in Serbia (and watching Game of Thrones) thought me anything – it can always go worse. However, thankfully, it will most probably go worse where there are already indications of problems. The sooner one stops pretending that hopes are in any way a certain future, the sooner they can act. This is not to say that disaster aversion should be a political priority – many disasters cannot be averted. However the Panglossianism of constant growth, of trickle-downs, of “everyone’s a winner”, or effortless multiculturalism and policies with no trade-offs, needs to stop. Honesty to the electorates should return and tough questions need to be asked pre-emptively. Politicians should invest the time they are spending on becoming “common men” or celebrities into becoming leaders. And they should understand how bad the bad is – a few days in Athens can show you a human price of austerity, probably a few hours in Syria can show you what war means. Good days are never here to stay.