My mother was born in Germany in 1920, two years after the end of World War I, and like the rest of use, she was probably not aware of anything more than her immediate surroundings until she was about ten. So I doubt whether she was aware of the hyperinflation and the unemployment which and more or less destroyed the Weimar Republic. But as she got older and
I should imagine that by the time my mother was in her early teens at the time the Nazis gained power, she would by then have been a little more aware of politics and would have picked up on what was gong on. By the time she was 19, Germany was at war, and by the time she was 23 the war was not going quite as well as it might. Like millions of others she later had very little to eat for several years.
I mention all this, because I suspect the experiences people of her age had meant they will have grown up realising that nothing in life is guaranteed and that things can go terribly wrong. We ‘baby-boomers’, on the other hand, have had a comparatively easy ride, and anyone in Western Europe under the age of 35 will more or less only have known times of plenty where he or she could have what they wanted simply by flashing a credit card. That their prosperity was, in a sense, a castle built on sand is neither here nor there. Certainly, there are exceptions — the lives of those living in parts of Bosnia in the Nineties, for example, could be rather dramatic — but those of use living in one of the 12 EU member states were, personal circumstances notwithstanding, unaccustomed to anything which might be regarded as hardship. So inured have many of us come to be to real hardship that these days having your luggage mislaid by an airline when you fly off on holiday or being burgled on the eve of your daughter’s wedding is ‘a complete tragedy’. And as, whatever the French might claim, we are empirical by nature, we tend to imagine the future will, more or less, repeat the past and remain rather pleasant
Why do I write all this? Well, now that we have ‘survived’ the first banking crisis (and I for one remained completely unaffected by it), we seem to think: ‘Well, if that’s the worst that can happen and if that’s all this Greek euro business might cause, bring it on. I think we’ll manage.’ The problem is that quite possibly and, to paraphrase Al Jolson, you ain’t seen nothing yet — perhaps.
Whatever happens, whether the Greeks get another bundle of EU moolah, whether they unilaterally declare they won’t pay their debts or whether they do something similar but in (as the papers say) an orderly fashion, the country will have to accept ‘austerity measure’ the like of which they haven’t known for decades. Unfortunately, it is those at the bottom to the middle of the pile who will carry the can. The well-off, who became well-off by the simply measure of not paying their taxes, have been squirreling their dough away in Cyprus, Switzerland and other such havens and will ride out the storm. Greece, which was ruled by ‘the colonels’ as little as 40 years ago, might well be in for an extended period of social unrest.
Far worse, of course, would be, if the banks were sucked into the mess. The first banking crisis of a few years ago (will that inevitably become the First Banking Crisis?) was caused because banks stopped dealing with each other as they had no idea how sound other banks were. Did they hold a load of worthless Greek debt or were they sound? Well, whether or not they did was neither here nor there: what was pertinent was that there was no way of knowing so it was best to assume they do, play safe and shut up shop.
A lack of credit will affect trade and as these days the world trades with each other, it might well bring a great deal of trade to a halt. On top of that China, whose recent manic expansion was based on selling to us in the West, will suffer if we can no longer buy their goods. And China is experiencing quite a bit of social unrest of its own. Then there’s the Middle East: a healthy economy will help stabilise the new regimes in Egypt, Tunisia and, one hope’s, Libya. A troubled economy will only make it easier for the troublemakers.
So perhaps we should get as pessimistic as possible about the coming decade. That would be wisest, because if it doesn’t turn out quite as bad, that will be a bonus.
(Incidentally, the two illustrations are by the Berlin artist Heinrich Zille who was working at the end of the 19th. Thus including them here in an entry which touches upon the Weimar Republic and hyperinflation is utterly spurious. I have done so because I like Zille’s work and in an odd way does remind me of Germany in the Twenties.)
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A staple of the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph letters pages are the furious ‘leave the EU now!’ and ‘Johnny Foreigner is bleeding Britain DRY! letters, invariably with a liberal sprinkling of capitals and which, were it technologically possible, would be printed in green type. I share their very low opinion of much of the EU and developments over the past few years revealed the cynical duplicity at the heart of the organisation: it’s all very well bemoaning the present state of the Greek economy, but Brussels knew full well that when Greece claimed it was finally able to fulfil the criteria for joining the euro (after having been rejected a year or two earlier), the figures were wholly fabricated. But it chose to turn a blind eye to those figures in the interests of ‘ever-closer union’. But I take the pragmatic view that we should not leave the EU at all. Whatever happens over the coming years, the EU will be a major political factor affecting Britain’s future whether we are in or out, and it would be far wiser to be at the centre of the EU where we will at least have some influence over the direction it takes than on the outside where we would be wholly at the mercy of the mad fantasies of benighted supporters of the project. (Speaking of mad fantasists, a former Belgian prime minister was on the radio last night seriously suggesting that the only solution to the Greek crisis was to bring forward EU political union in order to establish fiscal uniformity. Give that man a glass of cool water and tell him to go and lie down for an hour or two. Oh, and remind him that Belgium has not had a government for over a year now and perhaps he would like to solve that problem first.)
The fact is that bringing down and even removing trade barriers was never a bad thing, and I would have thought that the crisis the EU finds itself in (because this is not just a ‘euro crisis’, it is a crisis of the whole concept of a European state) is to roll back some of the whackier aspects of the EU and take it back to an ‘economic community’ as suggested by a one of the organisations former titles the European Economic Community (EEC).
The fact is that the present crisis is an opportunity: trim the EU of all the flab and fat, the spurious trappings of a ‘state’, the doubling up of parliaments merely to keep the French happy, the well-intenioned but often quite bonkers welter of new regulations. Decentralise it and above all jettison all the pretensions to a ‘political union’. For all I know political union might come about over the next 40/50/60, but it will only happen if there is a real demand from the citizens of the member states for such a union. At the moment it is all top down, with governments imposing the idea on their people, but cloaking that high-handed behaviour in spurious democracy: The people vote in a government, the government signs up to a new EU treaty, ergo the people are happy to accept that treaty. Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. This is sophistry on an industrial scale, and a measure of how implicitly dishonest the argument is was the case of Ireland, whose constitution insisted that a referendum should he held to ratify any such treaty. The first time out, the Irish said no. Soulution? Hold another referendum and keep holding referenda until they say yes. Thankfully for Brussels, it was at the second attempt, but were a similar referendum to be held in Ireland now — on continued membership of the euro, say — I have no doubt that the Irish would give Brussels a two-fingered salute and send them packing.
We already have an the necessary mechanisms for an economic union and it would make great sense to salvage what we have. But the way things are going at the moment seems likely that the baby will be thrown out with the bathwater and the EU will slowly decline into insignificance with a rump of the most recent new members holding the torch, while the established member states once again pay more attention to their country’s interests than ‘the project’. That would be understandable, but, in my view, rather stupid. Above all, what is needed is honesty, both public and in private.