The cynicism that prevailed around a single currency for Europe, ever since its birth, has now become a full-fledged reality.
Anguish over an impending euro crisis has been poured out on minds of the people at large. Crisis talks take place not only at the government circles, academic parlours and media spaces, but also over the evening coffee and at week-end parties.
In fact, such discussions were up in the air as far back as early 2010. But, thanks to its in-built speculative content, very few Europeans found it serious enough to ponder over.
This time is altogether different. In 2011, several days passed to autumn with alarming news and events. European Union leaders are meeting in Brussels on October 17 and 18 to deal with a collapsing Eurozone economy.
There is a near unanimity among discussants that the emergent economic deadlock, particularly the common currency crisis, is a fundamental phenomenon.
But when following closely the day-to-day crisis talks and major events unfolded in the mean time, one thing is clear: present-day impasse in Europe cannot be reduced to a mere ‘economic' problem. It carries broader political connotations and implications.
As Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate and the former World Bank chief economist, observed in his BBC Viewpoint article on October 3, the problems are deep and “the political process in some ways is not in tune with the economics”. In a certain sense, the emerging civic and diplomatic engagements in Europe are out of tune with the institutionalised political patterns itself.
A Real Conundrum
Financial bail-outs unleashed a set of socio-cultural issues that have never or rarely been handled through a nation-state framework.
The political unrest heating up in Germany, the single biggest contributor to the bail-out fund for the economies of ‘PIGS' countries (Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain) exemplifies the situation. German anguish over using the tax payers' money to bail out a failing Eurozone member reminds us of the ‘blame game' in a joint family just before disintegration.
Stereotyping the behavioural traditions and working culture in the ‘PIGS' countries has been the predominant means through which the German grief is being expressed out.
Tabloid media and Internet forums are flooded with the evoked stereotypes of Greeks and Spaniards. It includes such things as lazy, fun-loving, spendthrift and even siesta. Such day-time sleep, considered by many southern Europeans as a pragmatic daily routine, is equivalent of being lazy in German eyes.
One German tabloid even went to the extent of asking Greeks to get up earlier and work harder to avoid financial crisis. Though not wholly or in full measure, Germany's diplomatic language also stems from the same spirit.
Even Ms Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, once stressed the necessity of the unification of work ethics, vacation days and retirement age in the entire Eurozone.
Those from the ‘PIGS' countries strike back by producing alternate statistics and pointing up Germany's sinister involvement in the World War II.
While the common currency remains to be the burning issue, common borders seem to be no less of a menace. The ‘official entry' of criminal groups from East Europe, following the Schengen treaty, started off new institutional problems. Even the most silliest of such cross-border crimes — pickpocketing by the Romanian and Bulgarian gangs - pose fundamental questions about the dream of a borderless Europe.
As revealed by a Danish police officer from Copenhagen, the most problematic aspect of these petty criminals is their law-abiding character itself. If a pickpocketer is caught while stealing a wallet, he or she wouldn't resist the law to take its course.
State-of-the-art prisons in the Nordic countries provide them a comfortable stay, in addition to opportunity to work inside and earn a fairly good sum of money. It is a “win-win situation” for them.
New forms of protests
There are indications that a whole different kind of political protests and violence is emerging in Europe. The sudden wave of mass protests in Catholic Spain against Pope Benedict XVI's visit in August is a pertinent case. The Pope's visit to Madrid was not the problem. Financing the event with public money brought thousands to the streets under the slogan, “Nothing for the Pope from my taxes”.
Meanwhile the Spanish police arrested a chemistry student with asphyxiating gases and other chemical substances, allegedly meant to gas anti-Pope protesters.
Such impulsive spontaneity in political protests is rather unseen in contemporary Europe.
Two recent acts of violence, the Norway shootings on July 22 and the London looting spree in early August, appear to be distinctive types in their own right. On the first hearing, most people asked — what's really going on?
Existing nomenclature such as terrorist violence and right-wing extremism doesn't provide the adequate language for delineating the Norway shootings. Especially when the right wing extremists started committing acts of Jihadi terrorism, something they always opposed and vehemently portrayed as the ultimate national threat.
Likewise, none of the known nomenclature would come for help in characterising the London looting — a perplexing combination of random crime, pure opportunism and coordinated chaos.
The “what's next?” problem
In a significant sense, Europe is currently experimenting with the supposedly best institutional models of our time – welfare state, market economy, liberal democracy, human rights standards, multi-cultural society, open borders and common currency. Henceforth the present crisis involves basically a ‘what's next?' problem.
A good many of the ideas, events and institutions that changed human history had its origins in Europe. Most things originated through great crises and bloodshed. Is Europe once again at a historical break-off point?
(The authors are researchers at University of Bergen, Norway. >email@example.com )