Europe's falling bridges? Carolina Georgatou

In 2002, amidst all the enthusiasm for greater European integration and inclusiveness, Greece joined in the celebrations and embraced the new currency, the Euro (€).

Immersing itself in a lifestyle of perceived prosperity, fueled by consumerism and easy loans from banks, the majority of Greek population regarded those finely painted bridges, as the passport for a new European dream, while mounting social problems were swept under the rug.

Many Greeks laughed at the new Euro banknotes, comparing them to Monopoly money. The tragic irony is that, in the end, they were not that far from the truth: the real Monopoly game was played by the European Central Bank (ECB) and, especially, the German government.

The printed bridges had, of course, their own symbolic meaning: the bridge the economic, social, cultural and any other gaps that divided the European continent, historically riddled with hostility and war.

One of the most visible outcomes of this processes of bridging the gap and working towards mutual understanding and support between member-states the skyrocketing of the public debts of these countries. The economic and social structures of the weakest members in the Eurozone have been severely damaged by fierce competition to which they could hardly respond, having relinquished their economic and monetary sovereignty.

The lack of liquidity in the economies of each of these countries was addressed with bank loans, with the high productivity in northern European countries being maintained with the increase of consumption in other regions. Therefore, they benefited both from export revenues and interest loans.

The worsening debt crisis in Greece was not matched by the spirit of inter-European solidarity and humanism that one could expect to see traveling across bridges. First came the racist publications targeting Greeks, especially from populist media in Germany and northern European countries. While there is no doubt that many mistakes were committed in Greece, it does not excuse the insult, the stereotypes of Greeks as people dedicated to stealing and laziness and Greece as the new threat to the European Union.

Then came the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) celebrated between the ECB, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – the troika – and Greece, which was now under surveillance and scrutiny, along with other southern European countries. The prescriptions in the MoU showed little sympathy for the deterioration of living conditions for these populations; they can, in fact, be considered cruel and based on a derogatory discourse. The aim was saving the banking systems and let ordinary citizens shoulder the debt. Those ordinary citizens saw their salaries, pensions, social support mechanisms and scholarships cut accompanied by rising taxation. Social and professional groups were played against each other and countries were left in disorder and divided. These cuts led to a mounting unemployment and deep recession, a death spiral for these economies and respective societies. The argument of the lender seemed to be trying to make Greece more competitive, while demanding a curtailment of labour rights. Compared to whom? Not Germany or Austria; more competitive than its Balkan neighbours, which means turning Greece into a country of cheap labour. With neoliberalism as the underlying ideological driver, the financial gap to be bridged is not between the North and the South, but between the South and the East.

Encouraged by the troika and Greek entrepreneurs, the Greek government has also started interfering with the private sector; at the moment, the cultural sector is struggling severely and there is a pattern of noveaux riches entrepreneurship.

This course in policies has resulted in high unemployment, low productivity and a climate of terror for most employees. Where employees used to be the pillar of any business, they are now terrorized by prospects of unemployment and the impact if will have for their families and their livelihoods. In Greece, the gap is being bridged by implementing working conditions more and more likening those in East Asia, instead of northern Europe.

Health care provision and education seem to have become a luxury for ordinary Greeks. The strong survive, according to the neoliberal social Darwinism ideas underlying the present provision of health care in Greece. Families and students are struggling to pay for academic fees and the quality of education is deteriorating. At the same time, Greek expats, who previously studied in Greece, excel abroad. So, not investing in improving the national education system is hardly the answer. Again, the gap seemed to be bridged by keeping the wrong standards in mind.

Regarding the issue of democracy, it seems that Greece has actually jumped from the bridge. A country that resorts to police brutality to dissolve public demonstrations, where the neo-Nazi movement has made its way into the state apparatus, where racism and xenophobia are on the rise – with immigrants used as scapegoats for the situation the country is in –, where journalists have been persecuted and the only public broadcasting channel was canceled. The gap was bridged with a total disrespect for fundamental rights and liberties endorsed by the European Union.

The European dream for peaceful coexistence, solidarity, welfare and rule of law are not echoed in the neoliberal ideas that now prevail in the continent. The debate is open: if we want to push forward and deeper with this European Union project, there needs to be a change in course and strategy in order for the EU to realize its full potential and become an egalitarian community of states dominated by the principles of democracy, solidarity, rule of law, ethical economic management, welfare and education for all its citizens. Otherwise, the European dream may very well be defeated by Euroscepticism, internal tensions, growing gaps and falling bridges.

Written by:
Theodoros Vagenas

Edited by: Margarida Hourmat
Photo credits:
Carolina Georgatou via Flickr