Over the last four years, almost all of the news about the shaky European Union has been financial, with some attention paid to southern Mediterranean tabloid attacks on Germany and the German media counter-stereotyping of irresponsible siesta-loving sunny Mediterraneans.
But as Greece falls apart, and as panic spreads to other debtors, we are starting to see a stage II political crisis, with socialists and extremists, both left and right, revolting over “austerity” — or rather over the mere taste of austerity that has never been really swallowed in whole. But all the defiant nationalist showboating and whipping up of domestic constituents will not bring salvation, just more polarization outside their borders. (Witness Greek “nationalists” damning Germans as Nazis as they use war-guilt and conspiracy theory to beg Germany for more money without ever acknowledging why it is that they are in need of it.)
So what’s next? Unless there is some sort of miraculous political fix, the bankruptcy and internal volatility will start to transcend domestic politics and manifest itself, as it always has in Europe, in blame-gaming against “them” (pick your foreign bogeyman). Then the question will be not just a common currency but the very viability of the European Union itself, and perhaps of the NATO alliance, such as it is in its present eroding state.
Not since 1940 has Europe found itself so weak and incoherent in comparison to a unified and solvent Germany. And the present disconnect of nations that did most things wrong publicly demonizing Germans for doing most things right — while privately begging them for more bailout cash and guarantees — simply is politically untenable. If this continues, I would not be surprised to see a Mediterranean Franco, Salazar, Mussolini, or Metaxas emerge soon, albeit in pinstripes and with a tasteful villa on the Mediterranean.
The lead-from-behind U.S. is of little or no help. While private consensus grows in Europe that the entitlement state got them into this mess, we in America are racing to embrace the old failed EU paradigm of exploding unfunded entitlements, vast deficits, high taxes, bigger government, and class warfare. And as our first “Pacific president” turns toward Asia, and cuts back on defense, the message is that the U.S. has neither the will nor the resources to offer any financial, military, or political guidance to Europe. We simply are no longer a credible alternative model or a reliable partner for Europe, either materially or financially. In Thursday’s column I will suggest that the long-term political worry may not be the present cheap demonization of Germany — but just how long Germany is going to put up with it.