Magazine | October 17, 2011, Issue

Stumbles the EU Colossus

Chestnuts, anyone?

When I look out from my house at my land in France, I find myself now asking a very strange question: Could we live here in autarky? It is rather late in the day for us to become self-supporting peasants, but the shares in my French bank (the Crédit Agricole) have fallen by 55 percent since July 1, which could herald an even more total collapse. And the Crédit Agricole is not even the worst of the banks: Shares in the Société Generale have lost more than 60 percent of their value in the same period. Could foraging for food be our future?

We are already self-sufficient in blackberries, which is a small beginning. As it happens, this area of France did comparatively well during the war because its staple then was chestnuts, which not even the Germans could be bothered to appropriate, and though a lot of the original chestnut forest has been replaced by pines, introduced to provide pit props for the local mines (the mines have closed, but the pines remain), we still have enough chestnut trees to feed us. And you can make almost everything from chestnuts.

At the moment there are the mushrooms too, or toadstools. We can still take them to the local pharmacist for confirmation of safety, but when the total collapse comes there will be no pharmacists to help, and no means of getting to town in any case. I had better learn some mycology now, then, before it is too late. 

And for meat there are the cochongliers, the cross of wild boar with domestic pig that the hunters have encouraged because domestic pigs have much larger litters than wild boar, and the hunters round here, city dwellers unaccustomed to exercise, like easy prey. I could learn to shoot these half-breed beasts — the cochongliers, I mean — whose meat is so tough that it needs marinating in wine for three days, though I have a suspicion that I should be more likely to kill my neighbors by accident with my gun than any game on purpose.

Of course, I am assuming that we shall be able to defend our land from the hordes of aging soixante-huitards who settled in the area years ago, who will be driven half-mad after the economic collapse by hunger (there will be no market left for the ethnic-inspired jewelry and joss sticks that they make and sell in summer to tourists from Belgium and Holland). But will we be able to defend our property? When the real crisis strikes, legal titles to land will be worth what Sam Goldwyn thought verbal contracts were worth, that is to say not even the paper they are written on.

My fevered imagination is stimulated by reading the newspapers rather than by observation of life around me, which seems to continue as if nothing much were happening. There is no panic buying, no queues form outside the banks as customers try to withdraw their savings, the ATM machines spew out cash just as before. This season’s cèpes have just arrived: They are at $12 a pound, about the price of decent fish. But the newspapers are full of financial apocalypse. Unless something is done, they say, we face (to change slightly the metaphor) the abyss. But what is it that we should do?

#page#These are happy days for those who have nothing but contempt for the European Union and the political class that has formed it — who, it must be admitted, are very few. The contemptuous always knew that the single currency was unworkable without fiscal union, that fiscal union was impossible without political union, that political union was impossible with even the most minimal democratic oversight and was therefore essentially a fascist ideal, and that in the end the so-called union would bring conflict and even violence. Europe is the Yugoslavia de nos jours.

Eurobonds are one of the answers to the dilemma that are touted, according to which the debts of one country will become the debts of all. Like most answers to most political questions, this one will not please everyone, to put it mildly. Indeed, it is difficult to think of a scheme better calculated to re-arouse the nationalist passions of northern Europe, especially, of course, those of Germany, for it is in essence the German surplus that will have to keep the debts and borrowing capacity afloat. He who pays the piper will call the tune, and rightfully so: It is not reasonable to expect the German population to hand a blank check to the Greeks or Portuguese, who in effect had one thanks to the creation of the euro. The Germans will rule, and everyone else will fret under the yoke.

Another touted short-term solution, though with equally long-term consequences, is resort to the Chinese for funds. There is a certain delicious irony in the heirs of Mao reading lessons in economic orthodoxy and fiscal responsibility to the European political class, but that is precisely what is happening at the moment. The Italians asked the Chinese to buy their bonds, and received in return a sermon on living within their means. When the head of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, said not long ago that Europe was in the process of creating an empire, he was right: It was just that he got the location of the empire wrong. Its capital is in Peking, not in Brussels; he mistook a suzerainty for an empire.

What, ask the newspapers, has got us into this mess? One possible answer, of course, duly reported in Le Monde, is the Anglo-Saxons. According to an economist at the Centre Bruegel in Brussels, Shahin Vallée, “the Anglo-Saxons have always looked on the euro as an intellectual crime, and its success with a certain irritation.” Furthermore, “the Anglo-Saxon banks see the difficulties of the eurozone and its banks as an opportunity to gain market share.” A researcher at one of the French banks in trouble, Natixis, says that the United States stands in “crucial need of a loss of credibility of the euro” in order to be able to sell its own debt. For the head of the French association of heads of business, Laurence Parisot, the problems of the eurozone have arisen from the panics caused by the latest euroskeptic article in the Financial Times. For her, there is “a highly organized drumbeat.” In short, an English-speaking conspiracy, the modern equivalent of the freemasonry that so preoccupied many of the French in the 19th century.

#page#It is true, of course, that an Anglo-Saxon bank, using the term very broadly, helped the Greeks to disguise the true state of their finances, in order that they might join the eurozone and thus degrade their finances exponentially at Germany’s expense; but the state of those finances in the first place, and the idiocy or crookedness of those who believed the Greeks when they presented their figures, was not caused by les anglo-saxons. Rather it was the consequence of the megalomania of a European political class that wanted a eurozone not as sound, but as large, as possible: for in their mind, size was indistinguishable from strength, and the one thing they really valued was power. They wanted to bestride the world like colossi and they wanted to do it immediately.

There is a general reluctance in France to admit that there has been something wrong with Western finances for a long time, at least as much in Britain and the United States as in Europe. The Greek case is surely emblematic rather than sui generis — an extreme case of a general condition.

Why did the Greek government borrow so much? First it increased yet further the political class’s powers of patronage, and second it was by far the easiest and quickest way of raising living standards in Greece without forcing the population to go to the trouble of earning that increase, which is always a slow, onerous, and tedious business if you have to rely on your own work to do it.

In this, however, Greece is not so very different from other Western countries, which have wanted to protect themselves from the vicissitudes of human existence, including economic existence, not by prudence and provision for the future, but by the issuance of promissory notes committing future generations to payment on their behalf. The problem is that promissory notes tend to degrade as more of them are issued; there comes a time when no one believes in them any longer. And it should not be forgotten that France and Germany were the first countries to break the rules of membership of the eurozone: the principle of all European politicians being Let your yea be nay and your nay yea.

Having pursued the policy of après nous le déluge for so long, European politicians now find themselves in an insoluble dilemma: They have to decide which kind of economic degradation to plump for. They can maintain demand for a time at the expense of the currency, or they can maintain the currency for a time at the expense of demand. And if the Greeks don’t like it — well, there is always the option of military occupation: though, you understand, only to restore that order which the Greek government has not been able to maintain among its own population. A police action, then, not a real occupation.

– Mr. Daniels is the author of Utopias Elsewhere and other books.

Anthony Daniels — Mr. Daniels is a long-time contributor to National Review.

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