Amidst the occasionally apocalyptic commentaries on the likely consequences of Greece’s recent general election results, Angus Cameron, the Deputy Director of School, drives a wedge between the potential loss of the Euro and the historical ‘project’ of Europe
Syriza’s victory has stimulated renewed speculation that Greece might withdraw from the Euro, putting the entire European ‘project’ into jeopardy. But what is this project, really? And what would its disintegration actually entail? For many contemporary commentators, ‘Europe’ as a project is equated with the Euro. A brief look at the broader history of Europes (plural), however, suggests otherwise.
‘Europe’, whatever else it may be, is not reducible to a thing, a place or a people, nor can it be fully expressed as a set of laws, treaties and institutions. Many definitions nevertheless tend to emphasise the people. Europe, within ‘history of Europe’ stories, is said to be about identity, it is said to ride the ebbs and flows of ‘European’ nationalisms, regionalisms, religions and languages. Charlemagne’s Frankish Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, the inter-related European monarchies and their attendant aristocracies, Napoleonic France, the 1000 year Reich and the EU, to name only a few, have all discovered/asserted themselves as ideal articulations of Europe’s territorial, spiritual, moral, political and/or economic community. They have all attempted to foist (usually by force) their particular vision of Europe on to the rest. Almost irrespective of the particular ideology that draws the blueprint, Europe perpetually seems to be a future yet to be built on the foundations (often still smouldering) of….well…Europe. While individual visions of European futures differ fundamentally, they each share the long term goal of an enduring unity.
This brings us to the Euro. As a common, everyday element across the majority of EU member states, it has become a potent symbol of contemporary and future ‘Europeanness’. Ever since the global financial meltdown of 2007-8, however, the idea of Europe has become almost indistinguishable from the crisis in the Euro. The Euro, in other words, seems somehow to have become Europe. The ‘Grexit’ crisis brings this out into the open though the earlier signs were there to be read. The move from separate national currencies to the transitional European money of the ecu, to the Euro itself, seemed inexorable – a single economic and political space simply had to have a single currency. Nowhere is the assumption of the ‘inevitability’ of the Euro more evident than in the (with hindsight) extraordinary failure of its architects to imagine a day when a Eurozone member might want to – or have to – leave. Underpinning the prospect of the Greek default, then, is the fear that the European ‘spell’ is broken. Notwithstanding that other EU member states did not adopt the Euro, the fact of a state stepping backwards into some pre-Euro national past, flatly contradicts the assumption of ‘Europe’ as progress. So will, as many commentators believe, the demise of the Euro lead to the collapse of Europe? The question only begs further questions because Europe is not and never has been a single entity. Even supposing the Euro vanishes in a puff of debt and recrimination, and even if the break-up of the Eurozone leads to departures from the EU, Europe, in its many forms, would still continue.
I say this is for two reasons. Firstly, and most obviously, I say it because much of Europe’s conceptual and institutional structure will survive. The political and bureaucratic inertia for which the EU has, for its critics, become effectively synonymous will, ironically, ensure that something persists. Secondly, and arguably more importantly, I say it in light of Europe’s perennial relationship with crisis. The European Coal and Steel Community created by the 1950 Schuman Declaration was a response to the Second World War while the EU itself, as the political philosopher Etienne Balibar (p. 166) put it, was a ‘child of the cold war’. The European Common Market, furthermore, was a response to the crisis tendencies of ‘global’ commodities markets while the creation of both the ecu and the Euro were themselves responses to increasingly volatile financial markets. Crisis provided the basis for both the shaping and expansion of the EU’s contemporary institutions.
Europe may not always have been popular (either with domestic populations and/or nationalist political parties), but as both an idea and as a set of ideals it has long been regarded as a place of refuge. This produces some odd contradictions. At the very height of the last major crisis for the Euro in 2011, the Romanian Prime Minister Traian Băsescu formally signed up to both the EU and the Euro. Recognizing the possible absurdity of his situation – he jokingly urged the press, ‘Please don’t laugh’, but went ahead anyway, declaring that he did ‘not believe in a fragmented Europe’. Somewhere between these two statements lies the paradox of Europe. It is fragmented and always has been, but the overwhelming desire to believe in the possibility of its unity – however this is to be achieved and however ridiculously impossible it may seem at the time – will ensure its survival in some form or other.
The Euro is (probably) dead, long live Europe!