The epic battle being fought between a tough-talking Germany which appears to want each and every European to “tighten his/her belt” and Greece’s new anti-austerity government is tearing the European Union apart.
The confrontation reveals many fissures in the 28-nation bloc. For some, it’s a fight between David (Greece) and Goliath (Germany). In other words, Europe’s biggest and most powerful economy is shamefully bullying the weakest. But, as in the legend, many are betting that David will win.
Others point to a confrontation between Protestant Germany which believes in under-spending, under-consuming and putting aside money for tough times and Orthodox Greece which has spent, spent, spent and is now hopelessly broke.
German media rant against the lazy, good-for-nothing Greeks who are looking for more handouts. Greeks rage against a heartless Germany obsessed with austerity.
The real fight, however, is not about religion, cultural prejudices, stereotypes, racist clichés and worse. It is about European priorities, values and what comes first: money or people? The battle is for the hearts — or the minds — of Europeans. For the moment, there are no winners.
With their demands for a renegotiation of their country’s crippling debt burden and an end to austerity, the new Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis are appealing to the hearts of the millions of Europeans — especially young Europeans — who have been devastated by the economic crisis.
Growth may be picking up slowly but jobs are still scarce. Greece has undoubtedly been hit the hardest by the crisis. Germans say angrily that Greece was also the most profligate of the Eurozone nations. For the moment, Germany is refusing to consider debt relief for its southern partner.
Across the bloc, the debate has pitted economists against each other, put the European Central Bank on a collision course with Athens and triggered an even greater rift between Berlin and Athens. EU member states are reluctant to take sides, wary of getting on the wrong side of Berlin and triggering panic in world financial markets.
But Greece has sympathisers in France, Spain and Portugal, countries which have also been wriggling in Germany’s tight grip.
During a much-publicised “charm offensive” last week, Greek Finance Minister Varoufakis sought to speak to the hearts of all Europeans when he urged Germany not to humiliate his country over its debts.
Interestingly, Varoufakis’ sartorial style — he eschews the finance ministers’ uniform of white shirt and dark suit in favour of bright shirts and leather jackets — has been the subject of as much media comment as his stance on his country’s economic plight.
The Greek finance chief has compared Greece’s situation with that of interwar Germany, telling German television: “I think of all the countries in Europe, the Germans understand best this simple message. If you humiliate a proud nation for too long and subject it to the worry of a debt deflation crisis, without light at the end of a tunnel then things come to the boil.”
Differences between the two countries were in strong evidence at a tense press conference after a meeting in Berlin, when German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble and Varoufakis “agreed to disagree” over the proposals of the Syriza-led anti-austerity government.
Both men refrained from angry outbursts but if there is to be a compromise, it will take time to emerge.
While economists in Berlin and Athens battle it out with figures and percentage points, the rest of Europe is mourning the demise of what is often viewed as one of the bloc’s most significant and valuable achievements: solidarity.
Working together, looking after each other and taking care of the most disadvantaged were supposed to be the key values and the fundamental basis of the EU. Solidarity was supposed to make the EU go round. But the economic crisis has shown the limits of solidarity.
At a recent conference in Brussels, a German academic complained with a mixture of anger and sadness that Berlin was so focused on numbers that it was forgetting the human dimension of the economic crisis. “They tell me this crisis is about money, not about people,” she said.
It is also my experience. In meeting after meeting, policymakers, academics, business leaders discuss the pros and cons of austerity versus growth, myriad ways to stimulate the economy, tackle global competition and increase productivity.
There is little mention of the tragic toll the crisis has taken on many Europeans, especially young people, or of the growing disconnect between Europe’s decision-makers and European citizens.
While European finance ministers scramble to find a satisfactory compromise, Tsipras and Varoufakis have made their point: it’s about the people, stupid.