What’s the difference between the Mafia and the current European leadership? The Mafia makes you an offer you can’t refuse. The leaders of the European Union offer you a deal you can neither refuse nor accept without destroying yourself.
The European Union as we have known it ended over the weekend. That EU project was all about the gradual convergence of equal nations into an “ever closer union”. That’s finished now.
The whole notion was underpinned by three conditions. One was that the process of European integration was consensual – each member state would pool more and more of its sovereignty because it freely chose to do so. The second was that these incremental steps were, to use the terms applied to monetary union in the Maastricht treaty, “irreversible” and “irrevocable” – once they were taken, there could be no going back.
The third, unspoken but completely understood, was that Germany would restrain itself, accepting, in return for the immense gift of a new beginning that its fellow European countries had given it, that it must refrain from ever trying to be top dog again. Each of these fundamental conditions was torched over the weekend.
Firstly, Greece’s sovereignty is no longer pooled – it has been surrendered after what EU officials gleefully called “mental waterboarding”.
By closing the Greek banks, threatening Greek voters and countering the Greek government’s surrender with terms designed to be utterly humiliating, the EU and euro zone leadership finished off the notion of consent. All the waffle about solidarity and respect has been exploded and we are left with an EU based on six little letters: or else.
A new idea has been shoved into the foundations of the EU – the idea that a member state can and will be brought to heel. And brought to heel, not quietly or subtly, but openly and ritually in a Theatre of Cruelty designed for that sole purpose.
The whole idea of making flagrantly provocative demands – the initial insistence that €50 billion of Greek public assets be placed in a fund in Luxembourg being the most spectacular – was to demonstrate, not just to Greece but to all member states, that the EU is now a coercive institution.
And as a coercive institution it has moved into a state of profound division. There is no deeper divide than that between those who are punished and those who do the punishing, between those who are brought to heel and those who shout “Heel!”
As if this seismic shift were not enough in itself, the euro zone leaders managed at the same moment to destroy the second underlying assumption of the European project. In a mood of revenge-fuelled madness, they formally put on the table Wolfgang Schäuble’s pet formulation of a “temporary” Greek exit from the euro, thus casually tearing up the Maastricht treaty.
In the long term it matters less that this threat was not carried out than that it was made and deemed acceptable. Once that happened, all the irreversibles of the European project became reversible; all the irrevocables became revocable.
From here on, every step the EU takes is contingent and provisional. Angela Merkel boasted that Plan B proved unnecessary – but now every European Plan A has an implied Plan B. The official EU has become the provisional EU.
The third condition was Germany’s self-restraint. In 2012, the former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt warned that the EU would be “crippled” if “we Germans allow ourselves to be seduced into claiming a political leading role in Europe or at least playing first among equals”.
Many of Germany’s leading thinkers, from Günter Grass to Jürgen Habermas, have issued similar warnings. It is not accidental that these warnings came from men old enough to remember Nazism and their country’s physical and moral post-war devastation.
The generation now in power in Germany seems to have forgotten everything. It is now not even a case of being “first among equals” – Germany is first in a new Europe of unequals.
And all for what? Why has the European Union been so radically redefined? Not for the sake of the Greek people, of course. No sane person believes that austerity and asset-stripping are the recipe for Greek recovery.
For international financial discipline, then, to prove that all debts must be paid? Hardly – consider that in March the IMF, with almost no fuss, announced a financial package for a European country that is far more corrupt, unstable and oligarchic than Greece.
Ukraine got €36.1 billion in assistance from the IMF, including write-offs of previous IMF loans worth between €13.5 billion and €18 billion. There is little chance of any of this money ever being paid back. And yet Angela Merkel and the other EU hardliners had no problem with any of this.
Why? It’s the politics stupid. Pouring money into corrupt and oligarchic Ukraine was about sending a political message. And tormenting Greece is also about sending a political message.
The message is that we are in a new EU now, one that has a dominant power at its centre and a single acceptable ideology. Those who founded it believed that such a union could not survive. The current leadership apparently knows better.