Part II in the series (Part I here)
The Greek crisis is the clearest expression of the failure of European asabiya. Yes, the Greeks bear a lot of responsibility for getting themselves in a mess. They have been profligate and they racked up a huge debt. They elected corrupt and dishonest political leaders.
Yet, in the last five years they have been paying up for their sins. As a respected economist Simon Wren-Lewis writes,
since 2010 Greece has done most of what the Troika asked of it. In particular, changes in its government’s underlying primary budget balance (i.e. the degree of austerity enacted) have been greater, by a long distance, than any other European economy. For many outside Germany what has happened to Greece as a result is hardly surprising: austerity is contractionary, and austerity on steroids is ruinous. …
After dutifully taking the medicine for years, and seeing the collapse of their economy, finally the Greek people could take no more. Confronting this reality has been too much for Germany. So instead it has created its fantasy, a fantasy that allows it to cast its failed experiment to one side, blaming the character of the patient. …
So powerful has this fantasy become, it is now driving German policy (and policy in a few other countries as well) in totally irrational ways. In particular, Germany refuses to discuss debt relief with Greece, yet seems quite happy to see Greece leave the Eurozone, the inevitable consequence of which would be that Greece would obtain much greater debt relief through default. Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face. What is driving Germany’s desperate need to rid itself of the Greek problem?
Leo Tolstoy famously wrote in Anna Karenina, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. The European Union is an unhappy family in many ways. I’d like to discuss two.
The first one has to do with deep history. The roots of the European identity go back to the Carolingian Frankish Empire. As I wrote in a recent post on Cliodynamica, the six European nations that established the European Economic Community in 1957 match almost perfectly with the boundaries of Charlemagne’s empire. After the Carolingian Empire fragmented, the various peoples who were part of it never again became part of the same state, but they retained a feeling of shared identity. When the French and German knights found themselves on a crusade in the Holy Land, they forgot about linguistic and political boundaries dividing them, and thought of themselves as part of Latin Christendom. Their enemies, the Muslims, also didn’t bother distinguishing among the different varieties of Crusaders, simply calling them Faranga – the Franks.
In War and Peace and War I proposed that we call such supranational groupings of people metaethnic communities. (It’s similar in many ways to Samuel Huntington’s ‘civilizations,’ but more general in that it includes large groupings of people without cities and literacy, such as the Iron Age Celts or Turco-Mongolic steppe nomads). What I am saying is that the European Union is based on the metaethnic identity that has deep historical roots, going back more than 1000 years. Starting from the core of the Carolingian Empire, this metaethnic group gradually expanded to include Spain, Portugal, and the Italian Mezzogiorno in the South, the British Isles in the West, the Scandinavian countries in the North, and Western Slavs to the East.
Just as interesting as it is to account who was in, we also need to remember who was out, because all metaethnic identities develop in opposition to other large-scale groupings. Latin Christendom had two kinds of enemies: the Muslims and the Orthodox Christians, each of them a separate metaethnic group (or civilization, in Huntington’s terms).
The “clash” between Latin Christendom and Islam is noncontroversial, but it is often forgotten that the split between western and eastern Christians is of almost as great antiquity. It dates back to the Mutual Excommunication of 1054.
Some of the most notable ‘achievements’ of Latin Christendom against the Orthodox Christians include the sack of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade in 1204 and the unsuccessful crusade against Russia in the 1240s.
Crusaders loot the Cathedral of St. Sophia during the Sack of Constantinople in 1204. Source
Why is this ancient history important? Surprisingly, events that happened 1000 years ago help us understand the pattern in which Europe is falling apart today. The former Carolingian territories are the most cohesive core of the EU (although this should be understood in a relative sense; as I mentioned in the previous blog there are Eurosceptic minorities even in the core EU states of Germany and France). The regions that were included in Latin Christendom later are the EU periphery where most of the trouble spots are located.
The five eurozone countries that needed to be bailed out since 2009 are on this periphery: Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Greece, and Cyprus. One other member of the periphery, UK, is planning to hold a referendum on whether to leave the EU.
But Greece is even more peripheral to the EU. Unlike Catholic Ireland and Spain, Orthodox Greece was never part of Latin Christendom. The medieval Crusaders didn’t feel that the Byzantine Greeks were part of ‘Us.’ Today, the German finance minister Schaeuble doesn’t hide his desire for the Greek exit from the Eurozone.
And that’s why I think that history is important. Despite its initial promise, the European Union proved to be unable to overcome civilizational identities that formed 1000 years ago. This is why Greece is being forced to accept a much worse deal than Spain or Ireland.
It’s not the only reason for the current crisis of the EU. As I said in the beginning of this post, there are other reasons for why the European Union is an unhappy family. In the next installment I will talk about one of them, which is of much shorter historical depth than the metaethnic divide.