It would take a heart of stone not to feel for the Greek people over recent events. For all that their casual approach to taxpaying and their taste for generous government spending have contributed to their country’s economic woes, the agreement their government has now struck with its creditors amounts to nothing less than national humiliation. The country that quarried the foundation stones of Western civilisation is now humbled, forced to impose more austerity measures and allow billions of euros of state assets into an internationally-controlled trust because its creditors do not trust its politicians to keep their promises. All this only days after the Greek people clearly voted against austerity as a condition for international bailouts.
Yet at the same time, it is quite possible to understand why the creditors, northern European states led by Germany, have insisted on such measures. The leaders of those countries have domestic politics of their own to consider: just as the Greek public would rather have no more austerity, so German voters would prefer not to pay taxes to underwrite Greek profligacy; a German referendum might well produce a vote to expel the Greeks from the eurozone. This deal will not be celebrated on the streets of Berlin any more than it will be popular in Athens.
Yet that is the nature of the European single currency, which requires that countries suborninate their individual national preferences to a supranational political project. Europe does not change to accommodate the needs and wishes of its members; it requires them to compromise to fit its rigid template. That is the cost of membership. For all the talk of a coup imposed on Greece, the hard fact of the latest deal is that the Greek people have – so far, at least – accepted that since they wish to remain in the eurozone, they must pay the political and economic price required to maintain that membership, accepting more painful austerity and surrendering more of their national sovereignty over economic policy to the European elite.
Alexis Tsipras (Kostas Tsironis/Bloomberg)
There is a certain bleak irony to the Greek agreement. Europe has gone to extraordinary new lengths to stop the integrationist project falling apart, yet never has that project looked so unstable and unsustainable as it does today. The tensions that this latest deal have unleashed surely raise serious doubts about the future: will the Greek people stomach their latest humiliations, or will they finally decide that the price of euro membership is too high to pay? Will the rift exposed between France and Germany widen, fracturing the partnership on which the EU is built? Will other nations tolerate the unchallenged German political dominance that has been demonstrated in this deal? And the next time a euro member runs into trouble, as will inevitably happen, perhaps in a major economy like Italy, will the establishment once again be able to browbeat its people and politicians back into line?
Jean Monnet, a founding father of what is now the EU, predicted that “Europe will be forged in crises, and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises.” He was right, but the Europe that emerges from each crisis looks less democratic and less stable. There will be more such crises too. This will not be the last marathon summit where desperate European leaders stitch together an 11th-hour deal which conceals – but does not resolve – the inherent economic and social contradictions of their political project. The eurozone nations may have paused for breath, but remain fated to continue their stumbling journey down the road to ruin .
It is now beyond argument that this country was right to stay out of the euro, but what further lessons should Britain take from this sad saga? David Cameron, seeking a looser new UK membership agreement with the EU, might consider the lengths to which Europe’s leaders are willing to go to avoid a disruptive exit, and thus seek to drive a harder bargain in his negotiations. He should also study closely the unstoppable process of integration that has once again been shown to be at the heart of the EU, and reflect that the only viable British relationship with the EU is one that keeps this country a healthy distance from the whole doomed European project.