Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The end of being European

Now that the downfall of the Euro is a daunting possibility, it may be time to ask myself some questions. Did it make me feel more European? Will I miss it, in case it disappears? Questions that are not easy to answer. What is obvious though, that decision makers have been sleeping. Or, maybe they have not. They knew. But the Euro was a philosophy, a religion almost, that served a bigger purpose. The unity of Europe as a social, cultural and economic power. But they might have been more rational. And settled for economic prosperity alone.

Where do we go from here?

In a discussion shortly before the referendum on the new European treaty here in The Netherlands some years ago, a friend said that he was proud that he felt more European thanks to the Euro. It was a statement that surprised me a little, because for me feeling European did not depend on the currency in my hands. To be honest, using foreign money abroad contributed to my vacation feeling. It proved you were away, in a different country, with different people, different cities and different scenery. True, it was not always convenient. Belgium with its francs and Italy with its lires demanded you to be good at math – and I surely wasn't. But one had its tricks, and could survive.

When I was young, traveling abroad required truly crossing a border, and that was one of the romantic aspects of vacation in the eyes of a kid. Would we make it across, would they want us to open the trunk and inspect its contents? Sometimes the uniformed border control officials, with their impressive caps, did. But over the years they relaxed, and we were mostly waved trough wherever we went here in western Europe. And when a number of EU countries signed the Schengen treaty, that essential part of the vacation mystery was thrown out officially. But I was older then, did not rely on my parents anymore to take me abroad, and drove myself across the border. And actually, that was very convenient. Ask me what made me feel European, it was just that – being able to travel without being checked. Well, not everywhere of course, since not all EU countries were so Europe minded. Like our British neighbors, who preferred to keep an eye on those odd silly continental characters in order to protect their national identity. Well, that's what I assume. But nowhere near as strict, impolite, unwelcoming and intimidating like the US border officials after 9/11, drenched in an anti foreigner attitude called Homeland Security. America, the land of the free, can still learn a thing or two when it comes to welcoming visitors from befriended Europe. I'll never forget entering the US at Sault St. Marie from Canada, where me and my companion were ordered to follow in our rented SUV at walking pace, our passport taken from us, the RAV4 entirely searched – even with mirrors to check the underside. And when we were handed our passports back half an hour later, there was not one word of apology or even 'have a good trip'. So much for investing thousands of tourist dollars by two citizens from the country that is not only one of the biggest investors in the New World, but that was the first to raise the flag for the United States in 1776.

Border between Germany and France at St. Germanshof.
You cross it almost without noticing it.

But what is Europe to us? Hard to say. I've always claimed that the EU should focus on being an economic unity, instead of being a social and cultural melting pot. Because Europe is not America. Blindfold someone, and drop him in whatever country you can think of, and it would not hard for him to guess where he is. The sounds, the people, the houses, the towns seem to be unique in almost any country. So much difference with the USA. Drop someone in a Seattle or a Boston suburb, and the abundance of Wendy's, Olive Gardens, Wal Marts and generic houses and streets, will confuse him. Or make him feel at home of course. No matter what, it will be the license plates of the cars that tell him where he might be.

There is too much diversity in Europe. When you live in Spain you have little in common with someone living in Finland. But the European train was unstoppable. It moved forward as a force that was out of control, a unity of too many social and cultural nations, without an exit strategy in case things would not work out well. And that is not as farfetched as it might seem. While some countries are very liberal and consequent defending and securing the rights of all, other countries have different views on that. There are east European states where Jewish or gay people are less equal than others. And there's a small green island country where until shortly people were still not allowed to divorce. And yet, we embraced them all as our fellow citizens, as if we all paid tribute to the same set of values. The lack of an exit strategy also handicapped that ultimate flag on the European unity, the Euro. And that's where Europe will stumble.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not anti Europe. I am not anti Euro. It made doing business in member states easier for many companies, it helped export because the new currency's value was determined by both the strong and weak national currencies, which was profitable for us here in the Low Countries. Granted, it made traveling easier too. And even with the unfolding debt crisis in the southern European countries, it helped us in Holland. Investors fleeing from Greek and Italian loans were looking for something more reliable – and interest rates dropped for us. But ironically, the same day that investors started paying The Netherlands to take their loans, Standard & Poor threatened to take away our Triple A rating. Is there still any logic in the world of the financial institutions?

Ah well. What can we do, the John Does in this world? Opinions and prophecies tumble over each other in politics and media, and many sound valid and logical, if not all with a dark warning attached. How can we chose who to believe? But the end of Europe? No, if the Euro goes, Europe will still be there. Only not as we knew it.

4 comments:

  1. Europe probably was too eager to become a "United States of Europe". But where the USA have been a political unity with a shared culture and language for over 200 years now, Europe has not.
    Personally I like the diversity of the European countries. But only now we discover this diversity also is a big hurdle when it comes to supporting a common currency. The differences between the southern and northern European economies simply are too big.
    Does the Euro make me feel European? Not really. Personally I think the internet has done more to make 19th century nation states obsolete than the Euro. I read information and buy stuff on websites all over the world - it makes me feel a world citizen.

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  2. I would have to agree that the internet has linked all of us more than any regional currency has. Only twenty one years ago I had just returned from my first stay in Europe, before cell phones, and before the internet. With no intention of trying to be condescending, I was really taken aback by how much of Europe felt behind the times by as much as 20-30 years. Clothing styles were so '60s, and it was 1990! Small corner stores were common places to get daily groceries and other goods. Daily??? Many had little if any refrigeration space (many still have very little, unbelievable by North American standards...where we have full-sized refrigerators in the break rooms of every department at work, let alone at home in apartments or houses). I saw Turkish toilets only steps from the Patheon in Paris...which I had NEVER seen before (nor had I ever seen pull chain toilets...but we used a common one in the hallway rather a personal one in our individual rooms in Paris). Yes, there were other regions of Europe that I saw where whole cities were destroyed and rebuilt to much newer standards due to WWII, but there were many ancient zones to experience as well, which actually added to the quaint qualities of the experience.
    Now, when walking down any street, or when visiting virtually any home in Europe, you find cell phones and PCs connecting people around the world. Clothing styles and attitudes seem to be meshing across the globe...skaters look the same everywhere. Saggers are more the norm than the unusual. Cultural divides have narrowed. Not due to the currency, but due to the internet and other communication technologies.
    I agree that the different currencies of the various nations of Europe added to the romantic aura of traveling, although it did make traveling over short visits (like day trips) quite tedious.
    It is too bad that the European central economy is failing and that the credit rating of Europe is bordering on a rating reduction as America had only a year ago. Faith in currency, faith in government, and faith in the future is failing almost anywhere as it becomes more and more difficult to pay the bills and save money for the future.
    Regardless of currencies, politics and alliances, we are all much closer and dip into each other's worlds much more as a result of the internet. If you want to see a movie that debuts in Los Angeles months before it debuts in Berlin, you can view it on the internet. If you want to see how one lives along Le Cote D'Azure in Nice vs. how one lives in Malibu, you can, on YouTube. That will never change...regardless of currency or nationality.

    Latvian98

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  3. Very nice write-up Martin, thank you.

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  4. Nicely put. Back in the 70's when I voted in the Referendum to join the EEC (as it was known then) I never imagined the EU politicians or our politicians, interfering as much as they do now. Can that small strip of water known as the English Channel really separate us from mainland Europe? Or is it the Euro, which dear Gordon refused to join (along with Rupert Murdoch a well known Australian).

    Ah...what might have been. Still, we've got 3 times as meany Wind Turbines and 10 times as meany Solar Panels as the USA.

    Alan.

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