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.
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.