Against all my predictions, Sunday’s elections in Greece were not an unmitigated disaster. While Europe winced in fretful anticipation, the Greek people handed victory to New Democracy, a centre-right, pro-bail out party.
I’m not going to start hypothesising about what this means for the future of the euro, because I have not got a clue and ‘renegotiation’ is an almost comically vague idea. But let us consider the purely political ramifications of this somewhat unforeseen result.
Domestically, the result shows that Greece does not really want to go for extremism. It rejected the far-left (albeit by a small margin), because the people saw through the empty promises and meaningless rhetoric. Instead they chose the party which they felt was being open and honest with them. They also rejected the far-right, which normally does well in this kind of climate. What does that say about modern politics in times of crisis?
Internationally, Greece gave Europe a thumbs-up. By recognising the need to stay in the euro, the country also effectively reinforced its consent for European integration. They believe that they are stronger within the Union than not, which is probably true. The Greek economy is dependent on European tourism, although leaving the euro may have given the country the options of devaluation. It is improbable that Europeans will want to travel to Greece when they hold it responsible for a financial disaster, so maybe the argument is mute.
However, I’m a natural Europhile and I genuinely believe that Europe will help solve Greece’s problems. An exportation of the German economic model will no doubt raise living standards, although that will obviously take decades and the Mediterranean way of life may be hard to change. But the ring of debt-ridden countries need to change, full stop. Just look at the banks in Spain, or Italy’s bizarre labour laws, and you will see why.
But my real question is this – why does political integration require the economic kind? Now that the euro exists it must be preserved, but most people would probably now agree that it was a flawed idea. Many have now taken this to mean that Europe itself is unworkable and should be avoided like the plague. This simply isn’t true. Taken generally, the EU has done nothing but good – it limits members’ carbon emissions, protects human rights and funds research into drug development, while being a much more efficient implementer of sanctions than the Russia/China dominated UN.
Admittedly, it could do more. While fostering democracy in individual states, it has yet to democratise itself. It has not taken actions against the dodgy regime in Belarus, or managed to improve the state of civil liberties in Turkey – once a potential member. But these problems are not due to complete incompetence. The EU simply hasn’t got enough power. As anethemic as the prospect is to the British right-wing press or the French isolationist instinct, if we want Europe to be successful, we are going to have to allow it to be so.