So one week ago, I’m at a dinner in Amsterdam and, inevitably, the topic of Greece and the euro comes up. A Dutch book editor goes into a tart little diatribe about how outrageous it is for Greeks to have gladly taken massive loans yet now bristle at being forced to repay at least part of the money. I ask if she thinks Dutch people resent that. The Dutch, along with the Germans and other “responsible” northerners, are the likely ones to have to make up for whatever countries like Greece don’t pay. “Yes, we resent it,” she says. I pose what seems a logical followup: “Do you want out of the euro?” She and the Belgian translator across from her look stunned and reply in unison: “Of course not!”
With the world wondering whether Greece will default on its debt and potentially bring about the end of the euro, and given how much withering press the currency has gotten lately, it’s worth pausing to consider what the euro means to the people who use it, and how that could relate to other big issues beyond the economy.
Probably the most common criticism of the euro is that it is a dead man walking because it relies on an economic union that is unsupported by a political union. History shows that this is a structural weakness, but it’s not necessarily unfixable. The Europeans who use the currency may not feel the sort of metaphysical connection to it that American have for the dollar, but they have become fond of it. And that fondness is worth dwelling on.
Certainly the fondness relies on an economic substructure. The euro opened southern European markets up for northern European countries; it allowed for infrastructure development in the south; it helped create the largest consumer market in the world. But that’s all in the background for most Europeans. Their real feelings of attachment draw from the small interactions that ride on the surface of life.
A Dutch colleague of mine, in his thirties, tried to explain that it’s somehow not just convenient but meaningful that when he goes to France or Spain he uses the same bills and coins as at home. More than a few Europeans have told me they started the euro experiment with skepticism but over the past decade—as the currency became a serious player, and also as travel got cheaper and easier—they have discovered that they have a European identity, which rides alongside their national identity.
The structural flaws within the eurozone—which have a lot to do with the current mess—certainly have to be addressed. When member countries chose to ignore the “stability and growth pact,” the agreement to keep national deficits at a maximum of 3 percent of GDP and national debt below 60 percent of GDP, there was no overarching political entity to enforce it. This doesn’t mean that the euro is junk, but that it is a work in progress. More political oversight will be required.
But this is the big fault line on the continent, one that extends into other areas. Europe’s new far-right parties feed on anti-EU and anti-euro sentiment, maybe even more than on immigration fears and anti-Muslim feelings. This new far-right is hard for Americans to get a handle on because it mixes far-left policies, such as a commitment to a broad social welfare state, with right-wing nationalism. The anti-euro stance of politicans like France’s Marine Le Pen is all about national pride: Don’t let eggheads in Brussels tell us what’s right for France (or Germany, or Denmark, or the Netherlands).
These parties—like the unrest in Greece—are a logical response to failings of the EU elite, which has cared more about globalization and its favored institutions than ordinary people. But these parties are not the way forward. They may be even more dangerous than the old far-right parties, because they have become astute at masking their racism and so are verging on popular acceptance. They have to be countered by another voice, which has yet to coalesce, and which can equally speak to the failings of the elite.
That’s where the euro-fondness could play a role. A fascinating wrinkle is that the types of Europeans who are most vigorously opposed to the far-right parties—the urban, the urbane, the chattering-classes—actually share the intense anger toward the financial elites that so animates the far-right voters. A young German web designer I know says he loves the euro but hates the forces behind it, whose policies he feels are turning ordinary people into slaves of crony-capitalism (“I would be on the streets with the occupiers right now if I didn’t have to work so hard at the moment”).
A lot of Europeans feel the euro was something forced on them, but now that it is has established itself they recognize its advantages, both practical and social. Notionally the euro is all about economic stability, but a currency is also about trust and values. At its best, the euro represents a collective desire to escape tribalism. It came into being as part of a longing to get beyond centuries of war and horror that culminated with World War II and the Holocaust. Countries that used to send marauding armies at one another now buy each other’s software and organic lentils; people drift back and forth across national borders with no indication that they are crossing from one European country to another beyond the beep announcing that their cell phone provider has changed.
This is progress, current financial crises notwithstanding. A stronger European identity, which combines with but doesn’t try to replace national or cultural identities (which is not so hard to imagine: African Americans are able to identify as both black and as Americans) is a thing of value. Returning to francs and marks and lira would, at this stage, be a move in the direction of the far-right parties, a retreat back into the tribes. As the Slovak author Martin M. Simecka has said, if the EU was built on a commitment not to repeat the mistakes of the past, Europe’s problem today has to do with an inability of Europeans to look to the future with anything other than fear: of immigration, of economic collapse.
Alexander Rinnooy Kan, the head of the Dutch Social Economic Council, told me, “Something you hear these days is that if the euro fails, then Europe fails. I think it’s the reverse.” In other words, Europe has to solve its identity crisis if it is to find economic stability. That would help it and much of the rest of the world, including the U.S. And the euro could be a means to that end.
Russell Shorto is director of the John Adams Institute in Amsterdam.