Thursday 27 October 2016

Terry Prone: Dream of a united Europe under strain like never before

Newly-appointed Finance Minister Euclid Tsakalotos (R) and outgoing Yannis Varoufakis embrace at the Finance Ministry after a handover ceremony in Athens
Newly-appointed Finance Minister Euclid Tsakalotos (R) and outgoing Yannis Varoufakis embrace at the Finance Ministry after a handover ceremony in Athens

Despite the positive PR it gets sometimes, living in the now is not always good.

Living in the now, following the Greek referendum, is like being frozen in confusion and dread without knowing precisely what the worst possibilities are.

Everybody's walking on broken glass, and, in a vague but eerie echo of the months leading up to the Second World War, dithering between appeasement and facing down the enemy.

The key difference, apart from the fact that the only armies are those who battle in the financial markets, is that this time around it's difficult to define the enemy.

One thing is certain, however. The Greek crisis has shaken the European dream many of us grew up with as nothing before.

Out of the fire-storm of Dresden, the terror of the London Blitz, the horrors of the Holocaust and the blood-rusted rubble of a world war came a belief that it must never happen again, and a matching conviction that it lay within the hands of Europe to create a new kind of governance that would forever preserve the continent from such destruction.

That new approach would unite nations, not only around economics but also around a crucial founding principle: that scale would not constitute power.

Cynics would say that the one sure characteristic of the human race, going back to Neanderthal times, is its cyclical commitment to war-making. But in the aftermath of the Second World War, cynics were thankfully thin on the ground and the arc of the future pointed to hope and unity.

The strange thing is that Ireland, with virtually no experience of that war, was nevertheless from the outset among the most enthusiastic dreamers of the European dream.

There were few bombs dropped on this island, except for a couple of accidents like the one that took out a vast chunk of the North Strand. We had been so determinedly neutral throughout the conflict that we even refused to use the description the rest of the world used and instead called the war The Emergency.

Yet, when it was over, we bought in to the idea of a Europe to be forever pacified by mutual respect and collective agreement.

One of the reasons for that buy-in was the notion that little Ireland, sitting out on the continent's periphery, would be as powerful, when it came to making decisions in what started as the EEC and progressed to the EU, as countries a hundred times bigger.

We figured we would gain, and boy, did we. Whether it was grant aid from one of many obscurely-titled EU funds, allowing us to build a road network we would never have been able to build without European help, or the bright children of ambitious parents going off to do their 'stage', we gained.

Europe kicked our insularity where it hurt, too, bringing for women and other groups a sense of possibility that had been absent up to then.

The Greek crisis of recent months has been like an asteroid ploughing straight into all of that. The damage it has done has been worsened by a process in recent years which has seen a confluence of factors combine to create an odd, resentful defiance within this country towards Europe.

For many of the Irish population, Europe has become a big bureaucracy. It is all about regulations and ECB bankers and a sense that whatever about the theory, the reality is that the big, rich countries, most obviously Germany, make the big decisions.

Hence the ambivalence and contradiction in an Irish attitude that sees the Greek government as incoherent and inconsistent, yet still - if push came to shove - would like to see Ireland stand with Greece, another small nation, against the big powers.

Overall though, many here wish that this whole crisis would end and that we could get back to normal.

And all the while, as the Greek fallout continues, normality seems to be slipping in the Mediterranean waves, as we realise that the stream of migrants from north Africa is not a wave that will ebb, but a continuing flood.

It's one that may yet change every nation across the EU and, at the same time, change forever our understanding of the European dream.

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