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The Slow Motion Implosion of the EU

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Last week we discussed the problem that Greece is posing to the EU, the probability of a prolonged default on its debt, its inability to square productivity with the benefits the Greeks want, and a subset of that, the disparities and antagonistic aims of the economic sectors within Greece, especially the agricultural sector. Greece is--and has been--a poor country by in large, despite the occasional Onassis. It's middle class is narrow and politically besieged by cultural values that no longer represent the aspirations of most Greeks.

But, the truth is that Greece is broke and a failure of the Greek government to come to grips with its budget has forced Germany of the "deep pockets" to take up the slack ... and perhaps the cudgel ... and certainly the fate of the EU.

One seeks perspective on something like this. Why all of a sudden are Greece, Portugal, Spain, and Italy (the southern tier) all hanging by a thread? The answer is not the climate. Southern Europe does, however, share a cultural value that does not predominate in the north. If you have spent a good deal of time in the Mediterrean area you know that "industriousness" is not the main feature of these cultures. This is not to say that Italians do not make great, fast, and beautiful cars, or the Greeks wonderful vacation experiences, or Spain, or Portugal, but they do not register on the "industry" scale like Sweden, Germany, the UK, the Netherlands, or France. The difference goes way back and is set in a concrete of nostalgia and choices made about what is important in life ... and it is not back-breaking, pencil sharpening, money-grubbing industriousness.

So, the meltdown of the New York financial system had immediate repercussions around the world. Smaller economies depended on the U.S. and others to maintain the momentum and flow of credit. When that ended and froze, the countries that were subsisting on the eddies of the global economy began to drown in their own profligacy, their mismatch between resources and expectations. The White House understood this and has done what it could to put the top back on the house of Finance. But as with Main Street in America, the wobbly condition of the lesser economies threatens the entire structure again. Germany cannot do it alone.

Germany, I can guarantee you, is talking to Washington right now. The disquiet is being masked by deliberate silence. EU wants (and needs) to believe that it is a self-sustaining and organic entity. Maastricht is less than twenty years old, however, and the ties that bind the EU together are threads, not burly cables. EU could fail for lack of confidence as easily as for lack of economic solvency. Both are on Obama's plate ... and you will not hear much about it, but keep it in mind.


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James R. Brett, Ph.D. taught Russian History before (and during) a long stint as an academic administrator in faculty research administration. His academic interests are the modern period of Russian History since Peter the Great, Chinese (more...)

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