Europe is overcrowded with people and with nations. Six decades ago, the need to suppress the dangerous forces of nationalism led to the unprecedented political, economic and social experiment now known as the European Union. The hundreds of thousands of EU citizens working across the Continent and the lack of border controls between member states show that the experiment has been successful in many ways. However, rising nationalism, pervasively high unemployment and a growing sense of frustration with governing elites also highlight the serious limitations of the European project. Over the past 12 months, I have traveled extensively throughout Europe, observing firsthand how the global economic crisis is reawakening dormant trends along the Continent’s traditional fault lines.
The crisis is having an uneven effect on EU member states because the eurozone locks countries with different levels of economic development into the same currency union. Europe’s geography helps explain these differences: Countries in the south have traditionally dealt with high capital costs and low capital-generation capacity, while countries in the north have seen the opposite.
In December, I drove from Barcelona to Madrid. The endless succession of mountains along the route encapsulates Spain’s traditional struggle against geography: Merely moving people and goods from point to point on the Iberian Peninsula has always posed formidable challenges for governments and traders. This rugged geography also led to the development of small pockets of populations with strong national identities, creating tension between Madrid and the Basque Country as well as Catalonia. Spain has traditionally been a resource-poor country that has had to look to the Atlantic to find wealth while frequently resorting to violence to secure unity.
In contrast, most of Germany is flat. In May, I drove north along the Rhine, one of the country’s major economic arteries. The river and its tributaries have blessed all of the people living near them, bringing incalculable wealth to trading cities such as Frankfurt and Cologne. The same holds true for the two other major German waterways, the Elbe and the Danube. But wealth does not necessarily mean peace. Both sides of the Rhine host multiple castles and fortifications, a reminder of the state of fragmentation that defined the Germanic world for centuries. The lack of any real physical borders to the east and west also helps explain Germany’s historical conflict with its neighbors.
Highways in Spain and Germany highlight a more significant difference. During my journey between Barcelona and Madrid, I barely saw any cars, let alone trucks. At times, it was hard to believe I was traveling between the two major cities in the eurozone’s fourth-largest economy. By contrast, Germany’s autobahns are crowded with vehicles going from one point to another. The same geography that made Germany a place of conflict also explains its economic power: Germany is the center of Europe from almost every possible point of view.
The farther one moves from Germany, the more evident the crisis becomes. Traveling by train from Thessaloniki to Athens lets one see Greece’s complex geography firsthand. Greece is a rugged country with narrow coastal plains that swiftly give way to mountains. Complicating matters, the country has some 6,000 islands and islets, only a handful of which are inhabited. Greece’s extremely fragmented geography and its strategic position on the eastern Mediterranean helps explain why it has struggled throughout history to get anything done. Developing an integrated economy and collecting taxes has proven difficult, especially while repelling a never-ending series of invasions.
Walking down the streets of Athens reveals that this is where the crisis struck first and has had the deepest impact. The city’s downtown is full of closed shops with broken windows, graffiti and other signs of long-term neglect. In Athens, I saw far more police than in any other major European city. But at no time did I feel unsafe. Police are not out in force because of crime but because of social unrest. Though Greece is relatively tranquil these days, the social situation is still a ticking time bomb.
At the other end of the Continent, Portugal looks similar. I arrived in early October, excited by recent figures showing a drop in unemployment and an improvement in the economic outlook. What I found, however, was a place where only tourism seemed to be working while everything else remained static. Lisbon and Oporto are bittersweet places where magnificent monuments and spectacular views coexist with poverty and economic depression. Though Lisbon ended its rescue program with the European Union and International Monetary Fund early this year, for many Portuguese, life remains hard.
Talking Politics Across the Continent
Whenever I’m in a foreign country, I make an effort to visit bookstores because the books people read and write offer insights into the social mood. Bookstores in Southern Europe are a reminder that the Continent’s economic problems have become political ones too. The gap between voters and traditional elites keeps widening as people are becoming increasingly tired of the policies designed by Brussels and backed by domestic politicians.
Perusing the shelves, I saw numerous books with significant anti-austerity and anti-establishment themes, which in some cases took an anti-German flavor. In an Oporto bookstore, among the bestsellers was a book called We Are Not Germans, while a Rome bookstore had a book called It’s Not Worth a Lira, a plea to leave the euro and return to Italy’s old currency, that appeared to be quite popular.
Southern Europeans fear and admire Germany at the same time. On one hand, Germany is seen as a country where everything works and governments are efficient. On the other hand, it is also seen as a hegemon that doesn’t understand or care about the situation in the nations it is trying to lead.
Europe’s economic crisis is particularly puzzling for the center-left. Social Democrats have traditionally embraced the process of European integration because it offers economic prosperity based on big welfare states and strong labor legislation. But this model is in crisis in many countries, and even center-left governments are applying spending cuts under pressure from the European Union.
In Italy, I had dinner with a former union leader as the center-left’s Matteo Renzi — who had just been appointed prime minister — was proposing reforms in several areas, including labor. “I don’t like the direction Renzi is going,” the former union leader told me, “but I will vote for the Democratic Party again because it’s either them or the (anti-system) Five Star Movement.” While conservative forces are moving to the right and nationalist forces are gaining strength, the center-left is going through an identity crisis that is generating frictions within the parties and confusing their traditional voters — something French President Francois Hollande is learning the hard way.
In Athens, a journalist told me she did not share the views of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, but at least it had never been involved in a corruption scandal like those that have traditionally surrounded the country’s mainstream parties. Along with the concept of democracy, Ancient Greece also developed the concept of kleptocracy. Whenever you talk with Greeks about politics, a word comes to their mouths almost immediately: “kleptes,” which literally means “thieves.” Most Southern Europeans have similar views of their governments. And while there is a big gap between what people say in conversations and the