It’s difficult from afar to grasp the depressing scale and depth of European disintegration, so let me try from close range to convey something of what’s going on by using a simple method: extracting snippets of randomly-chosen local political news published in a handful of printed and online European sources on just one rather ordinary day, September 18th 2013.
In the Netherlands, newly-inaugurated King Willem-Alexander makes his first annual appearance before parliament with a speech announcing the end of the welfare state. ‘Due to social developments such as globalisation and an ageing population,’ says the king, ‘our labour market and public services are no longer suited to the demands of the times.’ He adds: ‘The classical welfare state is slowly but surely evolving into a “participatory society”’. It sounds promising: citizens will be expected hereon to take care of themselves, or create civil society solutions to such problems as care for the elderly, unemployment and housing shortages. Decoded, the king said: due to EU budget rules, state social policy is fated to shrink. There is no alternative. The egalitarian policies dating from the 1960s are finished. Austerity is not a temporary belt-tightening exercise. From this day forwards, in the ‘participatory society’, each individual must follow the rule, sauve qui peut.
From Germany comes the news that in the five months since its launch, the populist anti-euro party, Alternative für Deutschland, looks to be the only group seriously challenging Angela Merkel’s ruling CDU and the flagging opposition Social Democrats. Just days before the general election, at a public rally in front of the Brandenburg gate, party supporters vent their spleens. ‘Who is this Barroso?’, asks one, referring to José Manuel Barroso, European Commission president. ‘Who gave the banks more say than the citizens?’ Says another party supporter: ‘We’re liable for billions for the Greek economy, which is bankrupt, full of cronies and corrupt. They would be better off with their own currency. Merkel is silent on all these problems.’ Meanwhile, pollsters report that the Green Party’s programme of social justice funded by tax increases for top income brackets seems to be costing them potential votes (support is hovering around 10%). The party is embroiled in a media-driven scandal sparked by its support for a 1980s campaign for the de-criminalisation of paedophilia. Its proposal for public canteens and ‘vegetarian days’ once a week has fallen on deaf ears. These days, Germans are for stability, jobs, rising income, turning their backs on the rest of Europe. They don’t mind ‘Mutti’ Merkel; more than a few German citizens adore her.
Across the Channel, to the south-west, the news is mostly good, if you’re an optimist. The Cameron government launched the re-privatisation of Lloyd’s Banking Group with the sale of £3.3 billion of shares in the bank. It’s the second largest recorded share placement in British history, and ministers waste no time in trumpeting the sale as proof of the UK’s return to economic health. Advanced Business Park, a huge Chinese property developer, meanwhile announces that its new global headquarters will be located in London, with plans to turn the Royal Albert Docks into a £1 billion ‘Asian business port’. Official figures meanwhile show that roaring demand for London housing has pushed property prices beyond their peak at the height of the country’s economic boom. Britain has a major housing supply problem. Yet little new housing is being built; in spite of pay freezes for most citizens, rents are rocketing; and there are reported fears of an impending property bubble.
From the far north of Europe come reports that Arctic ice will be no more after 2050, if not sooner. At summer’s end, unexpectedly, the ice shelf appeared to swell. Satellite data in fact shows that during the previous winter the thickness of ice was a record low, further evidence that the long-term trend is still steadily downward. There’s less gloomy news from the south-east corner of the continent. In Serbia, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, still facing charges over alleged links to organised prostitution, and recently described as a ‘pig’ in a roman à clef written by a former lover, has just landed a job. His new duties include helping to restructure the country’s large foreign debt, attracting foreign investment and helping Serbia manage relations with the International Monetary Fund. Vesna Pesić, a respected Belgrade sociologist, and (it so happens) an acquaintance of mine, questions the appointment. She highlights the strange irony that a country in need of rebranding as it begins negotiations to enter the European Union has hired a disgraced figure, who himself seems to be seeking international rehabilitation. ‘It is propaganda and marketing’, she says. ‘But people here are so exhausted by the recession, and they don’t care.’
That story brings me to poor, picked-upon Greece, a crumbling country racked by the spread of fascism, and news of a brutal political murder. In the port town of Piraeus, outside a café in the early morning hours, 34-year-old hip hopper Pavlos Fyssas is attacked by a group of men dressed in black sweatshirts and combat trousers. Stabbed repeatedly in the chest, he later died in hospital. Protests spread. The blind-eyed police are for once forced to arrest a suspect, who turns out to be a member of Golden Dawn, the neo-Nazi party with 18 members in the 300-seat parliament.
Crocodile tears are shed by the Greek political establishment. State President Karolos Papoulias said that institutional vigilance, social awareness and political determination are needed to combat what he called a ‘repulsive phenomenon’. Tears were shed as well by government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou. ‘Justice will perform its duty immediately and totally’, he said, before calling on all the political powers to ‘erect a barricade against the vicious circle of tension and violence’. He didn’t say how this could happen, which was unsurprising, considering just how many mainstream politicians and journalists have for months been touting Golden Dawn as a possible future coalition partner for the forces of austerity.
Poor Greece. Miserable Europe.