News bit nº 1: during yesterday’s auction of government bonds, the interest Spain had to pay returned to the impossible level it had before last week’s miraculous Eurotop. Surprise surprise… It has now happened about ten times that the miracle cures which Brussels designs last about as long as it takes to swallow the bitter pill...
|They can have our cup, but not our credit rating....|
(A telling Dutch Facebook posting from last week)
I considered writing a lengthy new piece on the differences in point of view between the North and the South of Europe… But then I decided I had already said all there is to say on the subject, with typical Mittington Foresight, more than two years ago. So I republish here my piece, posted on Colin Davies’s blog on 23 February 2010, titled
Bounty is in the eye of the beholder
As the Brussels Farce and Greek Bail-out Tragedy unfold, I couldn’t help thinking of several worthwhile contributions which recently appeared on Thoughts from Galicia, because they are so very illustrative of the grand emotional clash between North and South which is now in the making. One of them is the piece on Spanish lotteries posted in last December 21st by this Danish (?) gentleman Peter Missler. As readers were quick to point out: it is a pretty outdated piece and sometimes ill-informed. Yet it also contains a diamond in the mud, a notion worthwhile to remember as the North-South conflict is taking shape; to wit: the observation that Mediterraneans are in the habit of relying on Luck or Loot for their riches.
This is, I think, essentially correct. Due to the great insecurity of wealth over many centuries, Spaniards and other Latin nations have come to feel uncomfortable with petty middle-class wealth, have begun to question the usefulness of hard work and slow saving, and hence made their dreams gravitate to that One Stroke of Luck, in the shape of a hidden treasure, a business Pelotazo, or a winning lottery ticket. Yet the emotional evolution does not stop there, and its further consequences are going to play a pivotal role in the coming months. So it makes some sense to spell out the positions.
Let me try to put it in a nutshell. Without meaning this as any sort of moral judgement, I think it is not unfair to say that our Mediterraneans friends do not perceive wealth and knowledge as a result of virtue (hard work, study, saving, thrift) but rather as a Gift from God, a coincidence, a stroke of Good Fortune tossed somebody’s way for no explicit reason. Having been brought up, furthermore, in an environment of strong family cohesion and solidarity between the dispossessed (both of them admirable fenomena in my book!), they next feel deeply that any such Boon ought to be shared with friends and family. The lottery makes a fine example once again. John Hooper, in his book on modern Spain [The New Spaniards, chapter 12], described somewhat baffled how one winner of the Christmas Gordo spoke perfectly naturally, and without any hard feelings, about dividing up his winnings evenly among his brothers and sisters and in-laws. The man did not grudge this at all. It was his duty, what was expected of him. And what he might expect from them in their turn if the roles were reversed.
Colin Davies’s own hilarious anecdote from his English conversation class shows how this sacred principle even pervades the realm of knowledge and learning. When one of his students showed up, after she had milked a well-placed friend for the secret surprise subject of tomorrow’s English writing exam (the friend has landed an advantageous job - how can he refuse to share his fortune with his pals?), she wanted a ready-made text which she could then learn by heart and pass off as her own on-the-spot improvisation… What any northern puritan would regard as a scandalous case of double fraud, the Spaniards in the class took with good cheer. They showed neither surprise nor indignation, but set to work to provide her in her hour of need. Skill in English, you see, is just another random coincidence which one has the solemn duty to share with the less fortunate… The system is rigged against you anyway, see? And this is a legitimate way to gain your diploma and your next career-move…
What does all this have to do with the Greek bail-out? Well, more than appears at first sight. Anyone who over the last few weeks has read around and listened up a little for café conversations may have noticed a touch of irritation creeping into comments Spaniards make about Europe. Essentially the annoyance comes down to this: ‘If Europe does not bail us out when we’re in shambles, then what’s the sense of being a member of the club?’ What you see here is the projection of the Gordo-winning nephew who refuses to share his prize with in-laws onto inter-European relations. Germany, Holland and the Scandinavians are not rich, so the latent feeling goes, due to their hard labour, work ethic, savvy or sacrifice. No: they are super-wealthy because some unexplained voodoo mechanism made money float their way (enquire insistently and you may hear vague suggestions about colonies, slavery and collaboration with dictatorial regimes). Hence they ought to share their Good Fortune with their less lucky Club Med primos, and if they don’t, they are being very bad neighbours.
A grinding grudge is born….
The trouble here is that the Northern nations feel a little differently about such matters, and those feelings are bubbling rapidly to the surface now that the financial consequences of Euro-foul-ups are becoming tangible. Other than Latin Mediterraneans, the Germans, Dutch, Danes and Finns do believe that Fortune may be forced to come your way by hard work and cunning organisation. Naturally, misfortune does exist, and if it truly strikes someone, that person deserves our help. But he ONLY deserves our support if he has done all in his power to avoid penury; if he has worked as hard as we have, been earnest and careful, denied himself all indulgences and did what he could to avoid blunders. If he’s been lazy, or spendthrift, or gambling, or drinking, or bull-fighting on working days, he has lost his right to our alms. One might say that Rights are a function of Effort in protestant eyes, not of the Human Condition.
Would you like me to give you the corresponding Germanic attitude to family sharing? Here goes: I once knew this nice, middle-of-the-road, perfectly representative Heidelberg family in which the siblings were in the habit of selling each other their old cameras, study books and sweaters! Nobody found this odd in any way. And when I asked my then girlfriend if she didn’t feel it was – well - a little mercenary that her brother would sell her an old sweater, she shook her head vehemently and assured me that Certainly Not, for he had only asked her the fair price… Go talk to these people about the Deserving Poor; and you’ll come away with a definition of ‘Deserving’ which is about as narrow as a razor’s edge.
Hence Northern thinking on hallowed European ‘solidarity’ takes place along the lines of the old Ant and Grasshopper fable: we have worked hard, sacrificed much, denied ourselves luxuries and swallowed bitter pills so as to first build and then safeguard our wealth and our well-fare. Meanwhile, them Southern bastards have lived big, overspent, fucked up and worried not about Tomorrow. So now let them rot. Because - as one ominous NYT article said some days ago with so many words - why should I tighten my belt so that some lazy Greek may retire at 63? It is their own dumb fault. We already sponsored them forever in the past. And now we have to fund their frivolous behaviour once again? No Way José!
Another grudge is born…
So there. One half of Europe thinks it is a solemn obligation of its richer neighbours to come to their rescue. The other half that its southern primos are bloody freeloaders who plan to sponge off them forever. You may think that such barstool-rancour is marginal to the Progress of Nations, but it is not. It is, on the contrary, a simmering subsoil fire, which will burst to the surface once the going gets tough enough. And it seems that the going is now getting pretty darn tough.
It is often said – and more often forgotten in practice – that we ought to learn from history. So let us learn a little here. Must I remind my readers what was the fuse that brought about the Lutheran Reformation? At that time, the most visible grudge against the Church of Rome was the selling of Indulgences for every possible sin, in exchange for huge sums of money which were then lasciviously spent on the building of St Peter’s in Rome, so that corrupt, philandering Popes might parade a prestige-object to the world. Not from my back pocket, cried the thrifty Germans, and cut their ties with Rome. A little later, the tiny Dutch nation got mighty tired of being taxed by their Spanish overlords, so that an Escorial might be built and ill-conceived religious wars might be waged forever. They rose in revolt, all seven muddy gin-drinking herring-stenching peat bogs of them, standing up against the greatest empire the world had so far seen. And… They won…!! Talk about the strength of a goodly grudge… (if fuelled by some sturdy glasses of jenever, that is!)
If things of such magnitude have happened in the past over a few Peter’s pennies, you may imagine what we are in for, speaking in terms of collective anger, as the full size of the bill presented by Brussels to the Northern taxpayer gets revealed over the coming weeks (there is already mention of soft loans to the tune of 25 billion Euros!). Must we be afraid of furious street-protests in Athens and Madrid? Don’t be. Look instead to the barricades of Berlin, Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Vienna, I say! That is where the real tea-party will take place. And after that? Who knows? For what was once merely teeth-gnashing popular Euro-scepticism in the spoiled Northern electorate, will turn into outright hostility to the EU and all its minions now that injury gets added to insult. And then the seething Shopping Masses, once victorious in their own capitals, may well march on Brussels to file a complaint with a meat-cleaver. Beware, thou Beurocrats and Europutados! The chicken that used to lay the golden eggs are coming home to roast. You!
Alfred B. Mittington
(Winner of the 1988 Von Humboldt Award for the essay ‘From Weber to Webber, or: Evita against the Spirit of Capitalism’)