Sunday, 26 June 2011

Greek Debt Crisis Prompts Fears of EU Disintegration

THE GUARDIAN: As a Brussels correspondent in the 1990s, Toby Helm reported on the EU at its zenith. Now, as Observer political editor, he returns to a city of uncertainty – over the Greek debt crisis, the future of the euro and the whole political project

Norbert Schwaiger is a true veteran of EU summits. Now in his early 70s, the amiable German recalls with relish the triumphs and disasters from 34 years of service in Brussels as if they all happened yesterday. He chats about Delors, Kohl, Mitterrand, Chirac, Thatcher and the great rows with the British over money. The epic moments of European construction, from the Single European Act in 1986 to the Maastricht treaty in 1992 and the birth of the euro in 1999, are all fresh in his mind.

To catch up with Europe's progress, Schwaiger, a former press officer who retired in 2003, returned to a Brussels summit last week to take the temperature. Much had changed. "The historical idea has faded," he said wistfully. "When we started it was about Germany and France and the Benelux countries building a new Europe to stop the endless wars. Germany, and that generation of Germans, was ashamed of Hitler. It was about creating security, a secure Europe and a secure economy. Then they wanted to have Europe as their new home country."

As EU officials from 27 countries milled around the giant Justus Lipsius building, the venue of a summit dominated by the dire economic plight of Greece and the resulting existential threat to the euro and the EU itself, the contrast in mood could not have been starker from the heyday of integration that Schwaiger had known.

The talk was no longer of high ideals and "more Europe", but of mere survival for the European project. Where they used to talk of "ever closer union" in the commission press conferences, the phrase is now rarely, if ever, heard except when referring to history. José Manuel Barroso, the pragmatic European commission president, set his sights at this summit on "stability" for the foreseeable future, meaning the EU will do well to steady the ship in the face of Greece's financial implosion and possible exit from the single currency. Never mind any new European dreams.

From Schwaiger's perspective, one of the reasons why Europe has run out of idealism is the passage of time. He argues that Germany's postwar guilt, which did so much to power the European project, no longer drives young Germans to think about the EU as their parents and grandparents did. "In Germany the new generation, just out of school, has no memory of this," he says. Instead the young see a Germany united from its former east and west, communism fallen and a continent no longer haunted by its past or racked by the fear that it could plunge back into war. Much of Europe's original raison d'ĂȘtre has disappeared and Germany is now less willing to be its unquestioning, selfless paymaster. » | Toby Helm | Saturday, June 25, 2011