Has ‘Europe’ Failed?

Nicholas Sambanis, New York Times, August 26, 2012

Last week, European leaders met in Berlin amid new signs of an impending recession and an emerging consensus that Greece could leave the euro zone within a year — a move that would have dire consequences for the currency’s future.

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The European debt crisis is not just an economic crisis: it is an escalating identity conflict — an ethnic conflict.

The European Union was a political concept, designed to tame a bellicose Germany.

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Elites could sell that concept to their publics as long as Europe prospered and had high international status.

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As Europe’s status declines, the already shaky European identity will weaken further and the citizens of the richer European nations will be more likely to identify nationally — as Germans or French — rather than as Europeans. This will increase their reluctance to use their taxes for bailouts of the ethnically different Southern Europeans, especially the culturally distant Greeks; and it will diminish any prospect of fiscal integration that could help save the euro.

The result is a vicious circle: as ethnic identities return, ethnic differences become more pronounced, and all sides fall back on stereotypes and the stigmatization of the adversary through language or actions intended to dehumanize, thereby justifying hostile actions. This is a common pattern in ethnic conflicts around the world, and it is also evident in Europe today.

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A recent study by the political scientists Michael Bechtel, Jens Hainmueller and Yotam Margalit found that German voters’ attitudes toward the bailouts are explained by their degree of “cosmopolitanism,” or the extent to which they identify with geographically or culturally distant groups. More cosmopolitan individuals are more likely to support bailing out Germany’s southern neighbors.

Unfortunately, cosmopolitanism can be the first casualty of rising ethnic tensions, as populations react negatively to escalating political demagogy, strengthening the hand of extremists. Examples of such stigmatization in Europe abound, from the disparaging acronym PIGS, used to refer to the troubled economies of Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain, to the tired medical analogies of an infection of the North by the contagious South. Germans tell the Greeks how to live; the Greeks reply by calling them Nazis.

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Germans must have a frank public discussion about what it means to be European, how good European citizens should behave toward other Europeans and why a strong Europe is good for German interests in a world dominated by the United States, China and emerging powers like India and Brazil.

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