The elite in Europe are living a lie

stefan-auer-thumbDr Stefan Auer


First published in The Australian on 18 October, 2011.

Europe is complicated and unpredictable. I know because I spent most of my life in communist Czechoslovakia, which no longer exists. Its political system, its territory and even its currency fell apart between 1989 and 1992.

The regime was meant to last forever, yet fell like a house of cards virtually overnight. The 1989 collapse of communism was unexpected to outside observers and even more so to people living under the regime. However much they disliked its existence, as long as most people behaved as if the regime was going to last forever, it would. They made it work by pretending they believed it worked. This is what the great Czech dissident playwright Vaclav Havel described as "living in a lie". He also believed that the institutionalised hypocrisy of the regime made it vulnerable. As soon as people refused "to live within a lie", the system would be profoundly undermined. This, Havel wrote more than a decade before communism fell, was the "power of the powerless".

The groupthink of European elites who cannot imagine a life after the eurozone is reminiscent of the lazy thinking of Havel's conformists. EU elites seem convinced that whatever problems Europe faces, they can be solved only by the more determined march towards an "ever-closer union". Thus dissenters who cannot keep the pace, or worse still, refuse to march in that direction, are branded as populists, extremists and selfish nationalists. What this EU ideology does to European elites, communist ideology did to most people in the Soviet bloc before 1989. It obscures their thinking.

A great deal of mystifying is required to make oneself believe the rescue efforts over the past year and a half to Greece have improved the situation there and in Europe at large. All that is needed is to intensify these efforts - or so the argument goes.

Yet Greece is spending more than last year but with a smaller revenue. Moreover, it appears virtually ungovernable. However much Europeans put in their rescue funds and however lasting they make them, they cannot get around the lie that Greece might be rescued within the eurozone.

Which takes me back to Slovakia, which almost derailed the eurozone's rescue efforts last week. This was accomplished by Richard Sulik, the leader of the minor coalition party Freedom and Solidarity. He was bold enough to state loudly that the strategies pursued at the expense of taxpayers in the few countries that are still solvent are failing.

Before losing his post as speaker of the parliament and bringing down the government, Sulik said he would rather be seen as an oddball by Brussels than betray his electorate.

To get cheap credit, you need credibility. This is why Germany's and Slovakia's borrowing costs on the markets are lower than those of Greece, Portugal and Ireland. But how much longer can this last?

The handful of dissenting politicians who dare to say how it really is are not endangered the way dissidents were in communist Czechoslovakia. Slovakia and Europe are democratically governed, but if Europe is to remain united and democratic, it will need more leaders of Sulik’s calibre.

Stefan Auer holds a Jean Monnet chair in EU inter-disciplinary studies at La Trobe University.