Photo: Gordon Wrigley on Flickr
The term “Receding Horizons” (just when you think you can touch the pot of gold, it’s moved out of reach again), as I first defined years ago with regards to energy, is back; this time in crisis-politics. Just as Europe would need to show a more united front than ever, the gloves are coming off. And there’s nothing but solid logic behind it all: the deeper the crisis, the more the various needs diverge.
President Sarkozy faces a 2012 election campaign with a sovereign credit rating downgrade looming ever bigger. And French banks are in devastatingly deep doodoo. Chancellor Merkel, however, faces entirely different priorities: strong opposition from all sides, including her own party, to ever-growing German funds and credit being used to prop up the sinking parts of Europe.
When a crisis is still in its shallow phases, it’s easy to make believe that it’s best to prioritise common interests, where and when these can be found. As the crisis deepens, ever fewer of the most pressing interests turn out to be common. And it’s obvious that it doesn’t take all that much to shine a glaring light on rifts and divisions within Europe. Thousands of years of history can’t be polished off in a mere few decades.
The entire EU project, including the common currency, sounded great in times of plenty. When the plenty was gone, the whole project was found to be no more than a thin layer of glossy veneer that only temporarily hid all the age-old differences from sight.
Moreover, there are fundamental differences in how various parts of Europe built up their financial systems even within the EU. Countries like Holland, Ireland, Portugal and the U.K. fashioned huge housing bubbles, while others like France, Germany and Italy did not. But the latter still managed to create huge problems for themselves, for instance by financing the bubbles in the rest of the Union, though not necessarily in the same ways.
Now that it’s women and children first, saving France from drowning simply requires entirely different measures from doing the same with Germany, and Italy can’t be saved with the same plans that Holland can. It is that simple. This week’s meetings will try to come up with ideas that cover some sort of common ground to solve all the divergent crises, but the only way to do this would be to throw huge amounts of public funds at the mess, without any guarantee that any of it would work for more than a few months at best.
And it’s simply not in Germany’s — let alone Merkel’s — best interest to throw that much money around. In other words, there is no longer a viable solution that would cover all different countries and interests (if ever there was one). And so everyone will do what it takes to save themselves, even if that means endangering others.
‘Women and children first’ can easily become a hollow phrase when there are not nearly enough lifeboats — when you run out of common ground.