World·Analysis

Whether Greece stays or goes, the unstitching of Europe has begun

Europe is Greece and Greece is Europe was the way it used to be put by Europe's most influential leaders. Not anymore, writes Margaret Evans. And it is not just the debt crisis that is fuelling the Continent's inner tensions.

Europe is Greece and Greece is Europe was the way it used to be put. Not anymore

Pro-euro Greeks rally in front of the parliament building in Athens earlier this week as the left-wing Syriza government moved to reach some sort of compromise with its EU creditors. (Alkis Konstantinidis / Reuters)

Outside the Justus Lipsius building housing the European Council in Brussels there is a rather alarming sculpture portraying the Greek myth of Europa and the bull (a.k.a. Zeus).

Hair askew, legs flying, Europa is hanging on for dear life to the horns of the bull, which appears to be careering out of control.

Metaphor acknowledged.

Having spent close to a decade in the 1990s reporting on the construction of this modern entity now known as the European Union, I find myself having to admit I may well now be charting the beginning of its demise — whether Greece is rescued from its current predicament or not.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras's shock referendum last weekend at least clarified the sense of injury and outrage that a large majority of Greeks feel over the prospect of more years of economy-draining austerity.

But it also exposed, quite clearly, the divisions within the EU itself, be it among the 28-nation political entity or the 19 eurozone countries that share a common currency.

Doors could be heard banging shut, and swinging open, from Germany and Spain to Finland and France, with very little evidence at harmony.

And the anger of EU latecomers like Latvia and Lithuania at being asked to again bail out Europe's problem child seemed louder even than in bill-paying Germany.

"We have created in Europe a currency union without a political union," tweeted the former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt this week. "This is simply not sustainable."

Closing up shop

No kidding. The added irony of course is that the Greek government seems now to be accepting demands made of it before the referendum gave a boost to Tsipras's negotiating position.

Greek PM Alexis Tsipras says his government has submitted a proposal to eurozone members and the European Council, but it's not clear if the proposal was made in writing 2:49

That's what nearly two weeks of shuttered banks, capital controls and rising anxiety on the streets will do.

An estimated 40,000 jobs were lost in Greece last week alone because of the crisis. The world of the Greek startup has been particularly hard hit.

"The boat has been rocked so violently in the last few weeks and people are falling off the boat and some people are drowning," says Stavros Missinis, founder of The Cube, a kind of think-tank where companies can rent workspace in a creative environment. "They need to have stability in the short term."

Greek tech companies relying on the provision of data services from big firms abroad have had trouble paying their bills because the newly imposed capital controls block money from leaving the country.

"Many of these companies actually run their marketing activities through these kinds of services," says Missinis. "And if they can't, month on month, make these payments, they're not operating. It's as if they've closed doors and shut down."

Philipp Brinkmann, CEO of one of Greece's most successful startups, is thinking of moving his operation to Hungary. (Jean-Francois Bisson / CBC)

Philipp Brinkmann, the CEO of one of Greece's most successful startups, Tripsta, an online travel service, says the situation is so dire he is thinking of relocating to Hungary. That would be a loss of 225 jobs for Greece.

"It should never have come to this," he says. "Every deal would have been better than what's happening now in my opinion."

Europe is Greece

That's anger directed at the Tsipras government. The startup world in particular thinks too much government focus has been on maintaining Greeks' pension levels, rather than worrying about the country's entrepreneurial environment.

But there is plenty of anger toward Greece's EU partners as well. The election back in January of the Tsipras government — a far-left party surviving in a coalition with some from the far right — should have been a wake-up call for the EU.

Even the International Monetary Fund has acknowledged that the level of Greek debt is unsustainable and that restructuring or some form of forgiveness will likely be needed, whether Germany likes it or not.

And yet despite all the lip-service to democracy in the wake of the Greek referendum, and to the importance of Greece's place within the EU, there has been remarkably little conciliatory effort from the Europeans themselves.

A bank manager points as pensioners line up at a National Bank branch in an Athens neighbourhood this week, a common sight. (Yannis Behrakis / Reuters)

In fact, there is, in the European media, much tut-tutting about Greece having been allowed to join the single currency in the first place, the accepted wisdom being that it cooked the books in order to make the grade.

Maybe so, but its EU partners certainly turned a blind eye at the time.

What's more, little was done to enforce the EU's "convergence criteria" — its debt and deficit rules — over the years.

Instead, there was a great deal of ancient-world sentimentalism attached to the drive for Greek membership in the single currency.

Europe is Greece and Greece is Europe, both the Greeks and the Europeans were fond of saying.

After their hastily arranged dinner date on Monday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande both conjured the phrase "solidarity and responsibility" to describe the current situation.

But the truth is, the EU is decidedly lacking in solidarity on most fronts these days, a truism that has anti-EU campaigners, like Britain's Nigel Farage, who holds a seat in the European Parliament, rubbing their hands together with glee.

Becoming unstitched

Many Greeks on the street will tell you they believe the EU is only considering a rescue because it fears the impact of a Grexit on all the other European economies.

But many are also still clinging to the belief that the Europeans will not, in the end, let them go.

I would have thought so, too. But the debate about Greece is not the thing that convinces me most that the great postwar project, based in part at least, on idealism, is well and truly becoming unstitched.

A man makes his way past a closed, graffiti-ridden shop in Athens depicting the ancient Greek myth of Europa and the bull. (Alkis Konstantinidis / Reuters)

Little noticed in the midst of the debt crisis this week, the EU's interior ministers also met to discuss the migrant crisis.

More than 135,000 people fleeing hardship and war, particularly in Syria, have arrived in the EU over the first half of the year and the numbers are expected to rise over the summer when the Mediterranean is calmer.  

EU states were to have agreed on the redistribution of some 40,000 refugees throughout the 28-nation bloc to ease the pressure on Greece and Italy, two of the front-line landing spots.  

But they failed even to agree on even that small number.

Nearly 50,000 asylum seekers have already arrived in Greece this year alone, mainly in rubber dinghies on the shores of islands like Kos or Lesbos.

These islanders are doing their best, but the country itself is struggling to cope as it lives through the debt crisis and one of the deepest recessions in modern history.  

And yet Greece is Europe and Europe is Greece. At least when it's convenient, that is.

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      About the Author

      Margaret Evans

      Europe correspondent

      Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.

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