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Opinion

Europe must overcome the politics of fear around the debt crisis

As the former prime minister of Greece, my experience with the debt crisis confirms my belief that this is a political crisis more than a financial one. We have adopted a passive, almost defeatist attitude in Europe. We must break this cycle of fear and mistrust now.

By George Papandreou / October 30, 2012

Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic, left, speaks with US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, second from left, and Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic, right, speaks with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in Belgrade, Serbia, Oct. 30. Serbia aspires to join the EU. Op-ed contributor and former Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou 'was an indirect but powerful rebuttal to the dangerous nationalist and populist rhetoric' in Europe.

Darko Vojinovic/AP

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To those who were surprised that the European Union received the Nobel Peace Prize, I say: “Think twice.” This was not only a deserved award for Europe’s contribution to bringing peace and stabilizing democracies in the recent past. The Nobel Committee was also sending a clear warning to contemporary leaders. I could almost hear them saying: “On this difficult odyssey, don’t abandon ship. In today’s world, the EU is too valuable to squander.”

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It was an indirect but powerful rebuttal to the dangerous nationalist and populist rhetoric some politicians have adopted when describing the recent financial crisis.

This message couldn’t have come at a better time.

Like ghosts from the past, we see political violence, xenophobia, migrants being scapegoated, and extreme nationalism creeping into our public debates — even into our parliaments.

This is a Europe diverging from its founding principles. Principles that rendered nationalistic hatreds an anathema.

But it is these politics of fear that seem to have incapacitated Europe. A Europe seemingly incapable of ending this crisis, a fractious Europe. This has undermined a sense of trust between us, and in our European institutions. This climate does not inspire confidence either in our citizens or the markets. Nor will our retreat into a renationalization of Europe be the solution.

My recent experience in dealing with the financial crisis in Greece and in Europe has confirmed my belief that this is a political crisis more than a financial one.

I am convinced that, with the political will, we could have avoided much pain, squelched market fears and stabilized the euro, while at the same time reformed ailing, unsustainable economies such as ours in Greece.

Despite media hype to the contrary, it is the Greek people who first and foremost have wanted this change.

Instead, we allowed fear and mistrust to overcome us. And fear begets more fear and uncertainty.

Instead of understanding, we have name-calling.

Instead of collective, transparent action by our institutions, we have moved into a mode where the community method is undermined by makeshift intergovernmental decisionmaking, with the balance of power tipping dangerously toward the very large member states.

Instead of real, necessary reform and fiscal responsibility, we are implementing an overdose of austerity – dealing more with symptoms and less with the root causes of the economic woes of Europe.

Instead of rewarding superhuman efforts, we are condemned for our shortcomings.

More than anything else, it has been this political climate that has undermined our common efforts to deal with today’s financial crisis.

Whether it is banks or governments, we have adopted a passive, almost defeatist attitude, which we cloak in the language of “caution and responsibility.”

It is our responsibility to break this cycle of fear and mistrust now. We are vastly underestimating our own capacities as a union. Our capacity to calm markets or create jobs. We again need to believe in the great capacity of our peoples north and south, west and east. We must rekindle the spirit that united us in 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell. We know the difficulties we then faced. But we did not cower. We decided to invest in the potential Europe and our peoples had. And there is so much hidden or untapped potential in our youth, our experience, our diversity, and our cultures.

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