Italy this week offered Germans and all Europeans a lesson: The euro, which was meant to usher Europeans further along on their road to „ever closer union,“ is instead increasingly dividing them. Instead of integration, divergence. Instead of harmony, discord. Instead of liberal democracy, populist rancor.
Listen to how Matteo Salvini, leader of the right-wing League, reacted to the collapse of his attempt to form the first all-populist coalition government in Europe: „We have a basic principle,“ he said. „Only Italians make decisions for Italy, not the Germans… A minister the Germans don’t like is exactly the right minister for us.“
What, you might ask, did Germany even have to do with the events in Rome this week? Good question. Superficially, nothing. The Italians had run a campaign in which euro politics barely featured. The winners were populists on the left and right, who tried to form an incoherent government with policies that would have blown the eurozone apart. When they nominated a euro-hater as finance minister, Italy’s president refused.
Below the surface, however, Germany had a lot to do with Italy’s crisis. That is because Germany represents the opposite of the ideas that unite the southern euro area, from Greece to France and Italy. Whereas the south demands „solidarity,“ Germany fears a „transfer union,“ in which northern money permanently subsidizes bad loans and fiscal licentiousness in the south. Where the south clamors for stimulus, Germany demands austerity. Where the south wants fiscal discretion, Germany insists on strict Ordoliberal rules.
These are not philosophies that can be reconciled in the long run, no matter how much Angela Merkel fudges in the short run. Instead, these cultural narratives force Europeans to metamorphose into the worst stereotypes others have of them. Germans become „more German,“ Italians „more Italian.“
Thus Germans imagine southerners as dissolute and unreliable deadbeats -- Der Spiegel ran a story titled “The moochers of Rome.“ Southerners resent these finger-pointing, rules-obsessed Germans who presume to lecture them. They pounce on any hint of hypocrisy (which Germany provides by breaching many EU rules).
This psychological chasm dooms the (southern-flavored) proposals by Emmanuel Macron for reforming the eurozone. The northern countries simply won’t stand for it. But the absence of such reforms also dooms the eurozone to recurring crises.
The time has come for supporters, not opponents, of the European project to contemplate loosening, and even shrinking, the eurozone. The greatest peace project in human history must never degenerate into a conflict machine.