Never mind sceptics, 2014 can be Europe’s year
It is past midnight in Athens’ Exarcheia Square and groups of young anarchists and students are assembled around burning cardboard boxes, furniture parts and tree branches. Alongside them, jobless immigrants from Bangladesh and Pakistan — fearful of being harassed by neo-Nazi militants — are settling in for another homeless night.
Such gatherings take place daily in Exarcheia Square and I was there one evening while on a press tour organised by the Greek government. Greece and Italy, two southern European countries at the centre of the continent’s financial crisis, will each be presiding over the European Union for a semester this year. But for Athens, whose presidency was officially launched on Jan 8, the challenge looks far tougher.
Firstly, the country is far from seeing the end of the crisis tunnel, with an unsustainable public debt still hovering at over 170 per cent of GDP, despite two rescue plans worth €240 billion (S$414.8 billion).
Secondly, Greece will be chairing the EU while two crucial events unfold: The 10th anniversary of the Union’s enlargement with ten new member countries; and the European elections in end-May, which are expected to see all-time-high abstention and the rise of ultra-nationalistic and Europhobic political parties.
Viewed from Asia, where most emerging economies continue to boom despite political convulsions, problems of infrastructure development and a worrying accumulation of private debt, Greece’s difficulties seem to provide a telling story of Europe’s prolonged derailment. Nothing, indeed, could be more symbolic than Athens’s crowds of homeless and rebels.
On the one hand, here is a city famed for its Acropolis and antique glory; a near-perfect snapshot of Europe with its great history and monuments. On the other hand is a modern Greek capital, whose urban heart is covered in graffiti, rigged with explosive youth unemployment, financial crisis and unstoppable immigration flows.
The blue Sail flag, chosen by Greece as its EU presidency logo, seems a metaphoric warning: Stay away in 2014 from a Europe tossed asunder by winds of misfortune.
But a closer look at Greek statistics and EU achievements last year provide a different perspective.
Yes, the old continent is still facing a serious economic crisis. And yes, this and the resentment over a common currency forcing governments to impose harsh austerity measures have given rise to political frustrations, exploited by extremist parties. But it has also fuelled, for the first time in many years, a strong thirst for more Europe and a rebirth of a pro-European movement among educated youths.
In Brussels and Strasbourg, respective headquarters of the European Commission and Parliament, European federalists from various political forces — from liberals to greens — are promising to campaign for a stronger EU. An agreement, albeit not perfect, on the Banking union was finally brokered last month.