Friday, April 30, 2010


There are Americans who want to kick Arizona out of the Union because of the racial profiling law, requiring all non-citizens to carry valid immigration documents on them at all times. Clearly this is aimed at the Latino population, many of whom have crossed the border illegally at some point in time but most of whom are legal and lawful citizens or residents. Many see the similarity of a Jew having to exhibit a Star of David during the Nazi era. Yes, crime on the Mexican side is horrendous and cruel, but where do the drug dealers buy all their deadly weapons?  Arizona is not the only state despised by more tolerant neighbors in the North: many would also like to see Texas returned to Mexico. Too bad they have all that oil...

The European Union also has member countries that others would rather see disappear. The financial messes in Greece, Portugal, Spain and Ireland are threatening the very existence of the Union. Well-to-do countries, especially Germany, don't want to pay for these countries' debts, a result of living beyond their means. The Euro had all of a sudden become the Neuro, a very nervous currency. How did all this happen?

Greece has a long history of corruption and everyday bribes. Alexander the Great was followed by way too many Not So Greats. Although democracy may have started there, it seems like today's Greek can't handle it. True democracy in European style doesn't differ much from true Socialism. And a socialist state often demands too much from its people to be successful. The Greeks are not comfortable with the idea that the benefits and a certain lifestyle might not be sustainable in today's economy. Demonstrations in that country are very commonplace: a travel guide warns tourists to be prepared for sudden strikes without warning. But going to the barricades too many times is like the story of the boy who cried wolf: after a while nobody takes you seriously.

I have followed the story mainly through European news sources, especially after learning that a dirty American GS, Goldman Sachs, helped the Greek government to hide billions in loans from the watchful eyes of the EU regulators. The Germans are very upset and it is understandable, since they are the richest member of the Union and thus bear the greatest responsibility of bailing out the nearly-bankrupt nation of Greece, perhaps to be followed by the same scenario in Portugal and - gasp - Spain. For two decades Germany has been bleeding money from its Western parts to the East, as the reunification didn't go as smoothly as it should have. On paper East Germany was better off than other Iron Curtain countries but nobody really knew how vastly different the economies were. Now Germany has a new Eastern part in Greece. Although every politician admits urgent help is very necessary, the idea of aid of such magnitude is wildly unpopular. Not that many people believe any longer in the Euro; many miss the good old Deutsche Mark. A lot of Europeans would like see the entire Union disappear and a return to the old times. Or keep the EU, kick out the poor countries that are draining its coffers. The Scandinavian viewpoint is less emotional and, outside of Finland, the countries are not part of the Euro zone. Norway, of course, is not a member of the Union, either, probably because they'd have nothing to gain from it. With all that oil and less than 5 million people, they would be paying dearly for other countries' mistakes. The British seem almost delighted that there are other member countries where the mess is even worse than at home.

It is a long way from the post-war European Coal and Steel Community, and later the Common Market or EEC, to the present EU. Harsh realities of today would not encourage the kind of ideological dreaming common decades ago and giving birth to the Union would not happen, or it would be a marriage of a few chosen ones. I remember when Finland joined the EU in 1995 (and the Euro zone four years later), there were many skeptics. The farmer near our summer home went mad and claimed that the Union was going to steal his land and make him go broke. He barricaded the road to the area's summer homes with huge pails of hay, with anti-EU slogans, and a new road had to be built through a forest in a hurry. Later he went completely insane and ended up taking his hunting rifle and pointing it to his own head, instead of a moose. His son was old enough to take over, but everyone still uses the new road. Perhaps this poor chap's fears were well-founded: the EU destroyed his life, even if indirectly.

If Greece and those other countries has their own currencies, an easy way out would be devaluing their monetary unit. That took place in Finland a few times: I was studying in this country and all of a sudden my monthly stipend was worth a lot less. When our financial world collapsed a year and half ago, little Iceland suffered horribly but was able to devalue its Króna by 50%. No more McDonald's in Reykjavik but instead a lot of new tourists who for the first time could afford to visit this previously too expensive country. Being tied to the Euro also ties a country's hands and fiscal problems have to be approached very differently and with a lot of outside help.

Tomorrow is May Day, a global Labor Day, except this is not for shopping purposes like here but actually for the working class. In Northern Europe it is also a special day for students, who show up in their traditional student caps. The latter may look silly, but every Finn at least is proud to wear one, a proof of completing a thorough school education and the rigorous tests required. Back in my youth this was the first time during the year when ice-cream kiosks opened up and buying a helium balloon from a vendor was a necessity. Special fermented drink was made for the day and strange hard baked goodies, dipped in powdered sugar, were served. They resembled 20-30 deep-fried worms tangled in a ball! The Social Democrats and the People's Democrats (aka Communists) had their separate outdoor speaking events and parades, but I would only observe those from a safe distance. Times were hard and very different, so in that context it all made perfect sense.

This year the holiday might have special meaning in many places in Europe. Mayday is of course also the common distress call signal, used in maritime accidents and in aviation. It is a phonetic rendering of m'aidez or help me in French. In Athens the day might be called βοηθήστε με, at least for this year.
illustration of Neuro by talvi