Europe is Divided Again: This Time Between Creditors and Debtors
George Soros is the American financier and philanthropist. The following remarks have been adapted from a talk he gave at the Berggruen Institute for Governance “town hall” meeting in Berlin last month.
BERLIN—The European Union used to be what psychologists call a “fantastic object,” a desirable goal that fires people’s imagination. I saw it as the embodiment of an open society — an association of nations which gave up part of their sovereignty for the common good and formed a union in which no nation would have a dominant position.
The euro crisis is now threatening to turn the European Union into something fundamentally different. The member countries are divided into two classes—creditors and debtors—with the creditors in charge. Germany, as the largest and most creditworthy country, occupies a dominant position. As a result of current policies, debtor countries pay substantial risk premiums for financing their debt, and this is reflected in their cost of financing in general. This has pushed the debtor countries into depression and put them at a substantial competitive disadvantage that threatens to become permanent.
This is the result not of a deliberate plan but of a series of policy mistakes. Germany did not seek to occupy a dominant position and is reluctant to accept the obligations and liabilities that it entails. I have called this the tragedy of the European Union.
Now, some recent developments give grounds for hope. The authorities are taking steps to correct their mistakes. I have in mind the June summit’s decision to form a banking union, and the EU Central Bank’s plan for unlimited intervention in government bond markets. Financial markets have been reassured that the euro is here to stay. This could be a turning point if it were reinforced by additional positive steps. Unfortunately, it has merely reinforced German resistance to further concessions.
A distinguishing feature of the tragedy I am talking about is that it feeds on hope. Germany is willing to do the minimum but nothing more to hold the euro together. That is how the eurozone becomes permanently divided between creditors and debtors.
This is such a dismal prospect that it must not be allowed to become reality. There must be a way to avoid it—after all, history is not predetermined. When the European Union was only an idea, a fantastic object, it was conceived as an instrument of solidarity. Today, Europe hangs together out of grim necessity. That is not conducive to a harmonious partnership. The only way to reverse this seemingly inexorable fate is to recapture the spirit of solidarity.
Since I am a fervent believer in the European Union as the embodiment of an open society, I have set up an Open Society Initiative for Europe—OSIFE for short—and I have been looking for ways to achieve this goal.
I realized that the best place to start would be where current policies have created the greatest human suffering. Clearly, that place is Greece. Within Greece, the fate of the many migrants and asylum seekers stuck there particularly resonated with me. Clearly, their plight cannot be separated from that of the Greeks themselves. An initiative confined to migrants would reinforce the hostility they face from some in the majority.
The problem seemed intractable, and I couldn’t figure out how to approach it. But I was in Stockholm recently to commemorate the centenary of Raoul Wallenberg’s birth. This reawakened my memories of the Second World War—the calamity that eventually gave birth to the European Union.
Wallenberg was a heroic figure who saved the lives of many Jews by establishing Swedish protected houses in Budapest. During the German occupation of Hungary, my father was also a heroic figure. He helped to save his family and friends and others. He taught me to confront harsh reality rather than to passively submit to it.
That is what gave me the idea. We could set up solidarity houses in Greece which could serve as community centers for the local population where migrants could also find food and shelter. There are already many efforts under way, and civil society is already heavily engaged, but the scale of the problem is overwhelming. I am talking about reinforcing existing efforts.
The asylum policy of the European Union has broken down. Refugees have to apply in the country where they enter the EU, but the Greek government cannot process the cases, and some 60,000 refugees who sought to register have been put into detention camps where conditions are inhumane. Migrants who avoid registering and live in the streets are attacked by the hooligans of the Golden Dawn.
Norway has expressed an interest in the fate of refugees in Greece and within the European Union. Sweden has made migration and asylum policy a priority. So Norway and Sweden are the primary candidates for supporting solidarity houses. Hopefully they would be joined by Germany and other member countries.
Currently, the Golden Dawn is providing social services to Greeks while attacking the migrants. The initiative I propose would offer a positive alternative. It would be based on solidarity—solidarity of Europeans with Greeks and Greeks with migrants. This would be a powerful demonstration of the spirit of solidarity that ought to infuse the European Union.