The European Farce

By Ferguson, Niall | Newsweek, May 21, 2012 | Go to article overview

The European Farce


Ferguson, Niall, Newsweek


Byline: Niall Ferguson

Will the continent act to avert an economic cataclysm?

With the sap rising and the governments falling, all the European powers are merrily acting in national character.

In the midst of a severe financial crisis, the French have just elected a champagne socialist on promises of a 75 percent top tax rate and a lower retirement age. The Greeks also had an election in which the established parties lost to a ragbag of splinter groups. The outcome of the election was that they need to have another election. (Cue Zorba the Greek theme music.) Meanwhile, the wailing gloom of the flamenco emanates from Spain, where youth unemployment is now around 50 percent.

Within a few hours of arriving in London, I hear the following announcement on the train: "We apologize for the late departure of this service. This was due to the late arrival of essential personnel. [Translation: the driver overslept.] However, we are happy to inform customers that the London Underground is running a nearly normal service." It's that "nearly" that is so quintessentially English.

Three days later, in Berlin, I finally reach the Europe that works. Well, sort of. As usual, I find myself marveling at the sheer idleness of the richest and most successful country in the European Union. Lunchtime in the leafy garden of the Cafe Einstein on the Kurfurstenstrasse shows no sign of ending even at 3 p.m. It's Thursday. Did you know that the average German now works 1,000 hours a year less than the average South Korean? That's why when you go on holiday the Germans are already there--and when you go home, they stay on.

Understandably, many American investors have simply given up on Europe. After two years of the world's most tedious soap opera ("Can Angela get on with Francois, the new boy in town? Is Mario the real thing after phony old Silvio?"), they have come to the conclusion that it is only a matter of time before the whole euro zone comes crashing down, with Greece in the role of Lehman Brothers.

Meanwhile, in Berlin they still talk of "buying time." They mean by this that as long as the European Central Bank keeps printing money, lending to weak Mediterranean banks so that they can buy the bonds of weak Mediterranean governments, it will all work out in the end. This is a delusion. The economies of the Southern European countries are in a disastrous state, comparable with the conditions of the Great Depression. …

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