In France and Greece, voters have rejected “austerity”–the idea that European governments should live within their means. In Italy, too, anti-austerity candidates are currently leading in the polls. French Socialist François Hollande vows to continue running huge deficits so that he can hire more public sector workers; in a burst of stupidity, he announced that “My real enemy is the world of Finance.” I suppose there could be a surer way to impoverish your country than to declare war on the flow of capital, but I can’t think of one offhand.
What does it all mean? Two things, in my opinion. First, Southern European voters are determined to go over the waterfall in a canoe as long as there are politicians who will promise to keep paddling. One might think it obvious that no country can live beyond its means forever by borrowing money which it can’t possibly pay back. But voters in countries like Greece and France apparently think: it has worked so far, why not keep it up?
Realistically, it will work until creditors–Germany, mostly–decide to pull the plug. Then there will be default, some form of bankruptcy, some degree of chaos. That evidently is what many European voters want. In one sense, you can’t blame them: why not live on someone else’s money as long as you can?
But something more profound is going on, too. As I have written here more than once, the fundamental question raised by the current economic crisis is whether Europe is a country. If Europe is a country, it is not so unreasonable for profligate Southern Europeans to expect their more responsible fellow-citizens in Germany, and to a lesser extent Great Britain, to bail them out. But the fact is that Europe is not a country, despite the imaginings of its political class. Germans and Englishmen will not forever support Greeks, Italians, Spaniards, and now perhaps Frenchmen. At some point–and I think that point is drawing very near–they will go their own way, and the European Union, most probably, will collapse.