Eurozone family has trust issues

In the end, cheating and fecklessness does not work for individuals. And it can't – and more importantly won't – work for governments

Family portrait: Is there enough responsibility in the EU?
Charles Crawford
On 22 January 2013 11:03

Families are tricky. They stretch to outer limits our private sense of responsibility.

You are Diligent. You work hard and honestly; you treat everyone fairly; you are generous towards friends and family, but you dislike being exploited or ‘expected’ to help others who don’t do all they can to help themselves.

You have four siblings, Dopey, Grumpy, Lazy and Feckless:

- Dopey does his best, but is dim and usually misses opportunities to do better; he appreciates favours from other family members, and now and then reciprocates in a cack-handed way

- Grumpy works hard and has had more success in life, but begrudges others their success; she expects favours to be offered generously by other family members, but is ungrateful/dismissive and never offers favours in return

- Lazy never tries hard, preferring the idea of the good life to the reality of hard work– she values favours, but usually does not reciprocate. Not exactly selfish or mean-spirited – just somehow air-headed and not that bothered

- Feckless works hard but squanders the results on fun and parties – has no long-term plan and lives only for the moment

You may or may not be your siblings’ keeper. But if you have good fortune or they fall on hard times, how far might those siblings make a moral claim to part of your success?

Complex issues and emotions are involved:

- The limits of generosity of the would-be giver – should Diligent be so generous to the others as to put his/her own immediate family’s welfare at risk?

- Should Diligent try to work out how the favour will in fact be used – better to give more support to someone who at least tries hard but usually fails, or to the sibling who is in more need but is likely to fritter away any support given?

- Does reciprocity or at least genuine gratitude come into play? Should Diligent’s generosity be affected by how far recipients of generosity might extend favours if roles were reversed? Is it somehow better to share more generously with people who are grateful than with people who expect support and then sneer at its level?

- Or does abstract ‘solidarity’ automatically kick in, so that any sibling falling on hard times through the results of selfishness or idleness or greed or fecklessness or incompetence can insist that Diligent ‘should’ sacrifice some of the results of his/her own hard work and self-discipline?

- If that ‘solidarity’ principle applies, how far might Diligent insist that the selfish/idle/greedy sibling be shown to have mended his/her ways as a condition for support? Or is it heartless to expect everyone else to behave sensibly, as Diligent invariably does?

- If Diligent subsidises his siblings’ poor work, is he doing them benefit or harm in the long run?

- Should the best approach for Diligent (whatever that is) be reproduced at the national or supranational level?

Thus the European Union. Much of the political tension now surrounding the European project is about just these questions.

The rules when the Eurozone was set up were clear. No bail-outs for countries not accepting financial discipline! None!

The threat of this awful, implacable, inflexible harshness was thought to be a necessary and sufficient condition to compel countries with no serious tradition of running a currency successfully to realise that they were being promoted to the major league, and had to lift their game.

Their response:

Ha ha. That boring northern European stuff is not for us gay southern European types. We knew we’d never accept all that drab discipline and paperwork and transparency – and taxes! And you stuffy Germans knew that too, even if you say now that you trusted us to behave like you.

So what’s the problem now? If there’s a crisis now, it’s your fault, not ours. You knew for years exactly what was going on, but looked the other way.

Wha-a-a-a-t? You’re saying now that we have misbehaved and that you won’t bail us out? That we have to tidy our room, work harder, tighten our belts and be poorer? That we are to get less lavish dinners than everyone else here? For years to come?

Are you patronising, selfish, oh-so-clever people crazy as well? Where’s the solidarity in that?

Borrow some money from some other suckers such as your own taxpayers’ kids if you have to. It will be years before they realise that you (and they) can’t repay it.

All of which goes to show that the Eurozone crisis goes to really very simple issues of trust and responsibility.

And perhaps there just are some ill-defined but no less real limits to operationalising trust and responsibility at any level, from personal to international. Perhaps it makes no sense to set up centralised institutions which ultimately can’t be trusted to stick with these simple values and instead fall prey to vainglorious elite manipulation.

In the end, cheating and fecklessness does not work for individuals. And it can't – and more importantly won't – work for governments. A message for Obama’s Washington as for Van Rompuy’s Brussels?

Charles Crawford is a Contributing Editor to The Commentator. A former British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw, he is now a private consultant and writer. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter: @charlescrawford

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