Quite a few years ago, when no one had yet heard of the Euro, my wife and I spent a holiday in Greece. The island of Samos was where our dart had landed on the map of the Eastern Med, so off we went. We stayed in a small family-run hotel in a village called Kokkari, a place which at that time boasted a fish restaurant where you couldn’t order fish and a car hire firm where you couldn’t rent a car. ‘Take a pair of binoculars’ a friend had said, ‘for from the beach at Psilli Amos you can see Turkey and wish you were there.’ This advice struck us as unkind, but how right he turned out to be! Our impression of the Greeks (or at least the Samosians) was that of a people to whom smiling does not come easily, service is an alien concept and tourists are a bunch of interlopers only good for handing over their cash without expecting too much in return. It was only a first impression and at the time I was willing to concede that repeated and longer visits to Greece might change my mind. No longer.
One day, at Psilli Amos beach, I was looking at the Turkish coast through my binoculars, wishing I was there. There was something intensely beautiful and mysterious about the blue and purplish mountains that made me want to swim across the 1.5 kilometre wide strait and never come back. In fact, I tried swimming across but there was such a strong current that I drifted off and barely made it back to the beach. I had to walk about 500 metres through the soft sand to rejoin my wife and my binoculars.
A bit further on there reclined lazily in the sun a man with greyish straggly hair and leathery weatherbeaten skin. He was wearing crumpled shorts and, from time to time, picked up a bit of fishing net, stared at it for a moment and then put it down again. I had noticed, while observing Turkey through my binocs, that he would regularly glance in my direction. Then, suddenly, he got up and walked over to me. Wordlessly he held out his right hand, while pointing at my binoculars with his left. I gathered he would like to have a look at Turkey, so I handed them over with a friendly smile. He didn’t smile back, but returned to where he came from, sat down and began to scan the horizon. After about ten minutes I felt it was time to re-take possession of what was rightfully mine, so I went over to him and asked him in my most pleasant manner if I could have my binoculars back. At first he ignored me completely, but when I didn’t walk away he looked up and said, in English: ‘You give me. You rich tourist, me poor Greek.’ I felt for him, of course, but as proof of his automatic entitlement to my possessions I found it unconvincing. So I said something like ‘no, no, I really must have them back’ trying to inject into my voice a tone of urgency, if not outright menace. Visibly annoyed at my display of crypto-colonial selfishness he handed me my property and turned away, muttering under his breath an imprecation that sounded like ‘taramasalata’ but could well have been something entirely different.
I was reminded of this holiday when, in early 2001, it was cheerfully announced that Greece, after earlier doubts as to its viability as a member of the European monetary union, was now allowed to adopt the Euro. It meant, as far as I could see, that one and the same currency now had to represent economies of such wildly different strengths that little good could come of it. And so it proved. After the initial boom in countries like Ireland and Spain and, to a lesser extent, Portugal and Greece, the bust has now set in with a vengeance. And still there would be no problem, still the governments of Europe’s economic superpowers would happily be pouring further billions into the bottomless pit of Greek and other debt, but for one thing: their taxpayers (the real victims of the whole shambles) are getting restless. Sooner or later, the Merkels and Sarkozys of this world will have to seek re-election and their prospects don’t look good. Other leaders will come to the fore who realize that the tune should rightfully be called by those who pay the piper. Many Europeans are currently wondering why they have to tighten their belts, work longer for smaller pensions, see energy prices rise to astronomic heights and their savings dwindle, just so the people they foolishly elected can fritter it away on such unrealistic extravagancies as the ‘European Project’.
Luckily, here in the Netherlands the voting public has other things to worry about, such as immigration, the ranking of the national football team, or the burning question ‘will the North-South metro line in Amsterdam ever be built?’ Of course here, too, people will have to pay more for less in public services, health care and the like and work longer for smaller pensions but hey! These things have been happening in the Netherlands for many years, long before the global economic collapse and the Euro crisis. It’s tradition here that prices and taxes go up relentlessly from year to year whatever the economic situation. This we call ‘prudence’ and ‘foresight’. Belt-tightening is a national sport, much as goat-dragging is in Afghanistan. On the international scene, the Dutch have found the perfect solution. In order not to have to think of answers to tricky questions ourselves, take difficult decisions or -God forbid!- act alone and risk opprobrium from our peers we simply do as the Germans do. Berlin wants to fund Greek debt? Then we do as well, with a smile. The Germans want to rid themselves of the modern Trojan Horse and cut the Greeks adrift? Just what they were thinking in The Hague too. Good riddance to bad rubbish. Look down Europe’s Main Street for a moment. Do you see Mama Merkel and Papa Sarkozy heading towards the nearest cash dispenser? And see that toddler sucking a lolly trotting on behind? That’s young master Rutte, our Prime Minister. Ten years from now, only the names will have changed.