Dear Greeks, our thoughts are with you

AFP Photo / Aris Messinis

NRC-journalist René Moerland writes an open letter to the people of Greece in the Saturday edition of NRC Handelsblad. This is the English translation of the text.

Dear Greeks,

How do you recognize a European? Some say it’s the hair: Jeroen Dijsselbloem , for instance, is a European, with those strict Dutch curls. Oh, yes, we’ve seen the Photoshopped pictures flying around the social media of Varoufakis with Dijsselbloem’s hair – and yes, they made us laugh. Even here in the Netherlands, Dijsselbloem is known for his strict, reserved style. And we don’t have any rebel politicians here with anything like the star quality of your prime minister Alexis Tsipras, or even, say, Jean-Claude Juncker, who exudes the gravitas of thirty years of European integration with every word he utters.

When history is written, the leading actors steal the show. Or else they reduce the stage to smithereens with their brawling, their tempers and passions, and their rhetorical tricks.

In fact, that’s what we have in common: the Greeks, the Dutch, the Spanish, the Irish and the twenty-four other member states on this continent of ours. You can recognize Europeans by the way they conduct politics: always quarrelling. Or, in the inverted language of Merkelian diplomacy: Europe means compromising, always compromising. The long-standing Franco-German partnership is built on the understanding that neither one can defeat the other. European unity is very often no more than a carefully managed quarrel. That’s also essentially what’s going on now: how carefully do you intend to manage this quarrel, esteemed Greeks?

The romance of being different

All our disagreements have their advantages. No European country can play the strongman and get away with it. Conversely, it’s also unthinkable that any one country would be sent to the corner for long. Every European instinctively recognizes the pull of national identity. The romance of being different is part of our European heritage.

For that reason alone, the European Union is not an empire, as some have called it. It has no imperial will that it imposes, from the top down, on the member states. Sometimes it feels that way, of course – as if the Union is a foreign power. And our politicians like to foster that image: ‘Brussels made me do it!’ But let us not forget that ultimately, Europe is something much vaguer – a ‘project’, a 28-country experiment that could fail at any time.

You might also describe the EU as the continuation of our age-old quarrels by other means. This approach can bring progress, but can also lead to stagnation. Put two or more Europeans in the same room, and they’ll hold a meeting. They’ll make grandiose plans (union! integration!) and then wrangle over them so fiercely that chaos and discord are the results. The founding fathers of the euro believed that it would act as a crowbar, breaking open barriers to integration. But that crowbar has only prised us further apart; the economic differences within the Union are greater than ever. You are now paying the price for that – and everyone has made some mistakes.

Yet if anything shows that Greece is not on the margins of Europe, but at its heart, then it’s the present situation. Now that Greece is hanging in the balance, all Europe is in commotion. The Greek crisis is our crisis too – the crisis of the European project. Your frustration about having ‘to become one with them’, as Prime Minister Tsipras put it earlier this week, strikes a chord with voters all over Europe – even though, admittedly, your situation is the most dramatic.

Adjustment to new roles are shaping the Union

We have all been shaped by national traumas – and European integration forces us to overcome our idiosyncrasies. In the Netherlands, for example, we have been wrestling for some years now with our traditional self-image as a superlative country, a moral beacon for the rest of the world, capable of achieving greatness through our good intentions. Yes, that’s really how we saw our national identity. We no longer have that luxury. Dutch leaders know very well that they represent a fairly minor geopolitical actor, which has to fight hard for its interests and often has no choice but to swim with the tide. Our struggle with this difficult truth has opened deep divisions within the Netherlands and led some people to long for a new isolation.

In contrast, Germany seems to have settled into to its new European leadership role in recent years, moving beyond its historical feelings of guilt. France is trying to adjust to its waning international influence, and it’s hard to say whether that will lead to a good outcome. Spain is grappling with questions of internal integration. I could go on and on, but there’s no need; these are the well-known facts of European politics.
We will wait in suspense this weekend to find out how you answer the question of your country’s future: will you join the European forces of convergence, even if it means putting up with political defeat and wearing a tight financial belt for many years? Or will you choose to be different – at the risk of chaos and poverty? Either choice will require courage, tremendous courage. And the decision is entirely in your hands.
Naturally, we’d love to vote in your referendum.

If you could hear all the voices here in the Netherlands, for instance, that are participating in this debate, you might think it was a foregone conclusion: yes, Greece is part of the Union. Like it or not. Europe is our collective struggle.

Overheated rhetoric as an escape vault

Of course, most people would add that Greece urgently needs to modernize. And there are those who would rather see Greece leave the euro area. Their voice is not negligible. Our centre-right prime minister Mark Rutte fended off his rivals on the far right in our parliamentary elections three years ago with the promise ‘Not one penny more for the Greeks’. On the other hand, ever since then, Rutte has headed a coalition with the centre-left party that told what they called a fair and honest story: no matter what, they said, Greece will need more support, and Europe cannot turn its back on the Greeks. That was the party of Jeroen Dijsselbloem.

Oh, yes, there’s one more way to recognize a European: at critical junctures, they try to use overheated rhetoric as an escape valve: democracy, betrayal, Plato playing in the second division. Sure, sure. To some, Tsipras and Varoufakis are bungling amateurs; to others, they are heroes. This, again, is not unique to Greece. There are people all over Europe who think the same way. It’s not Greece against the others; it’s all of us, struggling with ourselves.

We do not envy you, esteemed Greek voters. What an impossible choice you’ve been asked to make this weekend – to say yes or no to a complicated plan when the squabbling negotiators in Brussels can’t even agree on how to summarize it. You’re perfectly entitled to your opinion about the competence of those negotiators. In any case, we ordinary voters are no experts, and we can’t clearly predict the consequences of a yes or no. But our vote always counts – that’s European democracy. Whatever path Greece takes after this weekend, you will have chosen it yourself.

Our thoughts, and our best wishes, are with you.