The European Union is going through a terrible economic crisis, and we know it. Everyone has a different explanation of how we have gotten to this point, but no one seems to know exactly what we should do about it. But there is something I think is not being accurately understood in the Unites States, something that is very hard to discern through the eyes of the New World. The American media usually portrays the staggering difference between Europe and America as a fundamentally political discrepancy. And the reality is much more complex than that.
Just take the geopolitical nature of the European continent. In America, there is roughly a 4500 km (2796 mile) distance between New York and Los Angeles. If you were to undertake that journey, you would go through a multitude of different states, with different people and different cultures. But all these states are united under the American flag and the sense of loyalty and belonging that it entails. If you were to take a trip with the same distance in Europe, starting in Lisbon, you would end up in Moscow. That example alone should be enough to illustrate the geographical proximity of radically different cultures that coexist in the Europe. Although there are many things in common between the constituent countries of the European Union, it shouldn’t be so easy to take Europe as whole, or to allow a perception of a normalized political tradition throughout the whole continent.
The greatest political divide in Europe is between Northern and Southern Europe. The north mostly consists of countries of a Protestant Nordic tradition. The south mostly consists of countries of a Catholic Mediterranean tradition. They like beer and have shitty weather. We like wine and have fantastic weather. They are able to reap the benefits of the European Welfare State while maintaining balanced budgets and having moderate levels of debt. We have been reaping the benefits of the European Welfare State while maintaining high deficits and increasing our debt exponentially. But let me ask you this question: Where would you rather go? Where do you think you would have a good time, Finland or Italy? I think we all know the answer to that question.
It is not a coincidence that most European countries facing economic disaster are Mediterranean. I mean, just look at our stereotypes. When you consider the Spanish or the Italians or the Greeks, the image that usually comes up are of romantic, well-dressed playboys riding scooters; hairy old men sitting in cafés by the sea, quietly drinking wine and eating olives; beautiful, troubled, young women; and cruel, wise old women.
Even though most people in Southern Europe don’t exactly fit those theatrical caricatures, the stereotypes are not entirely untrue. There is something in common between these stereotypes, something that says much about the people from the South. All of these depictions are very dramatic and simplified, as though southern Europeans weren’t that different from their Middle Ages-era ancestors. There is some truth to that, as many European countries are nation-states. Their populations are unified not only by their languages and religions, but also by a sense of tradition — very, very old tradition. With their archaic simplicity, these stereotypes also contain a sense of analagous suffering and pleasure. People from Southern Europe seem to be prone to sadness, but a beautiful, almost pleasurable type of sadness, an inescapable longing for things that will never come true.
Inherent in these grandiose stereotypes is the attitude with which Southern Europeans view life, a resignation to its trials. To us, life is hard and tragic and always unfulfilled. Because of that, we give a much greater value to life in the moment — the infamous feeling of joie de vivre. We think it is mandatory to enjoy even the simplest things in life. We linger over long, delicious lunches. We take our food very seriously here. We take siestas. We drink a glass of wine in the middle of the morning. We go to dinner at 11 p.m. on a Wednesday. We demand to have long, subsidized vacations. Our universal healthcare systems are not up for debate. These things are true. They are not stereotypes.
Southern Europeans believe, in their core, that there are certain inalienable rights. And those rights shouldn’t consist of only basic intangible ideas, such as liberty (so dear to Americans). To us, liberty is just a starting point. It is not an end in itself. The guarantee of liberty shouldn’t prevent you from having equally basic, uncontestable rights such as free (or cheap) healthcare and a free (or cheap) college education. Not only do we see these things as important, we consider them birthrights of every citizen.
That type of attitude has, I grant you, unintended, inevitable consequences. The economies from Southern Europe (Portugal, Spain, Italy, Greece) are in bad shape. On the last decade, growth has been anemic while public expenditure rose and debt levels achieved historic maximums. Corruption is rampant (for Western standards) and tax evasion is widespread. We know we have been very bad countries. Some have been worse than others (yes, Greece, I am talking to you). Because we have a tendency to value pleasure above all else, we also tend to have some disregard towards rules and laws. But that doesn’t mean that the fundamental drive of the Southern European way of life is wrong or utopic. It only means that we have to adapt our bohemian ways to this globalized and competitive world economy.
I would never want to change the way we live in Southern Europe. Maybe we have to become a bit more like the north. Northern Europe could certainly benefit from being a little bit more like the south. We may have to adapt and reform, but we will never change who we are — wine-drinking, cigarette-smoking, tax-evading dilettantes. Life is just too short. In the long run, as Keynes said, we are all dead.