GT in the EU

An extraordinary education

Month: June 2014 (Page 2 of 4)

CoaR- Culture

This week, we have been immersed in culture and history, constantly forced to think about how these aspects of the world affect who we are today and who we become tomorrow. In light of our continued exploration of subjects such as the cultural debate of TTIP, the issue of immigration in Greece, and the rise of nationalism in the EU, we decided to engage the idea of culture and explore its effects on the world.

Topics that we explored included defining culture (:40 (Part 1)), maintaining distinct cultures (1:14 (Part 1)), America’s reluctance to integrate (12:08 (Part 1)), reducing the tension that arises from globalization (7:43 (Part 2)), and George the gyro man! Things get real, heated, and kind of silly.

Chautauqua on a Rooftop

A few days ago, some students were sitting in a room discussing the briefings we had received earlier. When we saw that a few hours had passed to witness us still debating the principles of human rights, we realized it would be extremely interesting to record these discussions and show others the complexities and intricacies of the topics we study in ways that a simple blog post could not. We felt that a discussion allows for the development and exploration of ideas and the struggle between perspectives that a lone text is unable to convey.

This idea sparked a fire in us, and after a few iterations we have produced a pilot for such a discussion series. We hope to continue this series on a very regular basis, and to cover a myriad of different topics as we find them provoking and engaging. On behalf of the participants of this episode of Chautauqua on a Rooftop, I hope you enjoy the musings of a few students who are a bit too interested in how the world works.

It’s all Greek to me

“The Greek government-debt crisis is part of the ongoing Eurozone crisis triggered by the arrival of the global economic recession in October 2008, and is believed to have been directly caused by a combination of structural weaknesses of the Greek economy along with a decade long pre-existence of overly high structural deficits and debt-to-GDP levels on public accounts.”

It is one thing to read this very bland description of the 2008 financial crisis’ effect on the Greek economy (courtesy of Wikipedia), but an entirely different experience to see abandoned buildings falling apart in the heart of Athens.

One statistic that is often thrown around in class is that Greece has recently had higher unemployment than America had during the Great Depression. It doesn’t take an economics or international affairs background to see that there is unrest in Greece. It’s literally written on the walls. These high levels of unemployment have led to some of the most beautiful and disturbing pieces of graffiti that I have ever seen. To say that there is an exorbitant amount of graffiti in Athens is like being out at sea and noting that the ocean seems to have a lot of water. You’re literally surrounded by it on all sides.

This lovely piece of graffiti depicts Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany and an avid supporter of austerity measures in the highly indebted southern European countries.

Austerity – Without boring you, austerity is the act of cutting government spending in light of high levels of debt. This sounds great in theory: You’ve been spending too much. It’s time for you to spend less and start paying off some of your debt. However, adopting austerity measures during a recession is like trying to finish paying off your car payments right after your boss cuts your hours. You’re going to be hungry. The people of Greece are ravenous. They cry out for change.

One argument I’ve heard is that Greece has a strong economy that was simply knocked down by the financial crisis and subsequent sovereign debt crisis. Supporters of this argument often point out that Greece had decent levels of growth during the years prior to the 2008 crisis despite high deficit percentages relative to GDP. I find this comparable to a teenage boy driving to school 25 miles per hour faster than the speed limit, who suddenly crashes into another car. The boy has a broken leg and is taken to the hospital. A passerby notes, “Well if he hadn’t crashed, he would have been on time for school.” Just like driving at a high speed will get you to your destination more quickly, high levels of government spending will stimulate growth since government spending is a part of a country’s GDP. However, if the boy had been going the speed limit, he would not be on time for school, just like if Greece had not been running huge deficits it would not have experienced the growth that it did.

What does this mean? In the situation with the boy driving to school, the solution is simple: he needs to leave the house earlier on his way to school so that he has plenty of time to get there. Greece’s problem is not so easily solved. If I could tell you in a few short sentences exactly what Greece needed to do to get out of its problems, they would be so easy that they would have already been solved. Difficult as change may be, it is needed. The people are hungry, and another crash may leave Greece with more than just a broken leg.

Democratic Deficit and Political Efficacy

Critics of the European project will often point to the notion of a “democratic deficit” to undermine the credibility of the European Union. Some say its supranational structure simply cannot account for democracy to the same extent that national governments can, and that may be true. As long as states are sovereign, they will necessarily cater to a wider variety of their citizens’ needs. These include fundamental responsibilities like education, health care, and other social services. Citizens may feel more comfortable with their national governments or feel that the national, regional, or local levels of governance are more relevant to their interests, as our host father does. He can talk all day about Belgian politics, a system that seems far more complex than the European system, but he shows little interest in the machinations of Europe-wide politics. And who can blame him? The EU is an emerging institution with changing purposes and functions, and it is certainly difficult to learn the inner-workings of a bureaucracy that is not indigenous to you, as we have learned so far on this trip.

However, these shortcomings should not delegitimize the EU, nor should they amount to a deficit of democracy, at least not structurally. There could always be improvements; perhaps a directly elected President of the European Parliament would assuage the concerns of the European people. But what the EU does, it does democratically. All states that have joined the EU have democratically elected governments that have decided (and, with the Treaty of Lisbon reforms outlining the protocol for departure from the EU, must continue to decide) that being a member of the EU is in their best interests. The European Parliament has been directly elected by European citizens since 1979 and Lisbon reforms have also made the European Council and the Council of Ministers more beholden to the people. Though voter turnout has been decreasing, a common phenomenon in modern Western democracies, the recent elections have demonstrated that they adequately express popular sentiments in the EU. Unfortunately, those sentiments have been largely nationalist and euroskeptical, but if the EU were an undemocratic institution, the Eurocrats would have been able to impose their will of orgiastic Europhilia unimpeded by the likes of Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage. Instead, the people spoke, and the people reined in ambitions of further integration. If a great deal of Europeans disagree, maybe voter turnout will be higher in 2019 – the democratic structure is there, but it is up to the people to engage in the democratic process.

In the spirit of President of the European Council Herman van Rompuy, an avid haiku poet, I feel that the succinctness of the haiku format can express my sentiments:

Lisbon addresses
Democratic deficit
So, too, must people

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