This seems to be a key time to consider what being in Europe is all about. We see Greece struggling to pay off enormous debts and the real poverty it’s causing to ordinary people.
Spain has high unemployment and property has significantly reduced in value across the country, whilst Italy and Ireland are struggling to cope with their debts as well.
And good old Blighty isn’t doing so well, either. People are cutting back on their expenditure and the public sector is certainly not hiring as many staff on a permanent or temporary basis.
I watched a really interesting programme on TV last night where Michael Portillo visited Greece and Germany to find out how people viewed the economic crisis from which we are all feeling the pinch.
What struck me was how people blame everyone but themselves for the muddle they are in. Many people have been buying goods through cheap credit and living beyond their means, yet they don’t want to admit they were a bit greedy in doing so. At some point, loans are bound to get dearer and can be called in, leaving people up a creek without a paddle. As the great personal development trainer Dale Carnegie once said in his book 'How to Win Friends and Influence People', “Instead of condemning people, let’s try to understand them. Let's try to figure out why people do what they do.”
My only contribution to the debate is this: I generally feel people are driven to improve their life and that of their family. One way of doing so in this century is by owning things that others desire. It’s also about improving quality of life. The desire to do this is emotional and in the present and isn’t always linked into long-term thinking.
Interestingly, in the Portillo programme, I hadn’t realised that the Germans (in the old West Germany) have been facing austerity for 20 years. First, they put all their money into supporting the old East Germany and now Europe. Many of them allegedly haven’t had a pay rise for 15 years, either! So, in their own way, they have tightened their belts too.
Yet a lot of people interviewed on the programme said it was worth it for the wider concerns of Europe. A lot of the Greeks interviewed wouldn’t trade the Euro for a Greek currency. Even though times are dreadful, they saw going out of the Euro as a step backwards. The overriding view was ‘we are all in this together.’
It made me realise how far away from this mindset many people in the UK are. Most of us just don’t get the European project and what it means. It’s an ideology and an inclusive way of thinking that I don’t think we generally have. From our island view, I’m not sure we have the same notion of ‘togetherness’. Our historical focus has primarily been linked into the wider world (especially the Commonwealth and North America) and I suppose after two world wars fought primarily on the European stage, there’s something deep in our psyche that believes we can’t integrate and preserve our democratic sense.
Over the coming months, it will be fascinating to watch how the European project ‘evolves’ and what we choose to do watching from the sidelines. I feel I must sit there too. I can see the benefits of being a part of Europe, but I’m not convinced the way things are structured and beliefs about this grand design at present sit quite right with me. In my experience, if you watch things evolve, you’ll know when the time is right to act and what to do next.
Back to Dale Carnegie, he quotes the ancient Chinese sage Confucius: “Don’t complain about the snow on your neighbour’s roof when your own doorstep is unclean.” Surely that should be the focus, no?