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London Review of Books: Vanity and Venality

Author: Susan Watkins
August 29, 2013

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"All quiet on the euro front? Seen from Berlin, it looks as though the continent is now under control at last, after the macro-financial warfare of the last three years. A new authority, the Troika, is policing the countries that got themselves into trouble; governments are constitutionally bound to the principles of good housekeeping. Further measures will be needed for the banks – but all in good time. The euro has survived; order has been restored. The new status quo is already a significant achievement."

Seen from the besieged parliaments of Athens and Madrid, from the shuttered shops and boarded-up homes in Lisbon and Dublin, the single currency has turned into a monetary choke-lead, forcing a swathe of economies – more than half the Eurozone's population – into perpetual recession. The Greek economy has shrunk by a fifth, wages have fallen by 50 per cent and two-thirds of the young are out of work. In Spain, it is now commonplace for three generations to survive on a single salary or a grandparent's pension; unemployment is running at 26 per cent, wages go unpaid and the rate for casual labour is down to 2 an hour.

Italy has been in recession for the past two years, after a decade of economic stagnation, and 42 per cent of the young are without a job. In Portugal, tens of thousands of small family businesses, the backbone of the economy, have shut down; more than half of those out of work are not entitled to unemployment benefits. As in Ireland, the twentysomethings are looking for work abroad, a return to the patterns of emigration that helped lock their countries into conservatism and underdevelopment for so long. Why has the crisis taken such a severe form in Europe?

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