Europe’s Perfect Storm: The Political and Economic Consequences of the Eurocrisis

What exactly is the Eurocrisis a crisis of? Is it a currency crisis? A crisis of economic policy-making in Europe? Is it a crisis of a particular, expensive social model, as American conservatives like to claim? Or of the whole political project of European integration as it has been developing since the 1950s? The answer is, a bit of all of the above. In fact, it is a perfect political and economic storm, one that may still sweep away many accomplishments of the European Union—the greatest political innovation since the creation of the democratic welfare state. Even if the euro survives in its present form, the price millions of people will have paid for its preservation will be very high indeed. Quite apart from the economic disasters unfolding in Spain, Greece, and other countries, there have been less obvious but equally dangerous costs. The crisis has distracted elites from urgent political matters, above all, the rise of a new kind of illiberal politics in Eastern Europe. It has recreated political and cultural rifts between national elites long thought dead; it has also sown distrust and animosity between ordinary people. Not least, it leaves a deep sense of discontent and disillusionment with the European Union as such.

There is no consensus on either the economics or the politics of the crisis. Ask three economists and you will get four different answers as to what the underlying problems are and how to solve them. Ask historians why European elites created a common currency in the first place, and you’ll hear that it was the price Germany, with its strong Deutschmark, had to pay France for unification in 1990; but you might also hear that it was actually German business that wanted to eliminate exchange rate fluctuations. And if you ask political scientists, you’ll probably hear that Europeans will under no circumstances tolerate further integration to address the crisis—or an insistence on Europeans’ readiness to erect a full-fledged federal state, right here, right now. And, finally, if you ask the people themselves, you’ll get rants by Germans about lazy Greeks, and Greeks holding up posters of German chancellor Angela Merkel as a Nazi. Rarely, in recent memory, has there been so much confusion or outright disagreement both in elite circles and on the street.

This lack of consensus may seem obvious, but it is not trivial, as the European Union has always moved forward either by consensus or by compromise, a polite way of saying that reluctant populations were paid off to come along. Spain, for instance, was uneasy about fully joining the single economic market, fearing its industries might be uncompetitive; accordingly, Brussels invented “cohesion funds,” subsidies for infrastructure in the poorer regions of Europe, to create a package attractive for all. Today, there is no consensus—especially not between France and Germany, the traditional motors of European integration—and there is no money for...

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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.