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Increasing stereotypes threaten European unity

- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 8, 2012

BRUSSELS — Maybe the problem is those southerners lolling in the Mediterranean sun who overspent and tax-dodged their way to ruin.

Or maybe it's the northerners, rigid beyond reason, so gloomy in their own lives that they're determined to see the southerners suffer.

Such, at least, are the resentful stereotypes that increasingly are jumping from pub conversation and tabloid pages into the mainstream political discourse.

It's a sign that a psychological fissure between northern and southern countries in the European Union is deepening under the strain of the financial crisis. Analysts say the rift threatens Europe's currency union every bit as much as interest rates and deficits.

"National resentments in Europe are rising to dramatic levels," said Vincent Forest, a London-based economist with the Economist Intelligence Unit. "By taking so much time in solving the economic crisis, the Europeans are creating a political and social crisis."

The 17 countries that use the euro have been struggling for the past three years with the problem of debt. Some countries can't cope, while others have plenty of demands about how best to manage it.

Economies across the region face deepening recessions. Spain and Italy, the two chief trouble spots, are threatened with a financial collapse that could tear the 13-year-old currency union apart and rock the global economy.

Fears are mounting that Spain may be the next to seek a bailout, following Ireland, Greece, Portugal and Cyprus. Italy faces the daunting task of keeping a handle on its huge debt load while fighting a recession.

In Greece, which has been in recession for five years, Germany is seen as the unbending force that has insisted on a diet of ever-increasing budget cuts that have thrown more and more Greeks out of work. In Italy, cartoonists have made German Chancellor Angela Merkel the subject of vulgar humor.

Of all the euro countries, Germany has been the most insistent on enforcing austerity, warning of the "moral hazard" of bailing out countries that have not suffered enough for their sins.

German condescension toward southern culture is not limited to the economy.

In January, the German weekly Der Spiegel ran a commentary on the capsized Concordia cruise liner, whose Italian captain is being investigated for manslaughter and abandoning ship while passengers were still aboard.

"Does it surprise you that the captain was Italian?" the columnist wrote, asking readers if they could imagine a German or British captain abandoning ship.

The column sparked outrage in Italy.

German attitudes toward European unity have a special historical significance. The prime motive for working toward a united Europe was a desire to contain Germany after two world wars.

A generation ago, West Germans were great champions of unity because it gave them a respectability -- the ability to say "We are Europeans" -- that had been squandered.

But now it is primarily Germany that is blocking the idea of the eurozone pooling resources to issue joint debt -- "Eurobonds" -- which would deepen European integration while easing the crisis.

Germans opposed to more help for Greece are quick to note that Athens fudged its budget figures, playing on stereotypes of Mediterranean dishonesty.

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