Surprisingly, in a recent Mail on Sunday poll a full 39 per cent of Britons believed the UK would be better off if the eurozone broke up, while only 28 per cent thought otherwise. Considering the doomsday predictions brandished all year about how a demise of the euro could plunge the entire world into darkness and perdition, this pervasive conviction that Britain would actually benefit from the deep-sixing of the single currency deserves parsing.
A breakup might possibly occasion that long sought referendum on Britain’s EU membership or a renegotiation of its terms. But in the short if not medium term, fiscal and perhaps also social chaos within its primary trading partners would surely be catastrophic for the UK. That doesn’t mean that 39 per cent of Brits in that poll were stupid. I’ve a hunch many Britons who answered positively meant something slightly different: “I realise the backwash over here could make June’s flooding in Surrey look like a leaky tap. I still want to see the euro fail, never mind that euro-go-blooie is not in my country’s or even my personal interest.” i.e. cut nose, spite face.
That very cognitive dissonance has riven me since this whole continental debacle began. An American living in London, I have no wish to see the US or UK get any more decrepit. My few investments would certainly suffer from yet another global financial calamity, and any novelist is obviously better off when consumers keep enough cash in their pockets to buy something so unnecessary as a book. So in general I perk up when some better-than-expected American manufacturing figure comes in, and brood when growth figures for yet another quarter in the UK are revised downwards. This is rational.
What is not rational is jumping for joy every time a turn of the wheel seems to signal that the euro is sure to go belly-up. Wholly aware that the blowback from such an upheaval could negatively impact both me personally and the two countries I care about most, I still take perverse delight in the prospect of a euro collapse, for which I root with the passion that my neighbours reserve for football. Only when I tripped across that Mail on Sunday poll did I conclude that I’m not alone.
I doubt that many of my American compatriots would understand it: the loathing for the European elite that has gathered in Britain after years of unaccountable, anti-democratic, profligate, condescending, contemptuous, haughty, sanctimonious, and petty — have I left out any adjectives? — high-handedness from Brussels. Those of my ilk who scream, “DIE, EURO, DIE!” at their TV screens have every sympathy for the eurozone’s peoples, fellow victims of the same patronising know-it-alls at the top. But the euro has become the supreme icon of all we despise about the EU. Formed by fiat through the Maastricht Treaty, its adoption not put to popular votes, the currency emblemises the EU’s refusal to involve the sorry little serfs in decisions that may affect their lives but that are far too important for the tiny nobodies to control. Since the whole project never made the slightest economic sense, the euro is also an emblem of hubris. Thus for its vainglorious creators to be forced to watch their pet currency go down in flames seems the perfect punishment.
Granted, I am of the sensible, supportable view that either a euro demise or a membership contraction would benefit the European periphery, if not everyone, in the long term. But given the potentially horrific destabilisation on the way to this sunnier day, perhaps it’s fortunate that whatever heh-heh-heh I indulge in front of Newsnight has no effect on events.
Of course, there’s a second driver of die-euro-die!, which any novelist should recognise: narrative appetite. Most of the time, news is entertainment, and we can easily get what’s good for a story and what’s good for real life confused — that is, we sometimes insist that reality comply with the rules of fiction. After following this tale for a good two years, we hunger for a climax. Suppose that, after all the nail-biting build-up over a “Grexit” or a “Spexit”, all the talk of national bankruptcies and social upheaval or even breakdown, the powers-that-be get their acts together and suddenly it’s, “Oh, well, I guess that’s sorted.” What a crap story. We’ve been watching a disaster movie, and, damn it, we want our disaster.
But disasters are more thrilling in the audience than on the other side of the screen. So I probably wouldn’t like it, the real thing; I certainly wouldn’t relish the proper depression that some forecast would follow a euro self-destruct. Besides, the last people punished would be the EU elite, who’d ride out the misery in style, sipping champagne and nibbling canapés — egg, perhaps, the better to get it on face. Eurocratic humiliation would be the single upside to the crisis, and almost worth the sacrifice.