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 are the resentful stereotypes that are jumping from tabloid pages into mainstream discourse.
It’s all 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 three years with 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 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, Germany is seen as the unbending force that has insisted on 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.
A generation ago, West Germans were champions of unity. 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. German citizens opposed to more help for Greece are quick to jump on the fact that the government fudged its budget figures, playing on stereotypes of Mediterranean dishonesty.
Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, who is also president of the Eurogroup of finance ministers, warned Monday on German TV of the dangers of the current tone of conversation.
“That means what was history, and what we thought we had definitely buried, it resurges fast,” he said. “European integration remains a highly fragile undertaking. One has to deal carefully with European sentiments and not think history is history. No, no – history is present and we have to treat each other carefully.”