13 July 2015

Don’t Let’s Be Beastly to the Germans


Like anyone else, my first reaction to the latest episodes in the ongoing Greek-German soap opera was to think long and hard about the fate of Admiral John Byng, the Royal Navy officer infamously court-martialled, convicted, and shot to death on his own quarterdeck in March, 1757.

Byng, you will remember, was tried and convicted of “failing to do his utmost to take or destroy the enemy’s ships”. As a consequence, Britain lost Minorca to France. Two and a half centuries later, Byng’s death remains a matter of some controversy. His descendants continue to press the British government for a pardon. His fate prompted Voltaire – who supported Byng – to remark sardonically that in England, “It is thought good, from time to time, to execute an admiral to encourage the others”.

Byng’s trial and death were a sensation, just as the drama in Athens and Berlin transfixes all Europe today. Without wishing to stretch the comparison too far, may I suggest that Greece is Admiral Byng and Germany the Admiralty which convicted poor Byng and, having done so, found no way of avoiding his execution? This despite the fact that the government of the day was stuffed with Byng’s supporters. There was, in the end, no alternative to shooting an Admiral.

As then, so now. Just as Byng was not helped by his own well-connected supporters – whose suggestion he be spared outraged public opinion – so Greece has hardly been helped by its own inept government. Syriza have won themselves a famous Pyhrric defeat.

Then again, it’s not really about Greece. It’s about Germany and the rest of the Eurozone. Greece is just the venue for the game. If it weren’t being played in Greece it could easily, and in other circumstances might have been, hosted by someone else. The game is about keeping Berlin’s idea of Europe alive. That is, it is about Germany remaining Germany and maintaining faith with half a century of German policy. Viewed from Berlin, isn’t that more important than another round of austerity in Greece?

Of course, Germany is hardly blameless. Allowing Greece to join the euro was a daft idea in the first place. Nevertheless, we are where we are even if no-one would wish to be here. Viewed from the German perspective – and, importantly, the perspective of most other northern eurozone countries – Greece is expendable. There’s a limit to even Germany’s willingness to keep the show on the road and, it turns out, a third rescue package in five years is that limit.

True, previous efforts at saving Greece have not worked but that is, at least in part, because Greece failed to take the measures it promised to take. As Olivier Blanchard, the Keynesian chief economist at the IMF, noted last week, many of the reforms Greece signed up to in 2010 “were either not implemented, or not implemented on a sufficient scale”. It’s a funny version of “democracy” which means you can spend other people’s money as you see fit while reneging on agreements you made with your creditors. That helps explain the notable lack of sympathy for Greece in other european capitals, notably the “new” europeans from the east.

In any case, matters have gone beyond the point at which either side can strike a compromise and emerge with any dignity or honour. Wolfgang Schauble and Angela Merkel may now think that crucifying Greece is, while regrettable, a necessary reminder to the rest of the Eurozone that membership of the club comes at a price – and what a price! – and certain obligations that can no longer be avoided.

That in turn means, of course, remembering, perhaps above all else, that the Germans are, in poker terms, “pot committed”. That is, they have spent so many years – and so much money – on the European project that they cannot quit now. This would be the case even if they thought they were losing (which they do not think, by the way). They have their own voters – democracy! – to think of too, you know.

In any case, Voltaire didn’t know how right he was. Byng’s death really did prove exemplary. Previously, well-connected captains had used their influence to escape punishment for their failings. Byng’s execution sent a different message. Henceforth, even noble birth might not save a captain who failed to do his duty.

As N.A.M. Rodger, arguably Britain’s most eminent naval historian, has written: “Byng’s death revived and reinforces a culture of aggressive determination which set British officers apart from their foreign contemporaries, and which in time gave them a steadily mounting psychological ascendancy. More and more in the course of the century, and for long afterwards, British officers encountered opponents who expected to be attacked, and more than half expected to be beaten.”

In like fashion, other European countries have been put on notice. Being a member of the Eurozone club can no longer include the privileges of ignoring the club’s rules. That necessarily means Germany must, I think, double down on deeper European integration. Whether this is wise is a different matter but the fate of Greece reminds every other country of certain harsh realities. The Germans are not for turning. They’d rather not be strict with Greece but, if being strict is unavoidable, they trust it can have some useful consequences.

Alex Massie is a political commentator