Have you ever heard of the Gordian Knot? It is derived from an ancient Phrygian legend of a man, an oxcart, a prophecy, and of course, a kingship. Legend has it that this knot, Midas, after dedicating this ox-cart to the god Sabazios (whom the Greeks associated with Zeus), he tied it to a post. An impossible knot.
Alexander the Great, while wintering in Gordium, attempted to untie the knot. He failed and so he took the “Alexandrian” solution – he cut it with his sword. Another view has him removing a securing pin which then allowed him to untie the knot.
Regardless, as legends often do, what is fact and fiction has been lost in the many retellings, but it was from there we derive the term Gordian Knot which could be used as the metaphor for a wicked problem. What are wicked problems? According to Wikipedia:
“A problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize…resistance to resolution…because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems.”
I would say that appropriately covers the situation our Greek brothers and sisters find themselves in as today they vote ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ on a bailout package that no longer exists, as they vote ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, in spirit, on staying part of removing themselves from a currency union, potentially also the political union, of a unified Europe.
Roots of the Eurozone
We often think of the start of the European Union from the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, but we must go further back, much further back, to the early 20th century. In the cozy confines of the 21st century, too many of us have forgotten that the clubby, civilized diplomacy of our times was so far from the norm as to be unimaginable. In the early 20th century, nationalist fervor was at an all-time high, most colonies had not yet been granted independence and freedom, and the idea of a “single Europe” was not even a thought.
Enter, the Great War. Exit, a Europe that was in pieces: rubble, recession, and regret. [I recognize this is a witty coverage of a disaster of, legitimately at the time, epic proportions, and which would lay the groundwork for an even worse second war, but we are not here to do a history lesson so much as to get a sense of the larger reach of the problem we sit with here today: Greece]. It is often in the resultant wreckage, in the aftermath of conflict, that we have some clarity of thought. And what was that thought?
“This is the European Questions: the mutual hate of the Europeans that poisons the atmosphere…will only be solved by means of the union of Europe’s nations.”
Richard Nikolaus von Coudenhove-Kalergi
Regardless, neither one war nor two were enough to sway true union. Ideas so vast and grand as to change the geographic markings of country, to shift the course of history do that time. They are like deeply rooted plants, must be watered with blood, sweat, and tears, the soil must be churned and manured, again and again, until one day, those shoots break ground.
What were these specific roots? The European Atomic Energy Community, the European Coal and Steel Community, the European Economic Community. The European Political Cooperation. The Western European Union.
And the breaking of ground? Well, that was the Maastricht Treaty.
The Maastricht Treaty sat upon three pillars:
- European Communities (Economic, social, and environmental policies)
- Common Foreign and Security Policy
- Police and Judicial Co-operation in Criminal Matters (nee Justice and Home Affairs)
Let us go back to our garden for a moment. Imagine the breaking of ground of three separate shoots, one stronger than the rest, but so tightly interwoven that it would only be a matter of time before they either choked one another out, all died in the fray, or came together. It has never been too farfetched to see the methods of nature playing out in the actions of humanity. Therefore, in 2009, The Lisbon Treaty effected that last option: a true unification. Enter: the modern European Union as we know it.
And with it? The Euro.
Now, our wicked problem
The Lisbon Treaty was signed in 2007 and came into effect in December 2009. In the middle of that time, according to the IMF we had the Great Recession from December 2007 through to June 2009. The United States, at the heart of the crisis, definitely bore quite a bit of pains from it, but so did the rest of the world. Most particularly, the European states, and more specifically, the so-called “PIIIGS” (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain). Now, once again, in the ‘resultant wreckage, in the aftermath of conflict, that [is when] we have some clarity of thought.’
When everyone is doing well, everything is on the up-and-up, the European Union, in all its glory, makes quite a bit of sense. But the disproportionate sizes of the economies of member states lead to disproportionate power, and as things tumble downhill as they did during the Great Recession, and then continue to do so after, we see the impact of those disproportions. The European Union, most specifically, the currency union of the Euro, did and remains a straitjacket for the weaker member states. The imposition of austerity measures, the Sword of Damocles that hangs over their head by the Troika (the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund), can easily make one question the value of unification.
So, that is the Grecian Knot that must be untangled:
- The history between Greece and Germany, roots which reach further back than just a few short years
- The history of Europe, which has often included the stronger taking advantage of the weaker when opportunity presented
- Disproportionate size and disproportionate power (modern colonization)
- The moral high ground versus self-preservation
So now, we wait.
Does it even matter?
Let us step back from the explicit yes or no we will here today. One must remember, Greece voted in Syriza, a party that started from the standpoint of outright repudiation of Greece debt to the Troika. It is a country beset with an unemployment rate of 1 out of 4, and for those in their youngest working generation, unemployment of 1 out of 2. Reduced pensions, years of scrabbling by, and very little ability to pay more (which is often the approach to bailouts, kicking the can further down with fresh loans to cover old loans), let alone any ability to pay enough now – yes or no, does it matter? To a certain degree, they already voted no!
But, looking at the bigger picture, the fact that we have this situation for Greece, the fact that the European Union, it’s fundamental nature has potentially devolved a developed country (see, the statement above re: modern colonization). This vote feels explicitly about Greece, but the existence of this vote may be the first crack in the foundation of a unified Europe.
This may be the reminder that proves true: Europe is not nearly as united as it needs to be to survive all of its great, individual histories. Too many voices, too much history, too much blood, sweat, and tears – too much. Even if Greek stays today, who is next? What will be the trigger?
When will it be?
So now, we wait.