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Northern Europeans' anger at their southern cousins may be justifiable. An already stressed yet lethargic eurozone had to absorb the full shock of Greece's public debt in the full knowledge that any measure, no matter how costly, might be too little too late. It was feared that unless a serious deal was cobbled together, the Greek contagion might spread to bigger economies such as Ireland, Portugal, Spain and possibly Italy. A sovereign default, in the heart of the EU and its ambitious single currency project, could ultimately undo both. For sound economies in central and northern Europe — primarily Germany — it looked as if the party might be spoiled by those pesky southerners, whose public-spending spree will now be reprieved by the Germans.

Meanwhile, across Europe, markets plummeted, pulverising the wealth that had patiently been accumulated after the September 2008 financial crisis. Pundits sought to dispel the confusing and frightening circumstances by blaming speculators for an assault on the currency. They denounced "greedy" bankers who resisted measures that would slash their hard-earned privileges. Greece took the lead. Its public finances are a testimony to bipartisan madness and public-spending folly — a treasure trove of tales about the welfare state gone mad. Yet, faced with the dilemma of bankruptcy or austerity, Greeks said no to both and took to the street — in a deadly carnival of strikes and violence that left three people dead and little doubt about the real culprits of what the BBC dubbed "a Greek tragedy" and Angela Merkel "a existential crisis for the euro".

There are systemic explanations for the gravity of this crisis: the euro project became more vulnerable by the limited powers of the European Central Bank (ECB) and the fact that fiscal policies reside mainly in the hands of member states. This meant that with a currency made up of percentages of the national currencies, Greek spending sprees and German rigour would eventually cause a crash.

There are also institutional responses to this crisis which will probably further erode EU members' sovereignty. After all, the financial shield set up to save sovereign debts and the banks that owned it comes with a heavy price. The ECB has bought much of the debt to inject liquidity and restore confidence. But the aid package offered to Greece and the new rescue fund come with a dramatic price: austerity, draconian cuts in spending and an overall restructuring of public spending.

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For Justice
August 28th, 2010
6:08 PM
Mr Ottolenghi, It was just yesterday when triumphalism was on the march. Huntington was telling us about clash of civilizations and Fukayama reminding us about the end of history and the final triumph of western capitalism for all times to come. Instead we are witnessing the end of the history of western domination and very sadly even the end of welfare state. The triumphant capitalism instead has bankrupted the west, inflicting starvation on millions of poor souls in the third world. As for clash of civilizations, hundred and fifty thousand odd American and Nato forces with the latest multi-billion dollar military technology are unable to defeat 12th century illiterate Afghans called Taliban with nothing more than primitive home made IED's costing no more than a McDonald's cheese burger. Under such circumstances, who on earth is going to take western pundits like you seriously, not forgetting the fact the same pundits had gathered irrefutable evidence of the existence of WMDs in Iraq.

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