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The Dream Of Europe And The Bailout Of Greece

Peace symbol (AP)

"We need Greece," Maurice Minot, a Frankfurt taxi driver, told me, swerving in excitement. "We need Spain, we need Italy. It's the dream for Europeans, for more than a hundred years."

For Minot, as for many Germans on both sides of the debate, the question of bailouts goes beyond narrow self interest. It gets at what it means to be German, and what it means to be European.

Klaus Frankenberger, an editor at the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, points to the painful labor reforms Germany went through a few years ago.

"Germany's economic revival came with a price," Frankenberger says. "What has Greece done? Deliberately reduced its competitiveness, deliberately inflated the public sector."

Frankenberger happens to keep at his desk the treaty that set up the European Union. It's all marked up and dog-eared, as if he reads it in the bathtub.

"Article 125," he says, stabbing the page with his finger, "deliberately rules out the bailout of any member state! That's what it says. And we've decided to ignore this."

Sixty-six percent of Germans agree with Frankenberger, according to a recent poll. No bailout.

But what about that other 34 percent? It includes some businesspeople and bankers who would benefit from a bailout. But there's also a sizeable number of people, like my cab driver in Frankfurt, who support a bailout for more idealistic reasons.

They don't want to tell Greece to go it alone. Not because they'll recoup a financial investment, but because they'll recoup an emotional investment.

Germans care about Greece because they care about Europe.

"We had a wall behind us," says Renate Wilhelm, who used to live in East Berlin. "And now we are friends! And also with France: You don't have to use a passport, and we have the same money. It is like we are sisters and brothers. It's wonderful."

It's not just older Germans who feel this way about Europe. In Berlin I ran into Simon Banish, 20 years old and shrouded in a hoodie.

"I feel more like a European than a German," he told me. "The idea to create a United States of Europe sounds interesting-- and to me, it makes sense."

This might sound a little Kumbaya. But Europe is a messy continent, with a sea of countries that suffered two enormous, brutal wars in the first half of the 20th century.

Fifty years ago, a little Kumbaya seemed like a really good idea. In fact, that's how this whole project got started in the first place. Helmut Schlesinger, former president of the German Bundesbank, pointed this out to me.

"One cannot forget that the whole strength of having a European Union is based on the fact that we never want to have war between our countries, which we have had so much, and so terrible," he says.

In the years immediately following the war, the idea of a common currency was seen, by some, as a way to keep Europe peaceful, Schlesinger says. With everyone using the same currency, Germany's strength would be Europe's strength.

That's why the bailout question is so agonizing. Because it's not simply about self-interest. It's about who Germany wants to be.

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, Host:

This MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Many European nations use the euro as currency. All are affected by a debt crisis, but the biggest single player is Europe's biggest economy, Germany. If anyone has the money to help bail out Greece, which is in a lot of trouble, it is the Germans. But the Germans have been reluctant to pay. Amid that reluctance, German lawmakers vote tomorrow on whether to approve more bailout money.

Here's Zoe Chace of NPR's Planet Money Team.

ZOE CHACE: The question of whether Germany should bail out Greece could be simple. Is it Germany's self-interest to do so? German business owners would probably say yes.

THOMAS HUCH: We need very strong countries beside of us.

CHACE: Thomas Huch runs a company that makes storage tanks, based right outside Berlin. He says we need the rest of Europe to be strong 'cause they're our customers.

HUCH: You see, around Germany, we find Poland, we find Italy, Greece, Spain. Germany need the European community to sell their products.

CHACE: Bankers in Germany also say, do it. We've loaned a lot of money to Greece and we want it back. And if the debate in Germany was purely about self-interest, if it were just that kind of argument, the German parliament could use a spreadsheet and figure out whether it's worth the money it would take to keep Greece from defaulting on its debts.

But, oddly enough, this is not where the conversation ends. Turns out, for many Germans, it's beyond self-interest. It's about whether Greece deserves the money. Klaus Frankenberger is an editor with one of Germany's biggest papers, and he says, they don't.

KLAUS FRANKENBERGER: Germany's economic revival came with a price. And we look around and say, what has Italy done? Answer, nothing. What has Spain done? Enjoyed the party. What has Greece done? Deliberately reduced its competitiveness, deliberately inflated the public sector. What has Portugal done? Ruin. And Ireland, and the rest.

CHACE: Not only is it unfair, it's not allowed - according to the treaty that set up the European Union, which Frankenberger happens to keep at his desk.

FRANKENBERGER: Article 125 deliberately rules out the bailout of any member states. That's what it says.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLIPPING PAGES)

CHACE: Sixty-six percent of Germans, according to a recent poll, agree with Frankenberger: No bailout. But there's a sizeable number of regular Germans - not business people or bankers - who do want the bailout for Greece to pass. They don't want to tell Greece to go it alone. Not because they'll recoup a financial investment, because they'll recoup an emotional investment.

MAURICE MINOT: We need Greece. We need Greece, we need Spain, we need Italy. It's the dream for Europe peoples; for Germans, for Spain, for French, since more than hundred years. It's a dream.

CHACE: Maurice Minot is a taxi driver in Frankfurt. And I heard this over and over: Germans care about Greece because they care about Europe.

Renate Vilhelm used to live behind the Wall in East Berlin.

RENATE VILHELM: We had a wall behind us against Poland. And now we are friends, and also with France. It is like we are sisters and brothers. It's wonderful.

CHACE: It's not just older Germans who feel this way about Europe. I ran into a 20-year-old in Berlin, draped in an oversized hoodie: Simon Banish.

SIMON BANISH: The idea to create a kind of United States of Europe, it sounds interesting. And for me, it makes sense.

CHACE: Okay, this might sound a little Kumbaya, heal the world. But think about it. Think about Europe, a messy continent with a sea of countries that suffered two enormous brutal wars back to back. Fifty years ago, a little Kumbaya seemed like a really good idea. In fact, that's how this whole project got started in the first place.

HELMUT SCHLESINGER: One cannot forget that the whole strength of having a European Union is based on the fact that we never want to have war between our countries - which we have had so much and so terrible.

CHACE: Helmut Schlesinger is former president of the German Central Bank. He says that from the beginning, in the years immediately following the war, the common currency was seen by some as a way to keep Europe peaceful.

SCHLESINGER: There was a particular slogan from a French economist: there would not be any Europe without the money. Or in other words, the money would make Europe together.

CHACE: More specifically the money would bring Germany and the rest of Europe together. No matter how strong the German economy got, and it was the strongest in Europe in short order, it would never again dominate. With everyone on the same coin, Germany's strength would be Europe's strength.

That's why the bailout question is so agonizing, because it's not simply about self-interest. It's about what Germany wants to be.

Zoe Chace, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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