Which Europe?

Church in Südtirol Escaping the pseudo-olympian non-sense this summer was a privilege. Living in East London we were keen to have as much of clear space as possible between ourselves and the polluted commercial extravaganza overtaking the landscape. So we aimed for the mountains, and that country blessed with so many precious gifts, Italy.

If one was to believe the reactionary “popular” press over here, the Europhone Union is in trouble, and far worse than some others. It’s a long way from our corner of the woods to the (now) Italian Tirol, over 800 klicks across Northern France, Belgium, Central and Southern Germany, Austria and, finally, Northern Italy. This gave us a snapshot of realities over those regions. The first observation is that the state of roads has not improved in recent years, always poor in Belgium – awful traffic and driving behaviour – as the high quality of French and German motorways has suffered under so-called austerity measures, as administrations cut corners (and eventually increase costs!) Austria remains impeccable, and petrol there is somewhat cheaper than elsewhere, for reasons we have not identified. British banks (yes, the ones we pumped up and are still pumping up with hard-earned cash, we resident taxpayers) charge an outrageous £7 to 8 fee/commission for “foreign exchange” (how about that for another non-sense?) so we garnished the Euro account to avoid such. The second one is that the German automobile industry rules ok. Belgian, French, Italian, and of course, German, high income professionals (we guessed) drive Audi’s, Mercedes’ and BMW’s – and the occasional Porsche’s – as if there was no crisis. Those cars are high end models, and not few of them expensive fuel-guzzling SUV’s. I have not mentioned British number plates, but more of the same for those of HM’s subjects who dare point their noses out there in the crisis-ravaged Union!

The third, concomitant, observation, is that austerity and neo-liberal cuts in public services, and its unavoidable consequences for economic growth, have not affected people – the citizens of the Union – equally, an obvious truth already noted over here. The upper middle class – employed, fee-earning, and well-endowed in assets and insurance policies (and German cars), is doing just fine. Of course, there are huge regional, and national, disparities, as in Britain. Southern Germany, Austria and that part of Northern Italy we visited, are doing well. Like the weather, hardship is not fairly apportioned. We enjoyed a cool and occasionally wet climate in Südtirol, while other parts of the country were sweltering in African drought. So for employment and the economy. The Alto-Adige region is one of the most prosperous in Italy, indeed, in Europe. The well-managed mix of sustainable agriculture, light industries and tourism, has done miracles there. Young people and families stay in their villages, because there is work, good public services, and attractive, affordable housing, which in turn makes a stay attractive, affordable and healthy for visitors like us, who then spend their “devaluated” Euros with glee. Südtirol, that most beautiful haven of nature, which has a privileged status of autonomy in the Italian constitution, is a model of careful husbandry of natural resources, with still a balance between traditional activities and tourism. This is a far cry from the destruction of mountains, habitat and traditional farming, wrecked over the French Alps by the greed of winter sports entrepreneurs. We wished this model – the sustainable mix – was more wide-spread over Europe (more about this on my post about the Messner Mountain Museum in Brüneck).

On the way back, in reverse, through Austria, Southern Germany, Eastern France and finally the Northern Atlantic seaboard, those observations were confirmed. We totalled another 1,000 klicks, through industrial, farming and urban landscapes, stopping twice in France and visiting my childhood town (unchanged after all those years). Europe is still, by world standards, prosperous, and its citizens well aware of the onslaught on their rights and liberties. But there is hope. The tide is turning against the conservative anti-social policies that have taken us to this situation: sacrificing our young on the altar of so-called economic realities, feeding Moloch, in fact, the inept dogma of privatisation and public services roll-back that have proven disastrous everywhere in the world for the past 40 years, except for the exceptionally wealthy!

In the meantime, the German industrial juggernaut rolls on, the Chinese – some Chinese – are getting richer, and keep lending – thank you – to the citizens and banks, and government, of the US of A, and of course, “we” had the Olympic Games for 2012 (and as local tax payers, are waiting for the bill thereof). All is well.