Former IMF chief D. Strauss-Kahn's inspirational address to Germans

“Don’t tell me you expect to save Europe simply by imposing rules of sound management?” asks Strauss-Kahn as former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis takes note

By Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former chief of the International Monetary Fund 

To my German friends,

Hollande stood his ground. Merkel faced up to those who didn’t want an agreement at any price. It’s to their credit. There is a good chance a plan will be put in place, reducing if not removing the risks of a Grexit. It’s not enough, but it’s welcome. The conditions of the agreement, however, are positively alarming for those who still believe in the future of Europe. What happened last weekend was for me profoundly damaging, if not a deadly blow. There are of course those who do not believe in that future, who will be rejoicing. And they are many, from two different camps.

First there are those who are too short-sighted. Those whose nationalism prevents them from seeing beyond their own borders and who vainly ponder upon Europe’s very existence. But who knows what Europe really is? Who knows whence this continent sprang? Was Europe born in the Homeric poems of the IX Century before our time? Was it born in the mud and the mire of the trenches where the bloods of all the world did mingle, blending their colours, brewing their dreams and cross-breeding their ambitions? Was it born even closer to home, and more prosaically, in the laboriously detailed treaties of the European Union? There was no doubt in the mind of Erasmus, who, in 1516, wrote in the Complaint of peace: “An Englishman is the enemy of a Frenchman purely because he is French, and the Briton hates the Scotsman because he is a Scot; the Germans are daggers drawn with the French, the Spanish with both. O the perversity of mankind! Such superficial differences as the name of a country are enough to divide them! Why do they not rather reconcile themselves with all the values they share?” Then there are those who are too long-sighted. These are capable of seeing beyond their own frontiers, but have chosen not to support the community that is nevertheless closest to them. They turn to others, further West, to which they are willing to succumb. This is what was on Cioran’s mind and the echo of his impotent rage reminds us once more: “How can we count on the awakening of Europe,” he laments, “or on its anger? Its fate and even its revolts are settled elsewhere.”

And then there are those, like myself, who are in neither camp, and it to those that I now speak; to my German friends who believe in the Europe that together we once wanted; those who believe that a European culture exists. Those who know that the countries that define its contours, and of which the history books generally tell only of conflicts, have shaped a common culture that is like no other. A culture not richer than any other, nor more glorious, nor more noble, but no less so either. Forged in this peculiar alloy, a blend of individualism and egalitarian universalism, it embodies and upholds – more than any other – that which the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas calls “citizen solidarity”, when he writes, for example, that “the fact that the death penalty is still in force in other countries is there to remind us what makes our normative consciousness so unique”. We are the custodians of that culture. There is a long history, an apprenticeship of over tens, hundreds of years, with its successive episodes, at times of pain, of greatness for sure, and conflict also, between us European brothers. We have had to overcome our rivalries, even the most violent, without ever forgetting them. I do not know whether we have emerged stronger from these European trials that helped shape the history of the world; but what I am convinced of, however, is that, through them, we have come to believe in a society built on solidarity. Europe is Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Descartes, Beethoven, Marx, Freud, Picasso. It was they who taught us, like so many others, the shared foundations, balancing nature and culture, the religious and the secular, faith and science, the individual and the community. It is because we share this heritage, because it is so deeply rooted in our collective being, and goes on nourishing the achievements that we have been, are still and will continue to be capable of in the future, that we have been able to put an end to our internal turf wars. But the demon that makes us repeat our errors of the past is never far away. This is what happened during that fateful weekend. Without entering into detail about whether the measures imposed on Greece were welcome, legitimate, effective, appropriate, what I want to underline here is that the context in which this diktat was issued has created a crippling situation. That the amateurism of the Greek government and the relative inaction of their predecessors went beyond the pale, this I accept. That the coalition of creditors led by the Germans was exasperated by the situation thus created, this I understand. But these political leaders seemed far too savvy to want to seize the opportunity of an ideological victory over a far left government at the expense of fragmenting the Union. Because that is what it comes down to. In counting our billions instead of using them to build, in refusing to accept an albeit obvious loss by constantly postponing any commitment on reducing the debt, in preferring to humiliate a people because they are unable to reform, and putting resentments – however justified – before projects for the future, we are turning our backs on what Europe should be, we are turning our backs on Habermas’ citizen solidarity. We are expending all our energies on infighting and running the risk of triggering a break-up. This is where we are. A Eurozone, in which you, my German friends, would lay down your law with a few Baltic and Nordic states in tow, is unacceptable for all the rest.

The euro was conceived as an imperfect monetary union forged on an ambiguous agreement between France and Germany. For Germany, it was about organising a fixed exchange rate system around the Deutschmark and, through this, imposing a certain ordo-liberal vision of economic policy. For France, it was a matter of rather naively and romantically establishing an international reserve currency equal to the grand ambitions of its elites. We now need to get out of that initial ambiguity, which has become destructive, and get out of its self-centred plans, even if we all know that one only gets out of ambiguity at one’s own cost. This will require a common effort in France as well as in Germany. Both countries face major obstacles along this road. Germany is trapped in a misleading and inconsistent story about how the monetary union works, and which is widely shared by its political classes and people. Conversely, in France, laziness and the latent sovereignism of the economic and intellectual elites is such that there is no story not any intelligent, renovated vision of the architecture of monetary union that could find popular support. We need to invent this common vision, and fast. Don’t tell me you expect to save Europe simply by imposing rules of sound management.

No one is more committed than I am to respecting the equilibrium; it is what has always drawn us closer together. But you have to build this respect through democracy and dialogue, through reason, and not by force. Don’t tell me that, if this is the way it is and some don’t want to know, then you will just continue on your journey without them. Falling back on the North will never suffice to save you. Like all Europeans, you need the whole of Europe to survive, divided we are too small. With globalisation we are witnessing the emergence of vast geographical and economic areas which are going to complementing one another and competing with one another for decades, maybe centuries. The zones of influence and alliances that are forming are likely to be long lasting.

Everyone can see the North American Plate taking shape. It will cluster around the United States its Canadian and Mexican satellites, and perhaps others further afield. All the signs suggest that South America will be able to achieve some sort of autonomy. In Asia, two or three zones could materialize, depending on whether, in addition to China and India, Japan will be able to attract sufficient solidarity around itself, precisely because it too is too small alone. Africa is awakening, at last, but it needs us. As for the Muslim world, troubled today by the turmoil emanating from a political use of Islam by some, it will probably struggle to find unity within. Europe could be one of these players, but this is not yet certain. To do so, its ambition must be to come together within the current Union and even beyond. To survive among the giants, Europe will have to bring together all the territories contained between the ice caps of the North, the snows of the Urals and the sands of the South. It means rediscovering its roots and seeing the Mediterranean, in the space of the next few decades, as our internal sea.

Historical logic, economic consistency, demographic security, to which I would add – however things may seem – our cultural proximity, born of the dissemination of religions of the Book, show us the way. Amidst all our internal conflicts, we are looking only the North and we are forgetting the South. Yet it is the cradle of our culture. It’s what will bring Old Europe new blood in the form of the young generations. And it is what will make Europe the gateway between East and West. Alexander, Napoleon, our wild colonial ambitions, thought they could build this unity by force of arms. The cruel and despicable method failed, but the ambition had been founded. It still is. The challenge is sizeable. An alliance between a few European countries, even led by the most powerful among them, will be subjugated by our friend and ally the United States in the maybe not so distant future. There are some who have already chosen that path. Those I said earlier were too long-sighted. But this does not apply to all. And it’s to these others that I am speaking now.

The Europe I hope for must obviously have its rules and discipline for our communal life, but it must also have a political plan that transcends and justifies such constraints. Today this is something everyone seems to have forgotten. Our European model can be a model for all those who refuse to be put into the same mould from across the Atlantic. But to be a model, Europe must have vision, rise above the pettiness, play its role in globalisation and, in a word, continue to shape History.

Former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis refered to this address in his blog: