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Clash of cultures

Kersten Knipp / alsAugust 24, 2012

Europe is suffering a financial crisis, but it's also a cultural one. And it reflects just how differently people in the various European countries think and live. But there's hope for tackling the challenges.

People in shadow walking down the street with shopping bags
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

As the European financial crisis continues, with countries vying for aid and debating over how to regulate debt, other elements of the complex problem seem to be revealing themselves: prejudices and national stereotypes long thought to have been overcome appear to be rearing their heads. Greeks and Italians are calling Germans arrogant and overbearing, while the latter express their reservations about Southern European lifestyles. Do all Germans, Greeks and Italians think that way? No, but some of them certainly do - as evidenced in the screaming headlines, dramatic photographs and crass caricatures in the yellow press. Looking at them, one would think a new era of nationalism is rolling in.

The debt crisis as a crisis in confidence

The euro has the potential for inciting cultural hatred, some critics prophesy. That may be intended to be polemic, but it does prompt some fundamental questions about how European nations deal with one another. Journalist Gustav Seibt, who's written several books about European cultural history, believes Europe "isn't facing a money or debt problem, but one of trust." There's enough money in Europe, people just don't know where they can invest it with confidence," he said.

Historian Gustav Seibt
Gustav Seibt: 'The debt crisis as a crisis in confidence'Image: picture-alliance/ZB

Lenders worried they would not get their capital back at agreed conditions. One first needs to reestablish trust, Seibt said. "When that problem has been rectified - that is, when it's clear that the rules are in force, that they are realistic and can be adhered to - then the debt crisis can be solved."

Cultural diversity as a challenge

Bonn-based economist and best-selling author Meinhard Miegel agrees. Like Seibt, he believes it will take a long time before the trust issue can be resolved. After all, he said, it is mainly an expression of how different Europeans are in their mentalities. "We still have not completely recognized that Europe is an incredibly heterogeneous continent, that we have had different courses of history, different cultural ones - and that those, too, have come to shape our economies," Miegel said.

That's why people must delve a little deeper to solve the problem, Miegel said - with different cultures engaging in dialogue and promoting greater understanding. If those things don't occur, then the attempts at economic harmonization will not work. "In my opinion, our attempts to solve these problems through economic alignment will not be successful as long as we have come from various cultures," said Miegel. "I'm glad we have these different cultures."

Meinhard Miegel
Meinhard Miegel: 'Europeans are living above their means'Image: dpa

Common symbols

But how can deeper cultural understanding be achieved? Europe has long been on the right path, said Seibt. "The process has to occur through symbols, through shared experiences - such as trips," he said. "Work exchanges among scholars would also help - among qualified workers who move back and forth between countries, and see that they can settle down elsewhere without forgetting where they come from."

Saying goodbye to living standards

But there is one thing that all Europeans share: living above their means. Countries take on debt, among other things, because they have to finance a standard of living that overextends its means. Since World War II, an attitude of entitlement has spread across Europe which can no longer be financially sustained in this form. Economist Miegel estimates that if Germans, for instance, would want to get on top of their debt, they would have to scale down their current standard of living by 40 percent. They would then be living according to 1960s' standards. This similarly applies in other European countries, he said.

But this kind of cutting back would mean a sharp learning curve and a lot of self-discipline. And it would demand the belief in success. "The challenge, and especially the cultural, political challenge, consists of people not feeling they will fail in making changes, but will master the situation when they can no longer have what they are accustomed to," said Miegel.

A protester looks at policemen standing behind teargas during riots in Athens
Necessity fosters social unrest: protests in AthensImage: Reuters

A new self-image

In this way, too, the financial crisis is a cultural one because it challenges Europeans to re-define themselves. Miegel is certain that the debt crisis will force Europeans to not take a certain standard of living for granted anymore. Future society will live under more modest means. For Europeans, that means a change in mentality, without losing faith in the process. They must recognize that life can go on even under new circumstances, that things will still work out, Miegel said. "Our social systems will function, we will work, everything that we have built up in the past will continue to run - just with very different parameters," he stressed.

Europeans have enjoyed half a century of ever-increasing prosperity, which has now reached its limit. Now, cultural strategies are needed for imbuing the necessary changes and new parameters with meaning.