When the euro was launched in 2002, it was celebrated as a triumph of monetary unity. The 16 nations in the so-called euro zone could certainly use another dose of that founding spirit today. As questions mount about the very future of the currency due to the ongoing Greek debt crisis, there seems to be more anger in parts of Europe over Greece's financial recklessness than a willingness to save Planet Euro from imploding by bailing Athens out. That's certainly the case in Germany and France the two largest euro zone economies whose peeved taxpayers will have to contribute the most if Greece has to be rescued from its profligacy.
"That entire country has no sense of responsibility, and now we're supposed to fix it," says Karen Schumann, 27, a Berlin media consultant. The complaint has a familiar ring to it. Greece has a staggering budget deficit of 12.7% of GDP and a $410 billion public debt, which free-spending Greek officials long kept secret from the rest of the euro zone. Now that Greece is on the verge of defaulting, its monetary partners will have to hand over huge loans to help keep the country solvent all in order to prevent the euro from going into a free fall and becoming mere Monopoly money.
This strikes some people in France and Germany as being agonizingly ironic following last year's bank bailouts. "First we're forced to watch our taxes save irresponsible bankers and immoral financial markets from collapsing under their own greed, and now we'll watch as the same politicians give the Greek government money to pay debts it piled up and lied about," complains Jean-Charles Robert, an information-technology employee from suburban Paris. "It never ends in fact, it just gets worse."
It may indeed get even worse. At a summit in Brussels on Feb. 11, European leaders pledged to help Greece deal with its crushing debt while Athens said it would slash its budget deficit to 3% by 2012 but the leaders produced few details on how exactly they would help.
The pledge failed to uplift the global financial markets, which continued dumping Greek government bonds and pushing the euro down even further. Hopeful to reverse that, euro zone finance ministers held a follow-up meeting on Monday that was intended to show their collective determination to back Athens up. But the ministers seemed instead to belittle the cost-cutting measures that Greece had proposed by putting forth their own plan for the country to cut spending, raise taxes and finance its debt within 30 days.
"Risks are materializing, and therefore there is a clear case for additional measures," said Olli Rehn, European Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs, perhaps airing a not illogical belief that Greece may try to avoid all the pain necessary to resolve the crisis it created. "We're trying to change the course of the Titanic," shot back Greek Finance Minister George Papaconstantinou. "Anyone else doing this would get applause. But they tell us, 'You're not doing enough. You won't be able to do it anyway.' "
Why the public displays of vexation when the message is supposed to be unity, cohesion and the will to prevail together? The reason: many Europeans don't have the same "there's no other choice" attitude with Greece that they had last year when confronted with the need to bail out their banks to prevent a financial collapse. "I'm against [a Greek bailout], especially since the Greek government cheated in the first place and hushed up the real numbers," says Berlin physician Peter Seidel, 52.
He's not alone. According to polls conducted in Germany last week, 53% of people want Greece tossed out of the euro zone if it can't resolve its deficit dilemma without outside funding a financial helping hand that a full 71% of Germans don't want their government to extend. Though no similar surveys have been conducted in France, leaders there say the public sentiment is much the same. "There are cultural differences for why the French wait for something to happen before reacting when the Germans respond as they see it developing, but opposition to a bailout if that happens is likely to be similar in both [countries]," says an adviser to French Economy Minister Christine Lagarde, who commented on background due to the sensitive nature of the situation. "Try explaining to public opinion you're using its money to help Greece after it kept building up debt and lied about it the whole way."
A hard sell indeed, but one that European governments may have to make if the financial markets keep attacking Greece and by extension, the euro. Helping an undeserving partner may be unpopular, but it's probably less so than the euro's possible demise.
With reporting by Stephanie Kirchner / Berlin