UCL European Institute


The Greco-German Affair in the Euro Crisis: Mutual Recognition Lost (Book Review by Helen Roche)

29 October 2018

A book review by Helen Roche, who has just left UCL to take up an Assistant Professorship at the University of Durham.


For many, the defining image of the toxic Greco-German antagonism which bloomed during the 2015 Euro crisis remains the inflammatory Focus magazine cover which depicted an obscenely gesturing Venus de Milo, accompanied by the legend ‘Swindlers in the Euro Family’. This timely, concise, richly illustrated and highly readable survey by Claudia Sternberg, Kira Gartzou-Katsouyanni, and Kalypso Nicolaïdis provides a more nuanced and less conflagratory approach to the recent vicissitudes of the Greco-German relationship. 

Using the philosophical concept of ‘mutual recognition’ as a heuristic key, the authors chart the fluctuating fortunes of stereotypical representations of Greeks and Germans in the media of their respective countries, arguing that, despite a turn away from the principles of European ‘demoicracy’, and a renewed tendency to ‘return to old demons and denials’, each nation is subtly exploring its own foibles through its conscientious attention to the nature and selfhood of the other. The widening divisions between North and South, East and West, rich and poor, and paymasters versus spendthrifts are particularly marked in the case of the disputes between Greece and Germany, yet they can arguably be found in many other EU countries as well. By analysing the patterns of attack and counter-attack, learning from and subverting stereotypes in a climate of collective introspection, the authors suggest that conflict within the European Union need not necessarily have predominantly negative results. Rather, it may actually contribute to the creation of a shared discursive space for the thrashing out of common problems and solutions, enabling bonds of greater trust and empathy to be sustained in the long term. Thus, the most seemingly catastrophic rifts in the fabric of the Union may actually lead to a more politically healthy outcome over the longue durée. 

The text, something over 100 pages in length, is divided into four chapters. The first of these sets the scene, explicating the social, economic and political context of the Euro crisis, and unpacking the concept of ‘mutual recognition’ in detail – the term is most commonly used of individual persons’ quest for reciprocal acknowledgement of each other’s selfhood and essential dignity, but can also be metaphorically extended to refer to larger political and social entities. The second chapter (which is by far the longest) identifies the various stereotypes which were bandied about with such vigorous abandon in media debates during the crisis – the idea of the Greeks as the ‘lobster pasta nation’, inviting German envy for their mixture of chutzpah and savoir vivre, or Germany’s ‘hypnotising fascination’ with the idea that the state might once more suffer financial self-immolation and a savage swing towards political extremism; as once in Weimar, so now in Greece? Philhellenist discourses, castigation of the modern Greeks for not living up to the glories of their ancient forbears, and narratives of power, resistance and morality also have a crucial role to play on both sides.[1] The second analytical chapter deals with growing fears of the EU’s potential for bringing about penury as well as prosperity, anxieties about the ‘Germanisation’ of Europe, and questions of modernity, technocracy and capitalist critique. The final chapter, in which the authorial veil of impartiality is removed, considers the positive lessons which those who desire the European Union’s future political prosperity may take from these Greco-German discourses, concluding with a valedictory section entitled ‘Love, actually’.

The many accolades heaped upon this slim volume by protagonists on both sides of the national debate, as well as by external observers, are clearly well-merited. Even where individual readers may disagree with points of authorial interpretation, or desire a broader exploration of the wider historical context, the book’s overall contribution is a sound and inherently thought-provoking one. The media analysis itself is original and deft, and the conclusions drawn should certainly be taken seriously by politicians as well as by pundits. Best of all, the book is so short and digestible that it can easily be devoured in a single sitting. In sum, this is definitely a must-read for anyone with an interest in Europe’s future, whether positive or negative.

[1] For more on the long-term historical context, see Helen Roche, 'The Peculiarities of German Philhellenism', The Historical Journal (published online in December 2017).