Visiting in Holland, a view of a crisis

The crowds of holiday shoppers are big and the attitude is that the crisis will be worked out. But do people really want Germany calling the economic shots?

Crosscut archive image.

Amsterdam's main department store, where shopping seemed to be brisk despite the Euro crisis.

The crowds of holiday shoppers are big and the attitude is that the crisis will be worked out. But do people really want Germany calling the economic shots?

(Editor's note: Matt Fikse was a guest on KUOW-FM 94.9 Dec. 5  to talk with Steve Scher about his observations from the Netherlands. The podcast can be heard by going here and clicking on one of the "Listen to Weekday" options.)

Here in the Netherlands, where I'm visiting family, questions about the euro's potential demise earn hardly a shrug from people on the street. At first.

Surveying the crowds in department stores and on the Kalverstraat, Amsterdam's main shopping street for centuries, before the Sinterklaas holiday today (Dec. 5), you'd be hard pressed to sense there's an economic crisis afoot. Yet heads of state, central bankers, and parliaments are in a multilateral frenzy to do something to prevent major bank failures, national defaults, or financial panic as a result of the now two-year old European debt and currency crises.

By most assessments, this week is the beginning of the crescendo to the endgame, with European leaders meeting in Brussels on Friday to attempt to right the listing currency and save the Eurozone (the 17-nation subset of the 27 European Union countries that participate in the shared currency and European Central Bank.)

Though small, the Netherlands is one of the stronger economic players. The country's level of mortgage debt is high but its national debt is comparatively low and its unemployment level is the lowest in all of Europe. The Dutch economy has become tightly integrated with Germany's and yet the Dutch are fiercely culturally and politically independent of their neighboring economic superpower.

When asking ordinary Dutch people what they expected will happen this week, all of them gave an initial response on the edge of exasperation. "The Euro crisis! (eyes roll) Well, someone will come up with a plan at the last minute. They always do."

But the plans envisioned by the technocrats and diplomats of the stronger nations — the details being drafted before Friday in frantic shuttle diplomacy between leaders and bankers bouncing from Paris to Marseille to Milan to Brussels, are expected to do something the people of Europe have always been loathe to do — transfer more and more sovereignty to Brussels and, in effect, give the few strong nations (Leader: Germany) control of the national budgets of the many smaller ones.

Of course, in the breathless rush to create the euro in the first place, most politicians swore this would never happen. Even the French still insist this. And yet now it is put forward as the best, perhaps only, solution to a crisis years in the making. With no time to wait or consult the voters, it's a giant poker game with higher stakes than one can imagine — and historic resonances that make people visibly squirm with discomfort.

Will technocrats from Germany really be able to enforce rules that require the nation of France to tell its people that they must work years longer before retiring? Will Italy's people actually endorse government-by-banker "emergency measures" that take effect before parliament votes on them? Will currency refusenik Great Britain truly stay hands-off when it fears that France and Germany are conspiring to diminish its influence?

As for the smaller, weaker countries, does anyone expect that there won't be at least one of them that defaults and then attempts to bolt the common currency, no matter the chaos that may ensue?

For that matter, even here in an economically strong place like Holland, would the Dutch really approve a scheme that required them to submit their national budget for approval to Brussels even simply to be rubber stamped — by Germany?

It's this second layer of questions that has caused every person that I've asked to stop in their tracks. I have yet to find anyone one who will voice their answer out loud.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Matt A. Fikse

Matt A. Fikse

Matt Fikse-Verkerk (Twitter: @mattfikse) covered urban affairs, politics, tech, and business at Crosscut from 2009 to 2014. He lives in Seattle and works for a biotechnology firm in Redmond, WA.