Europe has always been a rather tenuous concept. A rump continent, Europe represented the barbarous hinterlands for the Greeks and Romans. The first use of the term "European" occurred in a chronicle describing the forces of Charles the Hammer that turned back the northward advance of Islam at the battle of Tours in 732. Long celebrated in Europe as a victory of civilization over barbarism, the Battle of Tours was, as historian David Levering Lewis reminds us in God's Crucible, actually the opposite: "the victory of Charles the Hammer must be seen as greatly contributing to the creation of an economically retarded, balkanized, fratricidal Europe that, in defining itself in opposition to Islam made virtues out of religious persecution, cultural particularism, and hereditary aristocracy."
When Greece exchanged its drachma for the euro in 2000, most voters were all for joining the Eurozone. The hope was that it would ensure stability, and that this would promote rising wages and living standards. Few saw that the stumbling point was tax policy. Greece was excluded from the eurozone the previous year as a result of failing to meet the 1992 Maastricht criteria for EU membership, limiting budget deficits to 3 percent of GDP, and government debt to 60 percent.
Soon after the Socialist Party won Greece’s national elections in autumn 2009, it became apparent that the government’s finances were in a shambles. In May 2010, French President Nicolas Sarkozy took the lead in rounding up €120bn ($180 billion) from European governments to subsidize Greece’s unprogressive tax system that had led its government into debt – which Wall Street banks had helped conceal with Enron-style accounting.
Cafés are full in Athens, and droves of tourists still visit the Parthenon and go island-hopping in the fabled Aegean. But beneath the summery surface, there is confusion, anger, and despair as this country plunges into its worst economic crisis in decades. The global media has presented Greece, tiny Greece, as the epicenter of the second stage of the global financial crisis, much as it portrayed Wall Street as ground zero of the first stage. Yet there is an interesting difference in the narratives surrounding these two episodes.