The Alabama syndrome

The European Union is not the United States; Germany is not Massachusetts; and Greece is not Alabama, more’s the pity.

José Ignacio Torreblanca
28 May 2012

Have you ever heard an American suggest that the poor southern states ought to leave the Union because they are too heavy a burden? 

Alabama, for example, is home to 4.8 million inhabitants, about 1.5 percent of the US population (311 million). Its annual per capita income is around $34,000, not far above Mississippi at the bottom of the list. In the North is Massachusetts, second-richest state at $54,000 per capita, just behind Connecticut at the top. 

Now think of Greece: 11 million inhabitants, 2.5 percent of the EU population (501 million), or 3.3 percent of the euro-zone population (329 million). Greece and Germany are both poorer than the US states mentioned above, Greece having a per capita income of some $28,000 and Germany some $44,000, both less than Alabama and Massachusetts, respectively. So, in terms both of population size and income difference, the US and the euro zone have a fair amount in common: 311 versus 329 million inhabitants, respectively, and a wealth differential between Greeks and Germans similar to that between Alabama and Massachusetts. 

And guess what? Just as Greece is being bailed out today, so Alabama was bailed out in the past. But for democratic, not economic reasons. Massachusetts was always economically successful, with a prestige university (Harvard), while Alabama was always poor and racially divided. While the first has been the cradle of the enlightened American aristocracy, the second was a bastion of institutionalized racism. Yet both states now represent American values, and the common heritage of a great nation. 

It was in Montgomery, Alabama, where in 1955 Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white, leading to her arrest and a boycott of public transport, from which there emerged a leader, Martin Luther King, who became the conscience of a nation. And it was to be precisely a US president, a Harvard graduate closely linked to Massachusetts (John F. Kennedy) who in 1963 decided to intervene in the state of Alabama by placing the National Guard under federal control, to escort black students to the campus of the University of Alabama, where a rebel, racist governor by the name of George Wallace was preventing them from entering. Decades later, this act of the white Catholic president (JFK) in defense of civil rights, enabled the first black president (Obama) to reach the White House. This is how a nation is built. 

Now turn to the pathetic spectacle in Europe where, if things continue on their present course, Greece will be expelled from the euro, generating not only an economic shock of the first order, but a political failure whose damage will be irreparable. 

In the long term the EU and the Greeks will recover economically. What is doubtful is whether the EU project, one of “unity in diversity,” will politically recover from this blow. Before the crisis came along, we knew that the EU was not a nation in the normal sense, nor aspired to be one; we knew we were unwilling (or unable) to build a super-state. But at least we hoped that difficulties would bring us together, not drive us apart, deepening and complementing our union, strengthening our common links, and helping us understand that strength lies in unity, and that what joins us is greater than what separates us. 

But no, the crisis has started up centrifugal tendencies that are pulling us apart. The EU project has many intangibles, whose value we cannot calculate, futures charged with possibilities that we cannot yet imagine, and which we must not sacrifice now for mere accounting calculations. The European Union is not the United States; Germany is not Massachusetts; and Greece is not Alabama. It’s our loss, more’s the pity.


This article was first published  in El Pais (English edition) on May 25, 2012 

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