This review was originally posted on Jeffery Atik's Blog Attraverso.
The challenge with European democracy is it's constantly shifting notions of demos - who are the people who should exercise political determination. The current Euro crisis - and the ensuing imposition of austerity policies on Greece and Ireland, Spain and Italy - demonstrate a democratic irony. As Gavin Hewitt points out, there is nothing democratic about the adoption of austerity; austerity is not a lifestyle choice struggling countries freely assume. The Euro crisis precipitated changes of government (left to right and right to left) in the affected Member States and fierce popular backlash. Yet Angela Merkel, the physician prescribing austerity to faltering countries, responds to democratic signals given by her German electorate (who balk on bailing out their neighbors). Hewitt constructs a story where the democracy of Germany is pitted against the democracy of Southern and Peripheral Europe.
The Lost Continent focuses on national stories - and national leaders - and so at times has the feel of a tell-all. Silvio Berlusconi, to no-one's surprise, comes off the worst. His cynical disregard for anyone's interest saves his own marks, a new low in post-War Italian politics. Imagine how Angela Merkel felt upon receiving his 'political' advice to take on a lover. And even more respectable characters, such as Sarkozy, engage in behind-the-back smirkiness with regard to Merkel. But much of the focus falls on Merkel herself; we're never quite sure whether she is (as she claims) acting just like a Swabian housewife, guided by common-sense and prudence, or whether she is the instrument of peculiar German obsessions outside her control.
And so The Lost Continent is to a great extent a German story of Europe (the UK barely figures). Germany is able to impose austerity on its EU partners because it is German resources that largely fund the rescue. Germany's economic primacy permits it an outsized influence in contemporary European affairs - Hewitt and various of his informants note that Germany may be more powerful than ever. Germany has benefited from this new Europe; its products are consumed throughout. Its economic success permitted the reunification of Germany, an enormous political and social success (ironically, Merkel developed her political skills in the East). Hewitt faces the challenge of conveying the human cost of the European crisis and does so in a somewhat manipulative way: he introduces the reader to various suicides provoked by the crisis with humanizing profiles suited to Olympic contestants. Here the dismal personal outcomes become predictable. It is extremely difficult to portray the damage of a 30-percent unemployment rate (did Steinbeck succeed?), but a processions of suicides (horrific as they are) leaves the reader numb.