A Very European Episode

Submitted by Erico Matias Tavares of Sinclair & Co.

A Very European Episode

The ongoing financial saga in Greece and all the related disagreements reminds us of a curious episode going back to our Masters Degree in Sweden, many years ago.

The program had students from all over Europe and it was really exciting to meet, study and interact with them. However, for some it was not always fun.

One day our Dutch friend looked desperate. When asked why, he said he was in the “study group from hell”; everyone’s cooperation was needed to accomplish a very tough assignment but they could barely understand and work with each other.

Apparently in that group was one of the very few Swedish students who did not speak English (for the most part Swedes speak it fluently, even in those days). So he would communicate with her in broken Swedish, picking up on the commonalities with his native Dutch.

And that was a breeze compared to the rest of the group. Together with them were a Spaniard from Catalonia, who could also not speak any English, and an Italian. The Spaniard would communicate in Catalan with the Italian, who could kind of imagine what he was saying. He would then communicate in broken English with the Dutch, who would finally translate it for the Swede.

And that’s how the communication flow went back and forth for weeks. To compound their woes, the Italian and the Spaniard preferred to work late at night while the Dutch and the Swede early in the morning. Pretty soon they were ganging up on each other, hurling insults in their own languages (at that point it was probably a good thing that they could not understand each other).

Needless to say, when the deadline arrived they were hopelessly behind schedule. Fortunately, Socialist Sweden did not like flunking students and so they all got a pass. But the experience was so strenuous and unpleasant that they never spoke to each other ever again.

These days European politicians can communicate with each other directly, or via interpreters if need be. But very deep cultural differences persist. Just imagine a Finn, coming from a country where in many places people pay for services in full without having any supervision, explaining the need for austerity to a Greek, who may actually think that not paying taxes is morally justifiable.

As such, it is not hard to extrapolate the experience of that “study group from hell” to the wider European political landscape. It is indeed a thing of wonder when Eurocrats can actually achieve something meaningful together.

It is not so much that Greece and other nations are facing severe financial difficulties. At the end of the day, most man-made problems are solvable, especially in finance. What truly worries us is that this widely diverse group is required to come up with robust solutions to very sensitive political and economic problems, with wide reaching implications.

Accordingly, this Greek saga has been going on for five years, and we are now deeply in the realm of unpalatable solutions – if indeed one can actually be found.

It seems that someone might actually flunk this time around. Big time.