Two weeks ago, German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble allegedly joked about trading Greece for Puerto Rico, while on the phone with Jack Lew, his US counterpart. Particularly peculiar is that the finance minister finds it adequate to share this “private” joke with us. In this video link you can see Schäuble gloating with smug satisfaction while pointing out that he did not even meant it as a joke: “He [Lew] thought it was a joke.”
Joke or no joke, Schäuble’s statement ought to be taken seriously: Schäuble’s arrogant racism made clear how essential it is for the further existence of the EU that German citizens starts to understand the place that Germany occupies within the global economy. To boot, whilst the joke created a mild international uproar, Schäuble’s popularity in Germany strongly increased. Clearly Schäuble’s statements are carefully calculated, but I suspect he was not fully aware of what he was saying: though the US dollar is in fact the official currency, Puerto Rico is neither a federate state of the US nor a part of one. Still, Puerto Ricans are obliged to essentially pay the same taxes as if they were a federal state. Puerto Ricans are also not allowed to vote and do not benefit from the citizenship rights guaranteed by the American constitution, only enjoying the most basic protections.
Whilst Puerto Rico was a Spanish colony annexed through military action, Greece freely joined the EU in 1981 and the euro in 2004. Yet not only are the political similarities striking, but the analogy the German finance minister used opens up a much bigger problem: What if his joke spells out the truth about Greece’s status as a de facto colony of Germany and the EU?
As usual, German chancellor Angela Merkel’s played “Good Cop,” publically distancing herself from her minister’s views—albeit only after the Greek capitulation to the Eurogroup’s demands. Schäuble, on the other hand, continues to play the “Bad Cop,” to not undermine the negotiations. Nevertheless, these days the face of the chancellor increasingly appears as a broken mask (is she aware of the damage she is responsible for?): since the dawn of the financial crisis, the German population has been led to believe that the German economy—primarily based on manufacturing—is somehow impervious to financial crisis because the German economy is a “real economy”—as opposed to the speculative nature of the financial economy. German industrial exceptionalism, however, can only be sustained (without reducing the overall population to sweat-shop conditions) in wealthy nations whose financial infrastructure bolsters their dominant position.
The production and distribution of goods based on “fair” competition stands not on the beginning but at the very end of a long chain of global power factors—a neocolonial Empire based on global finance and the military might to secure its profits. For the majority of the German population, however, the fiction of the “real economy” is an identity-generating narrative: for several decades, the myth that Germans, through their earnest industry- and export-based economy, earned a legitimate privilege over other countries and their populations has been carefully manufactured and sustained by German media. (Last week I did not see a single German newspaper not cheering the prospect that a Greek island will be now up for sale.) The fairytale of this alleged “real economy” promotes xenophobic prejudices whilst crucially omitting the idea that the privileged situation Germans enjoy is based on a exploitative system. The success of export economies like the German one is, like the financial sector itself, the result of an neocolonial world order. Schäuble’s bad joke indicates that it is overdue for Germans to start owning up to this state of affairs and act on it.
—Jan Peter Hammer
Image of Wolfgang Schäuble via International Business Times