I am whizzing through the Austrian countryside towards Vienna Airport on a packed train to get a flight back to Dublin. The efficiency of this place is extraordinary — as too is the male Austrian weakness for the hats with large luxuriant feathers sticking out of them!
Silly as it sounds, it is actually quite funny to see grown men prancing around with a veritable peacock’s tail growing out of their felt caps. But that’s what European culture is all about — the evident, wonderful and cherished differences between all the countries.
Here in Austria, the European-wide ban on smoking in public has not yet been introduced. As a result, the cavernous cafes serving delicious milky coffee with artery-threatening Apfelscrudel and cream, are a haze of thick cigar smoke.
As well as the smoke, the other thing that strikes you in Austria is that the country is so old. There are precious few children, teenagers or even young adults anywhere, but the streets are full of pensioners.
It feels both old and old fashioned and yet, the freedom to smoke seems stolidly obstinate and idiosyncratic. Above all, sitting in cafes, smoking — like hats with feather — is all part of a national culture.
Increasingly, Europe’s economies are being seen through the kaleidoscope of culture. The differences are no longer only religious as they were a hundred odd years ago.
Back then — and to widespread acceptance — Max Weber the German anthropologist was the first to make the point that economics could be cultural — or at least you can’t look at economics independent of culture.
He found — based on extremely detailed research of the professions and occupations in selected towns in Germany — that those registered as Protestants tended to work hard, save more and be more commercially successful.
Today in Europe it seems that there is a return to a form of Weberian selection. There are biases (barely hidden) in the financial press and financial circles about innate Latin laziness, Irish fecklessness and Greek corruption.
However, today in deeply Catholic Austria, the idea that the Catholics are uniquely lazy and indolent and the Protestants parsimonious doesn’t wash.
But the distinctions are between a core Europe of older, exporting countries that export machines and capital and a peripheral Europe of younger countries, that have weakened banking sectors and significant debts.
The Austrians are not too happy about this split because it means that ultimately they will pay the bill. However, their bile is not reserved for the citizens of the peripheral countries, but the banks and political elites of their own.
The news in all the papers here today is of the ongoing crisis in Europe’s debt markets. The idea that Japan and China are now actively buying the debt of some EU countries to calm the crisis is not going down well in Austria’s ‘Der Standard’ — the local paper. A headline in the financial pages this week read: “Der Fall Portugal wird zum Deja-vu fur de Eurozone” — the fall of Portugal provokes a sense of deja vu for the euro.
The piece cites the domino process, which started in Greece, extended to Ireland and now afflicts Portugal and, perhaps a bit surprisingly for those who don’t know the numbers, Belgium.
‘Der Standard’ goes on to highlight the fact that in a recent survey of the 10 most likely states to default, five were EU members of which four were in the euro — and Ireland was up there along with Greece.
My neighbour here on the train works for an Austrian company that makes big machines for railway tracks. They are a type of spirit level for tracks, making sure that the tracks are maintained and don’t warp. Now 30pc of his business is in China and that’s where he is focused.
When asked about the euro, he replied that it was and still is a bad idea, because of cultural differences, which he was keen to highlight. He said Austria is not Greece or Ireland or even Belgium but now Austria’s future was tied via the euro to these countries.
But on the other hand, as an Austrian exporter, like many German exporters, he explained that at least the crisis prevents the currency from rising. The weak euro — a direct consequence of the debt crisis — was helping him remain competitive against the rest of the world.
He suggested that if the Austrian and the Germans had their own currency, they would have currencies which would have increased dramatically in value in the past years. Therefore, as an exporter, he wasn’t that phased by the debt crisis which he believed would only be solved by mass debt restructuring, defaults and creditors paying.
When asked what about the Austrian banks who had lent to banks in Ireland, Portugal and Spain that might lose out in a default situation, he was dismissive.
“Screw them. They lent to bad companies. Why didn’t they do their due diligence. Have they never heard the expression buyer beware? If I lent to a bad supplier would you pay for my stupidity?”
This story displays the complexity of the entire euro debt and credit crisis, which is getting worse by the day. The citizens of the likes of Austria do not willingly want to pay for countries like Ireland but they equally understand that Ireland is not being bailed out but the banks that lent to Irish banks are being saved from the implication of their own greed.
What is going on at the moment is nothing more than a titanic struggle between the interests of the citizens of Europe and the interests of the finance industry in Europe. It is one the citizens must win. Otherwise Europe will be turned from a democracy — where broadly speaking economic policy is framed with the interests of the average citizen in mind, to a bankocracy — where economic policy is driven exclusively for the interest of the banks.
Looking at the stolid burghers of Vienna yesterday and mindful of their own troubled history, my money is on the citizens, not the banks.