Development in Warsaw: though it once was, “Eastern Europe is no longer a single entity” © Bartello
In February 2009, the Economist ran a cartoon which featured caricature versions of Angela Merkel, Nicholas Sarkozy and Gordon Brown, then the leaders of their respective countries. The three were sitting at a luxuriously appointed dining table, their faces frozen in exaggerated horror. All were contemplating a giant bill, at the top of which was written, “for the rescue of Eastern Europe.” The accompanying article, just to drive home the point, was entitled “The bill that could break up Europe.”
Eastern Europe, the article warned in dire tones, had been financially damaged and politically weakened by the international economic crisis. Eastern Europeans had been “on a binge fuelled by foreign investment [and] the desire for western living standards,” they had botched or sidestepped reforms and they had “wasted their borrowed billions on construction and consumption booms.” Eastern Europe should of course pay the price for its own profligacy, the Economist intoned, but Western Europe might well have to step in: After all, if Eastern Europe were to go down in the flames of financial crisis, then proper Western countries like Ireland and Greece might be affected as well.
The rest, as they say, is history. Eastern Europe did not collapse, or at least not all of it, or not all at once. But Ireland and Greece did both go down in the flames of financial crisis, and Spain and Italy nearly did too. Even now, Portugal is still touch and go, Britain is likely to enter a triple-dip recession and France has soaring unemployment. To put it bluntly, the Economist was…wrong. Four years after that 2009 article, the rich Western countries are not sitting around a metaphorical dining table dispensing largesse to their poor eastern cousins. Instead, they are wrestling with one another on top of that table or begging for scraps to save themselves, while some of the unwanted guests from the east are, like Slovakia, which is a eurozone member, actually contributing to their rescue.
Now, there are a number of conclusions I could draw from the predictive failure of this cartoon. Clearly, the first and most obvious is this: beware of caricatures in the Economist, as they will soon be out of date. The second conclusion, however, is that…