‘Corruption,’ wrote Edward Gibbon in his peerless Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, is ‘the most infallible symptom of constitutional liberty.’ I was reminded of this phrase when thinking about the Eurozone crisis. Commentators present a dichotomy between the discipline of northern Europe and the frivolity of southern Europe, which is characterised by bureaucratic, judicial and political corruption. Brussels has already imposed technocratic governments on Italy and Greece, and seeks to force Teutonic virtues on those economies. Constitutional liberty is to be limited in the hope of eradicating corruption (both in a literal and figurative sense) in southern Europe. Unsurprisingly, this new imperium is not universally popular: witness the extraordinary rise of Syriza, and the less spectacular but still notable performance of the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, in Greece.
While Europe tries to homogenise, its enemies make mischief. Bronwen Maddox reports (£) in today’s Times that Iranian emissaries have travelled to Athens offering cheap (and currently sanctioned) oil — a commodity that Greece will need if it is to reverse decline. Maddox adds that Vladimir Putin, that antediluvian Cold War warrior, is playing old games by trying to divide east and west with the promise of easy access to Russia’s vast energy resources. Who needs nuclear bombs to frighten and divide European countries when you have oil? Our dependence on fossil fuels is undiminished; and, without access to internal supplies and without sufficient modern plants in which to refine them, Europe relies heavily on imports of crude and gasoline. (The European Commission has further details.)