Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Argentina: Europe on the other side of the world

After three months of travelling, I’ve decided – I’m not giving up on Europe. 

I’m currently halfway across the Atlantic, flying from Argentina back to Brussels after a three-month journey across North and South America. I have to say, it feels good to be going ‘home’. 

This is the longest I’ve been away from Europe since I moved to London ten years ago. It was a nice opportunity to clear my head, to spend some time with my family and to experience a new part of the world. I’ve used the peace and quiet to work on my book about nationalist education and the European project, which I’m happy to report is now nearing completion. 

It is perhaps fitting that I ended my trip in Argentina, a country many describe as the most ‘European’ place in the Americas. In fact, as I was travelling south through Latin America I kept hearing, “Oh, you’re going to Buenos Aires? But maybe it won’t be so interesting for you, since you live in Europe. It’s the same thing.” 

It’s certainly true that Buenos Aires doesn’t look anything like other cities in Latin America. 

What’s so European about it? The architecture, for one thing. The buildings, and the dense urban plan, made me feel like I was in Madrid or Barcelona. It is thoroughly walkable with excellent pubic transport. People sit at cafes and face out to the sidewalk, sipping their coffees and commenting on the passers-by. The city has a very different feel to, say, Rio de Janeiro or Mexico City. 

The people are also not very far-removed from European roots. There was heavy immigration to Argentina from Spain, Italy and Germany in 30s, 40s and 50s, meaning many people here have parents or grandparents who were born in Europe. Contrast this with other countries in Latin America, where most peoples’ European ancestry goes much further back. 

And yet, there are many reminders that you are not, in fact, in Europe. 

Peso problems

For one thing - the peso. Oh, the peso. It’s one of the most unstable currencies in the world, fluxuating dramatically (usually in the value-losing direction) and suffering chronic inflation. For this reason many middle class Argentines keep their money in foreign bank accounts denominated in different currencies. It’s not only to keep their money from losing value, but also because the government has a habit of taking everyone’s money out of their bank accounts when they’re running low on funds. 

Money is just a complicated issue in Argentina, largely because so much of the economy operates on the black market. Until December, the country had two exchange rates – one ‘official’ and one ‘market’. The previous leftist government of Kristina de Kirchner was using an inflated ‘fake’ rate for the official exchange. An actual exchange rate still operated on the black market. Tourists could effectively get everything half price by coming in with lots of dollars in cash and exchanging them on the street. The country’s new rightist president moved back to a free-floating exchange rate in December and ended dollar capital controls. 

But currency is still not an easy issue. When trying to take out money from an ATM, I had to try at least five different banks each time before either my American or my Belgian ATM cards would work. When I was finally able to take out cash, I was charged around €15 in fees by the Argentine banks – no matter the amount I withdrew. The situation was particularly absurd this morning when I had to take out 400 pesos to pay for my taxi to the airport, and had to pay 150 pesos in fees for doing so. 

To make matters worse, the banks have a limit of 1,000 pesos (€60) for withdrawals, so I couldn’t mitigate the pain of the fees by taking out large amounts of cash. My credit card was no help, very few establishments take credit cards. One other bizarre currency issue I notied was that the stores offer installed payment plans for everything. So when you go grocery shopping, the clerk asks if you would like to split your payment into 12 instalments. Strange. 

By point of comparison, I found that in Brazil everywhere takes credit cards and I was never charged any fee to take out money from an ATM. 

Far, far away

My intention is not to bitch and moan about the money difficulties in Argentina but to point out that it made me think about how good we have it in Europe with the euro. We can be confident that we can go to an ATM and take out money, and that money will have roughly the same value in a few days. We know our money is protected in the banks, governments can’t just come in and snatch it. If the common currency were to collapse, is there any doubt that the PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain) would be plunged into the same kind of currency instability as Argentina? 

Yes, Argentina feels European. But it feels like a European country that has somehow gotten lost and found itself on the other side of the world, missing out on the benefits that being a country in Europe offers. For me, it seemed a vision of what Spain or Italy would be without the EU. 

Granted, even as EU member states the PIGS deal with many of the same problems as Argentina (particularly when it comes to tax avoidance and the black market), but I think there is no doubt that being part of the European framework helps these countries mitigate against that historical legacy. And the recently-created European Semester process of budgetary oversight is also helping with this. 

Time to go home

I had a great time staying in Argentina the past nine days. I had an apartment right in the centre of the very fun Palermo neighbourhood and in many ways I felt like I was back home in Europe. 

And that got me thinking. In recent months I’ve questioned whether there is a future for me in Europe, or more broadly, a future for this continent at all. I’ve been saddened by recent developments like the unravelling of Schengen, the Brexit referendum and the ongoing debt crisis. I don’t feel the same hope for Europe that I did when I arrived, and hope was the reason I came in the first place. 

But over the past weeks I’ve realised that as bad as things seem in Europe right now, I still believe it represents the last best hope for the world. I still believe passionately in the European project and am committed to countering the dark forces of nationalism prevalent and strengthening across the continent. 

So I’m not giving up on Europe. I’m sticking around. Because Europe isn’t over yet. And if things are indeed falling apart, well, I’m going down with the ship. 

The plane is passing over the Canary Islands now, and the sun is starting to rise over Europe. I’m home.

1 comment:

Geoff said...

This is fantastic news. Glad you've not given up. The European project needs supporters more than ever. Keep up the good work!