Daring More of the South? – An Interview with Sebastian Schoepp

If Germans or Northern Europeans talk of the south, they mostly refer to Southern Europe instead of South America. And if they think of the south, they see mainly the crisis. But is it really sensible to reduce cultures that have grown up over centuries to the performance of the financial markets? And couldn’t we even learn something from the south?

Mr Schoepp, as foreign editor of the “Süddeutsche Zeitung”, you’ve been writing for years about the crisis of the south. In your new book, you now call for us to learn the south. How do these two aspects fit together?

Well, to begin with, I wanted to challenge stereotypes. I’ve simply tried to put the ugly decal of the lazy southerner who lies about in his hammock into perspective. Nor did this picture ever correspond to reality in the past. Life in the south was never easy. The meagre farming, the relatively unproductive sea – all this forms an environment that makes heavy demands and doesn’t really invite anyone who lives there to do nothing.

What do you think?

I think the different countries of the south have very much developed in ways that are parallel. This can be explained in terms of economic effects, but not only. I wanted to find out what’s behind it all. For example, in the south family networks are fostered and cultivated much more than they are in our latitudes. And just these family bonds have proved themselves to be something positive.

Familial social structures as an opportunity

But don’t these family bonds have extreme disadvantages?

Of course. They make transparency almost impossible, tend to foster corruption, lead to nepotism and, in their extreme form, to organized crime. But to me it’s important to point out that it might be interesting to see not only the negative sides. Family cohesion is also something that affords a certain security in times of crisis. We’re seeing that now: in my opinion, the only reason there hasn’t been open rioting in southern Europe is because the family system there works so well and cushions the worst consequences of the crisis.

And our “Nordic individualism” doesn’t work anymore?

It works as long as we can rely on the state. But it seems to me we can do so less and less. The welfare state – for better or worse we must, I think, accept this – is unfortunately an end-of-range model. In this situation, I think, it may well be helpful to reflect on the protective function of the family, as it still operates in southern Europe. You notice this when you talk to young Spaniards, Greeks or Italians. The family relation is for them a solid support and bolsters them up. The knowledge that they belong to a group among whom they will find a warm reception if things get difficult is something which gives people a tremendous sense of stability when, for example, they go to live abroad.

Southern European spirit of rebellion

When you talk of the “south”, you don’t mean only southern Europe. You’ve also been following developments in Latin America for years. How do you assess the current situation?

There have always been voices that, in view of the most recent developments in, for example, Brazil, say: we’ve expected too much from these countries. This means our hopes that these countries would emerge from their economic crises stronger than before were unfounded. I’m of a very different opinion. Take Brazil. A few years ago it would have been utterly unthinkable that in perhaps the most football-mad country in the world large protests could break out against the building of a stadium which people had previously been so proud of. This protest culture was really surprising.

In what way?

We know that Latin America has been incredibly stabilized in the first decade of the twenty-first century and enjoyed considerable progress. Poverty has been significantly reduced and a new middle-class has gradually formed. And this has obviously put the powers that be into question, things that were considered immutable such as that Brazilian society could, so to say, be fobbed off with football. To me, this is a sign of maturity. People have reached a certain democratic maturity. This makes them pose very specific demands.

Demands for what?

For instance, the demand to fight corruption, which has up to now been endemic and growing in these societies. We can see the same thing in the protests in Turkey: here too the protesters belong to a middle-class that is extremely similar to our own – in behaviour, in the use of electronic media, in defending values that are also important to us. The same again in Spain. We have here to do with a form of maturity that has been conditioned by crises. It’s a great broadening of awareness about the question: How do we want to live?

Learning from the South

Couldn’t you also say that we in the north have already internalized these values? So that again the south is learning from the north?

Yes, yet it would be a misconception to suppose that these values needn’t be defended. In our cities too we have to do with real estate bubbles. But so far our willingness to stand up for these values has been very limited. There’s plenty of griping, but a great deal is also acquiesced in. In Barcelona entire quarters have taken to the streets to demonstrate against the touristification of their neighbourhoods. I think we could well adopt here something of the southern European spirit of rebellion.

What other things could Germany learn from the south?

I think the most important thing the south can teach us is the insight that “our” austerity principle, our pursuit of individualism and economic liberalism, isn’t so without alternative as we suppose. It’s just one political position among many. In this insight lies a great opportunity. An opportunity we’ll gamble away if we continue to behave as if the south were simply too stupid to figure out economic principles. Principles, mind you, of which we are ourselves increasingly the victims.

Sebastian Schoepp: “Mehr Süden wagen. Oder wie wir Europäer wieder zueinander finden”, 2014 (ie. Daring More South. Or how we Europeans can find one another again) (Westendverlag)