Absurd euro fiasco plays on with ball in Slovakia's court

Focus: Greece has shown that it knows the best way to eat at the EU's table while Slovakia gets stuck with the bill.

Powered by automated translation

Call it the curse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This most unloved of empires - what did it ever do for us eh? A few roads, not much law and order, hardly any hospitals - held sway over much of central Europe for nearly 500 years before disappearing in a puff after the First World War.

In Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, Jan Morris tells us that James Joyce said the dual monarchy contained 100 races speaking 1,000 languages, while Mussolini thought the state of Czechoslovakia ought really to be called something like Czecho-Germano-Polono-Rutheno-Romano-Slovakia.

It's the last bunch, the Slovaks, who this week delivered a nasty low blow to the euro. Its leaders are doubtless calling Richard Sulík, the free-marketeer who also serves as the speaker of Slovakia's parliament, something shorter, more Anglo-Saxon. He's the man who gave the single currency a resounding vote of no confidence.

"What's the euro ever done for us?" he asked, although as he said it in a language I am not familiar with, it's possible he meant something altogether different.

"We have a clear conscience," he also told translators, repeating his view that Slovakia was being asked to contribute more than its fair share just to bail out much richer countries.

The country's SaS Party - hardly surprising an outfit with that name was up for a bit of action - says Slovakia had to undergo harsh reforms to join the common currency, while Greece cheated from the outset but has been let off. Slovaks' bugbear is that Slovakia was made to enact harsh reforms to join the common currency, while Greece has been rewarded for its fiscal mismanagement.

I visited Bratislava soon after the collapse of communism. By then it was the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic. I was fond of the new name because I was a freelance reporter at the time, and turning Czechoslovakia into the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic meant 25 pence a word suddenly became £1.25 (Dh7). I was always happy to write about the new country and often felt that I should make the effort to find the naming committee and buy them all a coffee.

In any event, Prague then was wonderful, untouched and untainted by commercialism and seemingly unblemished by communism. It was like walking into the centre of Europe in the Middle Ages. Bratislava, on the other hand, was ghastly. I stayed in a dreadful Stalinist block reminiscent of university digs even though I was assured it was the best place to stay in town. The food was mainly soup, thin gruel with bits of cabbage floating in it. And all the people looked grey and dowdy, and the women would do anything for a pair of bleached jeans.

Fast forward a few years, and Slovakia is quite a place. Its women were emblazoned on billboards throughout London, causing traffic delays and frequent crashes. Slovakia may have split from the Czechs - bad news for freelancers everywhere - but for everybody else it was good news. Surely part of this is due to the euro?

Not according to Martin Poliacik, 31, a member of the SaS. "It's like going to a nightclub and the doorman says you're not coming in wearing those shoes or without a suit on, and when you get in the club you see that other people are wearing jeans and trainers."

Not the most sophisticated metaphor, but we get his point. William Hague, the British foreign minister, said the other day the euro zone was "like being in a burning building with no fire exits". There's nothing like cosying up to one's European neighbours or sweet-talking them, but I think I have a better analogy than either Mr Poliacik or Mr Hague for the way the euro zone works.

Have you ever been out to dinner with a group of friends? There is a tacit agreement that you are going to split the bill - anybody who pulls the old "I just had a burger and a glass of wine so here's £20 towards the total" is either lynched or never asked to dinner again. Everybody else, confident that their portion may be subsidised by others less greedy, orders the most expensive thing that takes their fancy. Lobster? Why not? Half a dozen oysters? Make it a dozen. It's a question of he who orders most, wins.

The Greeks have shown that they understood the game much better than anybody else. They may not have any money, but it’s not their problem. The problem became the Slovaks’, and their parliament passed the bailout yesterday, despite the best efforts of the SaS.

I sometimes wonder whether the whole euro-zone adventure isn't some European absurdist play and we are all reluctant actors in this nonsense.