We met in the air, of course. Cocktail hour in first class, thirty thousand feet above Frankfurt or London or Paris. All it took was a spot of turbulence and a moment of mutual understanding. It was Friday night and off our starboard wing all of Western Europe was lit up like Christmas.
Forty five minutes later we were on the ground and ordering champagne up to our room.
You’d been on your way to consult on another round of bailout talks and I was coming back from a guest spot at the World Economic Forum. We were young, beautiful and stupidly rich. We spent the weekend playing ‘you show me your fiscal stimulus policy and I’ll show you mine’.
“My position on interest rates,” you told me, breathlessly, “is very flexible”.
We agreed on further exploratory talks.
For the next few weeks our flight paths crossed and recrossed in the skies over Germany and and the UK and France. Not only were we ridiculously busy, but for tax purposes neither of us was allowed to stay in any EU member state for more than fifteen consecutive days. Officially, we were registered domiciles of principalities so exclusive, so ancient and so small that they don’t even appear on maps. Those amateurs in Liechtenstein, Luxembourg and Monaco could only stare at us in gauche, arriviste envy. Or at least they would have done, if they’d had any idea where we were.
We grabbed our moments when we could. Two nights on the French Riviera. A stopover in Madrid. An afternoon at the palace of the President of the European Council. We cemented our relationship with a long weekend in the romantic Swiss lakeside town of Zug, which enjoys the lowest rate of corporation tax on Earth and hosts the headquarters of over twelve thousand of the world’s biggest companies.
We stood in the underground car park of our hotel and marveled at the rows and rows of gleaming new Ferraris, Bentleys and Maseratis, while somewhere across the water the sun went down behind the mountains.
“When I’m with you,” you said, “it feels like the sovereign debt crisis will never have to end”.
Word was starting to get around. Rumours that we might be having merger talks inspired fluctuations in bond markets across the globe. Senior hedge fund managers took to the financial news channels to argue about our next move – then shorted their own positions and made a killing. We were invited to deliver power-point presentations at the sort of up-scale economic conferences that send conspiracy theorists into fits of ecstasy. There were the usual orgies, and hundred-thousand-Euro-a-head dinners, and private receptions on the slopes of Mont Blanc – where we took turns throwing sticks of dynamite into the milky blue depths of the glacier just to hear the apocalyptic sound of thousand-year-old ice shattering.
Possibly some of the money spent on all this even trickled down to the people we were actually supposed to be helping.
Nevertheless, there was something wrong.
Our relationship, it seemed to me, should have been like the EU: an ever closer economic, cultural and legislative alliance, aimed at eventual political and monetary union. Instead it was more like the Shengen agreement. You granted me unrestricted entry and exit rights, but you refused to give up the option to make your own laws, or to devalue your currency if necessary.
And then I discovered the reason why.
All this time I’d assumed we were pursuing the same fiscal agenda you had actually been flirting with protectionism behind my back.
Seriously: the Swiss?
It turned out they’d been sweet-talking you with promises of fine chocolates and precision watches and hidden Nazi gold for months. Those efficient, oh-so-discreet bastards.
“I want a safe haven,” you told me. “I want a monthly ski pass. Plus they’re offering me an annual income tax rebate of a hundred and fifty percent. And Lewis Hamilton as my next-door neighbour”.
And who could compete with that?
I tried everything to win you back. I bought you luxury houses and a jet and your own island. I launched a series of crippling austerity programmes to convince you I was lean and competitive and worth doing business with. I took Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain hostage and demanded they sell off their airports, their schools and the naming rights to their unborn children.
I was willing to lay waste to an entire continent for you!
But to no avail. It seems you will not be moved.
Like Switzerland you are beautiful but cold, with a long history of awkward independence. True, your mountains are spectacular – and your wild, rushing rivers drain lush, fertile valleys. But your tunnels and bridges are all mined, ready to be detonated at a moment’s notice in the event of an attempted invasion. You have more nuclear fallout shelters, per capita, than any other country on earth. By law every one of your citizens must keep a rifle and one of your famous army knives in their home.
The metaphor sort of falls down if you look at it too closely.
As for me? Well, it was touch and go for a while. I have to admit that I almost lost faith in the entire global banking system. But I’ll survive. Because I have to.
Those mighty wheels of commerce won’t oil themselves, after all.
Besides, I’ve actually just been appointed head of the interim government of Italy. I have a two trillion dollar economy at my disposal. I have museums full of priceless works of art and an entire industrial and transport infrastructure to sell-off.
My vengeance, it’s safe to say, will be terrible to behold.