The churning that has EU on edge
Reviewed by Priyanka Singh

Punjabi Parmesan
by Pallavi Aiyar, Penguin Books, Pages 318, Rs 599.

The European Union fiscal crisis; tilt in market supremacy; a new pecking order; resolute China racing towards its clear goals; a determined India trying to keep pace are the focus of the book.

All that could possibly go wrong with the EU, has. And all at once.

Faced with a formidable threat that is ripping its delicate fibre, the economic rise of the behemoth China is now a direct challenge to the EU domination. The demographics is not a bright spot either, with an ageing and shrinking workforce. Climate concerns have taken backseat, with the core EU entity at stake.

The welfare states are struggling to meet their own unreal standards, and with Greece's "dodgy bookkeeping", it was a matter of time the 27-member EU would buckle at the centre.

Greece had to be propped up, and fast, to salvage the eurozone going under. Amid furious deliberations with an ascendant Germany for a bailout, the unlikely saviour was found in China, eager to expand its influence and pump in mind-boggling funds into Greece. China with its ability to "vomit up entire new neighbourhoods in what felt like weeks" had arrived and how.

Pallavi Aiyar
Pallavi Aiyar

Aiyar's moving away from bustling China to the quiet of Belgium, the headquarters of the EU, was the seed for the book. Striving to be nothing short of a utopian dream in spite of monetary limitations; many power centres; three prime ministers in as many years; and the elusion of true cultural amalgamation the road ahead for the EU is hazy. The EU's cultural identity is akin to India, with many faiths and states. Yet, the "greater mixing" has not happened. Anti-immigration sentiment prevails which works against integration. Minority communities like the diamond merchants of India and Muslims continue to live in ghettos.

The Antwerp's diamond business has been taken over by the Mehtas and Shahs, upsetting the Jewish monopoly. Over 80 per cent of the world's rough diamonds are processed in India. Punjabi farm immigrants in Italy account for the largest Indian diaspora in Europe, but are confined to the countryside. It is believed if they were to go on a strike, Italy's production of cheeses like Parmesan would close down.

But the EU is unimpressed with India's presence and rise; it is resentful of the hard labour Indians suffer for lower wages and fewer perks. There is a social flaw. She writes: "Prosperity had been a potent amnesiac. The slow, brutal slog of the labour movement in Europe has taken centuries to accumulate and crystallise into present-day entitlements, but had taken only a single generation to be internalised as normal." In spite of the crunch, people are not ready to part with any of the elaborate fringe benefits, some downright ludicrous (bonus for coming to work on time, for instance).

"With fiscal contagion blowing across the region, it was apparent that Europe's major nations were in a state of disarray. Enrage mobs baying for the blood of politicians, burning buildings, the elderly reduced to destitution: these were not scenes from some faraway Third World hell but from the countries that formed the beating heart of rich Europe," she writes. A nervous EU is staring at a breakup. It must prune freebies and find "tact" that is essential in a multicultural space else the union will be notional.

An award-winning foreign correspondent, Aiyar's work is made brilliant with scrupulous research, a chatty style and personal anecdotes; the lack of which would have rendered it pedantic. The book lends a fresh view to the EU from the perspective of the growing economies of China and India. The world is a global village and the book makes it easier to get a grasp around it.