Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

Greece’s bailout referendum: Time for the Hellenic tail to wag the European dog ?

The spoilt teenager is fed up with suffering under his parents’ oppressive rules and restrictions while continuing to eat their food and avoid responsibility for himself. He is thinking of walking out on them to make his own way in the world. If he does, he will find it hard going; he may have to sleep rough and work menial jobs for a while. But in the end, he will grow up to be a man. Let us not forget that, however selfish and irresponsible his behaviour may have been, the real blame lies with the parents who brought him up so badly, pampering him while pushing him into a role that merely pandered to their own fancies. It is they, as much as he, who need to be taken down a peg or two.

‘The people’ in Greece (or anywhere else) should not be idolised, as many idealistic lefties do, as a supposedly noble body that could turn the world into Paradise if only it could overthrow its ruling class. Nor should the Greek people be viewed through racist spectacles, as condemned to economic failure by a supposed inherent fecklessness arising from their national character.* Many ordinary Greeks may have contributed to their country’s economic crisis through tax evasion, or by taking ridiculously early retirement, or by receiving salaries for non-jobs in the bureaucracy. Other ordinary Greeks work hard at honest jobs and pay their taxes. Nations are collections of individuals who do not share a collective guilt. Yet the guilty and innocent alike will suffer the effects of the savage austerity measures being forced upon the nation by the EU. Young Greeks who are only now reaching adulthood and who really are not to blame for the errors of their parents’ generation will suffer in particular.

Responsibility for the crisis lies, of course, with the Greek political and economic elites. But it lies also with the political and economic elites of the EU, which subsidised and indulged their Greek clients. For all that Greece undermined European peace and stability over Milosevic, Macedonia, Kosova and Cyprus; for all that it abused the human rights of its ethnic Turkish and Macedonian minorities; for all that its public discourse was infected with virulent anti-Western sentiment, the EU elites continued to give it a blank cheque. Now, to save their own ill-thought-out Euro project and minimise the losses for their own banks and investors, they are forcing austerity measures on Greece; measures that penalise those who are not responsible for the crisis in order to protect the interests of those who are.

There are, of course, economic arguments both for and against a Greek acceptance of the EU bailout package. Yet the question is not merely an economic one, but concerns issues of democracy, justice and the political shape of the future EU.

In Greece as elsewhere in Europe, spending cuts and austerity measures are undoubtedly necessary, yet it is in the interest of ordinary people to fight them tooth and nail – not in order to torpedo them altogether, but to ensure that as much of the burden as possible is shifted to the richer sections of society, and in the case of Greece to the rest of the EU. Here in the UK, Conservatives tell us that cutting taxes for the rich will stimulate growth, while cutting incomes and benefits for the rest of us is necessary to reduce the deficit – a form of reasoning that does not inspire confidence. In Greece, the austerity measures look set to depress the Greek economy further and severely hurt people’s living standards without actually ending the debt crisis. Essentially, Greeks are being asked to sacrifice their own living standards, not for the sake of their own long-term future wellbeing, but for money that will largely go straight through them to their creditors. My sympathies, therefore, are very much with the ordinary Greeks striking and protesting against the austerity measures; I would prefer them to suffer less, and rich tax-dodgers and European banks and investors to suffer more. If the Greek electorate rejects this bailout deal, they may simply receive a better one. Let them fight for a skinhead’s haircut.

On the other hand, the success of any bailout deal will merely prop up the corrupt, unhealthy relationship of dependency between Greece and the EU that created the mess in the first place. There is therefore some reason for thinking that a complete collapse in European efforts to ‘rescue’ Greece, although painful for all concerned in the short term, might prove beneficial in the long run. It would restore to the Greek nation control over, and responsibility for, its own destiny, and necessitate a much-needed radical restructuring of Greek economic and political life. And its repercussions might likewise force a change in direction for the EU, away from misguided moves toward greater integration at the expense of democracy and accountability, toward a looser and more flexible union; one in which member states have more control over and responsibility for their own respective destinies, and are more responsive to the wishes of their citizens.

Four years ago, I warned that the Hellenic tail must not wag the European dog. The consequences for allowing this to happen turned out to be much more serious than even a strong critic of Greek behaviour such as myself could have imagined. Now, however, I am beginning to wonder if a bit of wagging of the European dog by the Hellenic tail might not be such a bad thing.

* For a true pearl of anti-Greek, anti-Balkan chauvinism, here’s the Daily Mail: ‘Greece has always had a siege mentality. It is very different from the rest of the EU. It was part of the Ottoman Empire for centuries before it became an independent country in the early 19th century, and psychologically is as much a part of Turkey and the Middle East as it is of Europe. It has few shared traditions with Western Europe.’

Wednesday, 2 November 2011 - Posted by | European Union, Greece, Marko Attila Hoare | , , , ,

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