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.’

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Wednesday, 2 November 2011 Posted by | European Union, Greece, Marko Attila Hoare | , , , , | Leave a comment

Greece must reform politically as well as economically

Image: Greek farmers protest at subsidy cuts on the border with Bulgaria.

It was only a matter of time. Once it became clear that the EU was not bending over backwards to bail Greece out of the debt crisis created by the latter’s own profligacy and corruption, it was inevitable that loud voices would be raised in Greece presenting the country as the victim of dastardly plotting foreign imperialists. Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou led the charge, loudly turning reality on its head to complain that it was actually the EU that was failing Greece and was responsible for Greece’s crisis, rather than the other way around: ‘Greece is not a political or an economic superpower to fight this alone. The EU gave political support in the last few months of this crisis, but in the battle against impressions and the psychology of the market it was at the very least timid.’ Indeed, according to Papandreou, the EU’s errors went beyond ‘timidity’ in response to the Greek crisis, to actually being guilty of creating the crisis in the first place: ‘There was speculation about our country which created a psychology of imminent collapse, prophesies which risked becoming self-fulfilling’. Indeed, ‘There was a lack of co-ordination between various bodies of the union, the commission, the member states, the European Central Bank, even different opinions within those bodies.’

Deputy prime minister Theodoros Pangalos has responded to Germany’s unwillingness to bail Greece out by bringing up the Nazi occupation of Greece in World War II: ‘They [the Nazis] took away the Greek gold that was in the Bank of Greece, they took away the Greek money and they never gave it back.’ Consequently, ‘I don’t say they have to give back the money necessarily, but they have to say thanks. And they [the German government] shouldn’t complain much about stealing and not being very specific about economic dealings.’ It may seem inappropriate for the deputy head of a democratically elected government of an EU and NATO member-state to bring up the Nazis just because Germany does not want to pay for someone else’s mess, but Pangalos’s views are entirely representative of the wave of anti-German bile currently washing over Greece. Margaritis Tzimas of the opposition New Democracy party asks rhetorically ‘How does Germany have the cheek to denounce us over our finances when it has still not paid compensation for Greece’s war victims?’ Deputies of the Left Coalition party last week not only demanded that the government press Berlin over the issue of reparations, but blamed Germany for Greece’s financial crisis: ‘By their statements, German politicians and German financial institutions play a leading role in a wretched game of profiteering at the expense of the Greek people.’

One step further down in tastelessness is the joke apparently doing the rounds in Athens, concerning the government’s attempt to make citizens collect receipts to flush tradesmen out of the black market: ‘For every VAT receipt not collected, the Germans will shoot 10 patriots.’ This Greek sense of victimhood is attaining comical levels. As Reuters reports, ‘Greeks recall that Greek “Gastarbeiter” (guest workers) were among migrants who contributed to Germany’s economic miracle in the 1960s and 1970s while their homeland was ruled by a military dictatorship backed by NATO, of which West Germany was a member.’ In other words, Germany should feel both grateful to Greece for sending it immigrants and guilty because Greece was ruled by a dictatorship.

Of course, the reality of who has helped whom economically is somewhat different. Germany is by far the largest contributor to EU funds, while Greece is the largest net recipient of EU funds after Poland and alongside Romania, and the largest per capita recipient after Luxembourg and Belgium, according to Open Europe’s figures. Germany claims that it has contributed 33 billion deutschemarks in aid to Greece since 1960, both bilaterally and in the context of the EU, on top of 115 million deutsche marks for war reparations. Given the gratitude the Germans are now receiving for these vast sums, it is unsurprising they are somewhat reluctant to cough up still more.

Yet in one sense, the Greeks are right, and the EU must bear some of the responsibility for the Greek financial mess. It is, after all, the EU which has been subsidising Greek profligacy for the past three decades, although Greece’s public sector corruption, high levels of tax evasion, overblown bureaucracy and low retirement age have been no secret. The EU is like the mother who spoils her child rotten, then must suffer its ingratitude and tantrums when it doesn’t have every one of its demands met. Ultimately, the mother does bear responsibility if her child is a spoilt brat who doesn’t respect her. Greece’s current anti-German tantrum is not an isolated quirk; the country is a veritable hotbed of anti-Western nationalism, even descending into terrorism, as the brilliant Greek journalist Takis Michas has described. The paradox of why a country that has received so much from the West – from huge EU subsidies, through military protection against the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War to diplomatic support over Cyprus and Macedonia – should be so awash with anti-Western sentiment may not be such a paradox after all: it is a case of biting the hand that feeds.

While Greece’s EU-encouraged financial irresponsibility is now being widely remarked upon, it is less frequently noted that Greek irresponsibility, and EU encouragement of this irresponsibility, extend beyond the economic sphere. Greece has been found by the European Court of Human Rights to be in breach of the human rights of both its ethnic Macedonian and its Turkish minorities, but it continues to defy the Court’s rulings without incurring any penalties from the EU. Greece was the most enthusiastic ally of the Serbian regime of Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s; it helped to undermine the UN’s 2004 Annan Plan to reunify Cyprus; it is one of only five EU members that has broken ranks over the issue of Kosova’s international recognition (and the only one that cannot justify this through reference to its own fears of separatism); and, most dangerously of all, it is vetoing the neighbouring Republic of Macedonia’s attempts to join both NATO and the EU, on account of its nationalistic hostility to Macedonia’s use of its own name.

On the other hand, according to February 2010 figures, Greece is currently contributing only 15 troops to NATO’s mission in Afghanistan, as against 165 from Macedonia – a non-member with one fifth of Greece’s population; 175 from Georgia; 255 from Albania; 295 from Croatia; 540 from Bulgaria; 945 from Romania; and 1,755 from Turkey. It would appear that those Balkan countries that were on the wrong side in the Cold War are somewhat readier to contribute to the Western alliance’s military efforts today than the only Balkan Christian country which enjoyed NATO protection during the Cold War, although Turkey appears readier to contribute too, despite being predominantly Muslim.

We can sum up the terms of the relationship between Greece and the rest of NATO and the EU as follows. We defend Greece’s security; we fund Greece’s prosperity with massive subsidies; and we give Greece unwarranted diplomatic support vis-a-vis Macedonia and Cyprus. Greece pursues policies that destabilise the EU economically and South East Europe politically, while making the minimum possible contribution to the security of the democratic world. And the Greek political and intellectual classes complain endlessly about the evils of Germany, the US and Western imperialism in general.

This must stop. The reforms demanded of Greece by the EU as the price of a bail-out cannot be limited to the economic sphere, but must extend to the political as well. As an absolute minimum, Greece must recognise the rights of its national minorities, including the right to freedom of association, conscience and self-definition, and must immediately announce it will comply with all rulings of the European Court of Human Rights as regards these rights. And it must lift its veto of Macedonia’s membership of both NATO and the EU, announcing that its dispute with Macedonia will not be resolved through blackmail or at the price of South East Europe’s Euro-Atlantic integration.

The EU is moving to strip Greece of control over its own taxation and spending policies if it does not comply with austerity demands. Some German officials are reportedly demanding that Greece also be denied a vote in all EU matters while it remains in ‘receivership’. This would be eminently sensible. Greece’s economic and political irresponsibility are two sides of the saim coin, and there is no point in the EU demanding that the country behave responsibly in the economic sphere while giving it a blank cheque to pursue nationalistic policies that destabilise South East Europe. The nationalism that leads the Greek political classes to abuse their membership of the Euro-Atlantic club to try to force Macedonia to change its name is the same nationalism that leads them to milk the EU for all it is worth, then engage in crude xenophobic and anti-imperialist tantrums when the bottle is taken away. Greece can be selfishly nationalistic or it can be a responsible member of the European family. It is up to the EU to make clear that it expects the latter.

This article was published today on the website of the Henry Jackson Society.

Sunday, 28 February 2010 Posted by | Balkans, European Union, Germany, Greece, Macedonia, NATO | , , , | 1 Comment

Greek prime minister blasts Western imperialism’s attack on his country

Video: Greece’s membership of the EU – A short history.

George Papandreou, the Greek prime minister, has slammed the EU for displaying ‘timidity’ in its dealings with Greece’s financial crisis. In a live address to his cabinet following his return from an emergency summit in Brussels, the normally mild-mannered leader hit out at the lack of united support from the EU. ‘Greece is not a political or an economic superpower to fight this alone. The EU gave political support in the last few months of this crisis, but in the battle against impressions and the psychology of the market it was at the very least timid.’ He went on, ‘There was speculation about our country which created a psychology of imminent collapse, prophesies which risked becoming self-fulfilling’. Indeed, ‘There was a lack of co-ordination between various bodies of the union, the commission, the member states, the European Central Bank, even different opinions within those bodies.’

‘In other words,’ continued Papandreou, ‘the fact that our stupendously bloated and corrupt state has stuffed its face to the point of heart-failure can conveniently be blamed on Western imperialism which, as we know, is to blame for absolutely everything that goes wrong for us.’ Papandreou then went on to explain the long history of Western imperialism’s persecution of the Greeks, beginning with the Latin conquest of Constantinople in 1204: ‘The Western powers enabled the Greek nationalist right to defeat the Communists in the Greek civil war. NATO defended Greece from the Communist bloc throughout the Cold War. The European Economic Community let Greece join in 1981, even though our scandalous human-rights record meant that we belonged there the way a hippopotamus belongs in a pole-vaulting competition. It supported us against Macedonia – sorry, against FYROM – in the ‘name dispute’ from 1992 – God alone knows why. It turned a blind eye to our support for Slobodan Milosevic. It has continued to keep Turkey out on account of Cyprus – even after the Turkish Cypriots supported and the Greek Cypriots sabotaged the Annan Plan to reunify the island. It has subsidised us so much that we are literally bursting at the seams. And now that our state is literally collapsing under the weight of its EU-funded profligacy, the EU is refusing to give us even more money to get us out of the mess we created. How dare they ?’

‘The evidence is clear’, continued Papandreou, ‘that the West has always been against Greece and is plotting against us in all possible ways. What will these heartless bastards think of next ?’

Greater Surbiton News Service

Thursday, 18 February 2010 Posted by | Balkans, European Union, Greece, Macedonia | | 2 Comments