Opinion: Europe needs Greece despite its faults


Now they have to be punished or at least made to repent. Otherwise they will be kicked out of the respectable European club. The best for many commentators would be to see both happening.

Things are not as simple as that. Greece in the European Union (and more generally in the Euro-Atlantic community) is much more than a small peace and a percentage of the eurozone’s gross domestic product. Much more important are political and historical moments over the past two hundred years that made the Europeans not only love the Greeks, but defend them, protect them and give other benefits. It is because of history and geography. Greece simply cannot be excluded from Western Europe and the Euro-Atlantic area, however it manages its debts. Europe will do everything possible to prevent “Grexit”. It is better for Europe to contribute to Greek pensions than to let them go their ways.

Of course, everyone recognizes today that the crisis could have been predicted, but no one wanted to talk about that, so it was better to ignore all the bad news from the Greek lands. After all, it was clear that Greece did not meet the criteria for the eurozone, but EU countries, including Germany, did their best to “fit” Greek data into the limits of the Maastricht Criteria. It was clear that its administrative capacity, level of corruption and other indicators or qualities were below the desirable picture, but Europe neglected them as the minor issues.

In 1943, British Brigadier Edmund Myers, conducting a mission in occupied Greece, said after loosing his patience that Greeks were real Asians, they could not live according European standards. Today such statements would be seen as politically incorrect or scandalous, yet there are many who would agree with Myers.

Characteristics of the Greek political culture has much to do with the fact that Greece was never part of any modern European empire that would have laid foundations for a political tradition. It was instead under the Ottoman power for almost 400 years. Greece did not experience the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Absolutism and even none of the European revolutions. So it is truly distinctive and unique, even with its alphabet which for a long time was the only non-Latin one in the integrated Euro-Atlantic area. Thanks to their alphabet, the Greeks have inscriptions in their own language even on the “universal” euro banknotes.

Although the Greeks loathed the Ottoman rule, they took over many elements of the Ottoman political culture. One can see similarities with the Soviet regime – people hated it, but were (and still are) under the influence of old habits. For the Greeks, Christianity was not simply religion, it was the basis of their national identity. The culture of resistance developed into the culture of difference and uniqueness. The Greeks are not simply a nation. They are an exceptional nation.

The most unpleasant segment of this specific political tradition is called clientelism. In Greece, it has its own local name – rousfetia. Basically, it mean the division of society into informal interest groups in which top officials share certain privileges with their subordinates, and the latter secure governing guaranties and posts for their bosses. In the Ottoman times, such structures could be even defined as opposition organizations, but after the creation of the independent Greek state, it became a “tradition”, one of the obstacles toward a real democracy. When King Otto in 1832 arrived in Greece, he did not find any national administration in the country, with the exception of the clientelist structures. People took care of each other, but nobody cared about the state. Officials realized soon that Europe did not buy their diligence, intelligence, or patriotism, but only their political geography, nature and other things that do not need any input from the citizens. The European need for Greece does not depend on the debts and habits of local people. This kind of understanding is alive until today.

Western Europe in the 19th century was interested in supporting the Greek independence and the survival of the newly-formed nation state. British poet Lord Byron became the symbol or European readiness to stand for Greece whatever the price. Greece was the instrument to weaken the Ottoman Empire, which was exactly the aim of Western Europe. In 1862, Greece became a de facto British protectorate. Clientelism was acceptable for both the British and local Greek authorities. Young Winston Churchill led the Gallipoli operation against the Ottoman troops in World War I to facilitate opportunities for Greece to occupy Asia Minor. Europe forgave almost all the political sins of Greece – the lost war against Turkey, the pro-soviet “initiatives” after World War II, military dictatorship and the attempt to seize Cyprus.

Greece was accepted into NATO together with Turkey for the sole reason of their geopolitical position; Greece was taken into the European community without any real preparation. The most important leaders of the parties – Konstantinos Karamanlis and Andreas Papandreou – became symbols of patriarchal heads of their organizations.

One could say nothing helped the Greeks to become Western Europeans more than the threat of Russia/USSR and its desire for an “access” to the Mediterranean Sea. Containment of Russians was always far more important than the political shortcomings of the Greek political culture. Of course, there were and there are the people with modern European ideas, but they do not change the general picture. Realities generated mostly populist ideologies. Facts show that the non-payment of taxes has become almost a national sport, social guarantees “created” a society living in moderate comfort and with very little responsibility for general matters.

So what we have to do now, after all the bad words about bad Greece are exhausted? I have to say that, to a large extent, the European Union is behaving correctly. We need to save Greece, we need to help her out of debt and unhealthy social policy environment. Also taking into account that Russia has not gone away, and is still willing to use Greece as a country that was rejected by Europeans. In addition to that, one can calculate that the money Greece needs are not something exceeding the capacities of the large European economic machine. The “amputation” of Greece from the integrated European body in the long term will be more painful and unpredictable. One more time Europe has to say that it needs Greece despite its problems.


Egidijus Vareikis is Lithuanian member of parliament representing the conservative Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrats.

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