COMMENT

The seeds of the Greek problem were sown in 1980s

By Yannis Palaiologos

“There was a huge incapacity among the politicians to tell the truth and to collaborate with each other across party lines. The long-term interests of the country were repeatedly sacrificed at the alter of short-term political calculation.”

This is how British historian Mark Mazower sums up Greece’s comparative disadvantage vis-a-vis the other eurozone countries that had to be bailed out.

“Because, as a result, Greek governments were weak, they tended to go for the more superficial reforms, leaving the deeper pathologies untouched,” he says.

Mazower, a professor at Columbia University, visited Greece recently to receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Athens. In his view, the economic policy that has been implemented since the crisis broke out here is “toxic.” However, he points out, “the problem did not begin with the handling of the crisis. It began in the 1980s, with the massive expansion of a clientelist state, in which both parties of government participated with enormous gusto. We cannot blame the Germans, the IMF or the ECB for that,” he says.

On top of mistaking the causes for the effects, Mazower says, the older generations also appear to want “to repeat the history of the Occupation and the Civil War” – this time hoping for a different outcome. “The most enlightening conversations I’ve had are with young people under the age of 30, who have not grown up with the mythification of EAM-ELAS and are looking for some completely new way of thinking about how to get out of the present predicament.”

‘Foreign finger’

Mazower does not go easy on the Europeans either. In March 2010, as Greece signed the first memorandum, he wrote an article in the Financial Times documenting the history of foreign interference in the domestic affairs of the newly founded Greek state – what the Greeks like to call “the foreign finger.” In a rather prophetic remark, he argued that the ability of George Papandreou’s government to convince Greek society about the need for radical reforms would depend on the extent to which “Europe stops looking like the latest great power trying to control Greece’s fate.”

Five years on, his assessment is that the Europeans did not fare very well.

“The EU is a particularly palpable presence in Greek politics,” he says. Does responsibility for this lie with the Europeans’ poor handling of the situation, or is it more a case of Greeks blaming their woes on outsiders?

“I think it’s both. The persistence of the Europeans in pursuing a certain, deeply misguided vision of how to get out of the crisis has been a major contributing factor. At the same time, it is true that Greeks have this tendency to blame foreigners for the predicament they find themselves in. To an extent, this is natural. A small country like Greece, in some sense the creation of the major powers of the time, feels acutely its lack of freedom to maneuver. In some periods, it exaggerates these constraints and attributes to them all its misfortunes,” Mazower says.

The British historian recalls the time when he took a serious interest in modern Greek history in the late 1970s.

“The approach to the past was shaped to a remarkable extent by the viewpoint of the ‘foreign finger.’ This approach completely distorted the reality of what had happened in the 1940s.

“The same thing – this idea that everything in the country is decided by foreigners – seems to be happening today,” he says. “But it’s not like that. Greece had choices in 2010, and it has a choice today – among which is returning to a national currency.” As a friend of Greece, does Mazower think that the country should return to the drachma if European policy does not change?

“I don’t know the answer to that. I think Greek public opinion is very sensible on this issue. It says that Greece must remain in the euro and that eurozone policy must change.”

However, he says, the cost of a Greek default would be far greater compared to the early 1930s, the last time the country went bankrupt, as being excluded from capital markets – among other things – would come at a far heftier cost.

From a European perspective, Mazower says, the case of Greece has catapulted the perennial dilemmas of European integration onto center stage.

“The political repercussions of austerity policy are possibly more important than the economic consequences, because they throw into the question whether an organization like the EU, and especially the eurozone, can function without undermining the national sovereignty of its member-states,” he says.

Furthermore, in today’s Europe, he says, the revival of nationalist reflexes has not only affected the debt-wracked countries of the south, but also the fiscally sound countries of the north. People’s solidarity seems to extend as far as national borders. For this reason, he says, it is wrong to interpret the European crisis along the lines of “an elite which imposed austerity measures on a number of countries, violating their national sovereignty. The governments in the creditor countries also responded to public opinion at home, in accordance with their own understanding of their national sovereignty.”

Mazower, a champion of European unification, says that “the euro did not help the Union; [the EU] was stronger before it was adopted. There is a widespread sense that the EU has lost its way, that we must rediscover the principle of solidarity across borders, without which the Union cannot flourish.”

Asked about future prospects, he points to two likely scenarios. “Either the austerity policy will be significantly eased over time, so that the euro is not exclusively tied to it in people’s minds, or the euro will slowly disintegrate.” European integration, he likes to underline, was a chapter in a two-century search for peace in Europe. “The EU’s problem is that it essentially succeeded in this quest. And it has not found an equally noble mission to serve in its aftermath. It cannot exist only to preserve a sound currency.”

Lack of trust

Before it sets out a new big goal, however, the EU will have to solve more urgent issues – most importantly Greece and its new, radical government. The challenge for SYRIZA, Mazower says, was “not to point out to the Europeans that the policy of austerity is wrong. The challenge was to prove that Greece was a partner that could be trusted. That is the heart of the problem at the moment: the lack of mutual trust.”

Why has SYRIZA failed to win the trust of Europeans? Mazower is cautious here. He says he has no firsthand knowledge of the negotiations and that he has been away from the country for too long. Nevertheless, he admits that “we academics have a tendency to think that once we have shown what is right and what is wrong, then everything else will fall into place. That’s why we become academics and not politicians. My impression is that the approach of the government was to show, in a somewhat academic way, the consequences of austerity – and by the way, I agree on their analysis. On the other side of the table, Greece’s partners viewed this as a kind of lecture designed to enlighten them, when what they were after were specific, detailed proposals regarding how the government planned to tackle a whole host of issues. There were two completely distinct approaches talking across one another.”

Mazower has written extensively on Greece’s occupation by the Nazi forces. What is his opinion of the leftist-led government’s decision to put the issue of German World War II reparations at the top of the agenda?

“It is an unfortunate story. West Germany got away with not owning up to what happened in Greece. And German public opinion knows little about what occurred during the Occupation. On the other hand, the timing of this leaves a bad taste. Greece could have raised this issue at any point in the previous years. It chose to do so now, in a particularly propagandistic way, at a moment when it is financially dependent on Germany. How is this supposed to help restore trust?” says Mazower, adding he is “impressed” at the level of self-examination with which the Germans approach their past.

He points out that it would be welcome if the German public “knew more” about the Nazi occupation of Greece. Delving deeper into the events of that time would benefit Greeks too, he adds.

“It is a crucial and complicated chapter in Greece’s modern history, one in which there was no united nation – society was deeply divided. There are some big lessons there, if one takes the time to really look into what happened.”

The Columbia professor has also written about the “Goudi coup” of 1909, which was followed by the rise of Eleftherios Venizelos and a period of prosperity. Unlike 1909, when the collapse of the old parties led to a period of national renewal, the crisis of 2009 has spawned a period of decline. Is it just about the personality of a great man?

“It is a very interesting comparison,” Mazower says. “The international context was very different then. The global system and the mentality of that time favored war and the expansion of national territory. Also, it was an era in which a certain type of charismatic political authority was still attractive – people like Venizelos, who spoke with unbridled optimism about a glorious future. Today in Europe – and in particular in Greece – it’s hard to find such optimism. Nobody is looking for messiahs in politics anymore.”

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