Constantine Karamanlis signs the agreement for Greece’s accession to the European Economic Community on May 28, 1979, fulfilling his single greatest ambition for the country after restoring democracy.
Twenty years have gone by since Constantine Karamanlis’s passing and one thing remains clear: He was a true political leader who gained the respect of the the Greek people and of whom New Democracy is proud.
Contemplating his decisive contribution with regard to Greece’s historical course, I will not focus only on the bold reforms in which he played a central role, such as the 1975 Constitution or Greece’s accession to the European Union. I would also like to reflect on the bigger picture of his legacy and shed light on how we can make good use of it within the current political context.
Karamanlis’s perspective on things was characterized by a distinctive clarity. He defined his strategy always bearing in mind that four main targets had to be met: economic growth, broadening and deepening democracy, security, and integration into European institutions. What is of vital importance is that he dealt with those issues while always taking into account that they are interlinked. They constituted strands of the same strategic approach that was aimed at overcoming Greece’s stagnation. That wouldn’t be feasible without a competitive economy.
Karamanlis achieved this goal. During his first tenure as prime minister in the Metapolitefsi (the historical period after the fall of the 1967-74 military junta) Greece’s economic boom played a decisive role in the dynamic modernization of Greek society. This is a reminder that turbulent periods can be followed by periods of rapid growth. Karamanlis realized that growth was a necessary condition for achieving the rest of his goals. Without an improvement in the living standards of the Greek people, establishing a strong parliamentary democracy wouldn’t be feasible in a country that had been deeply wounded by a deadly civil war. Karamanlis also realized that another critical precondition for Greece to thrive in the EU would be laying the foundations of strong institutions. We should always bear in mind this particular combination of social and economic policy that Karamanlis consistently pursued.
The fact that since 1974 we have been living in a stable democracy is the result of a policy mix that included dedication to reform and decisive prudence. Greece’s accession to the EU strengthened our country and created the framework that led to us securing our position as a developed nation of the Western world at the close of the 20th century. Achieving this goal was neither easy nor simple.
There is no doubt that Karamanlis knew Greece was not fully prepared to be part of the European family during the 1980s. He saw beyond the predominant view of that time and the reaction of the opposition, realizing that Greece’s participation in the EU would function as an anchor, an institutional, financial and geopolitical shelter. Thirty-five years had to pass, until the abysmal summer of 2015, to realize how wise his choice was. Since 1980, New Democracy has been safeguarding this important national acquis. During 1990-93 the party – albeit at great political cost – brought serious financial management back to the country, took important reform initiatives and launched key infrastructure projects across Greece. Between 2004 and 2009 the country’s international relations were greatly broadened and significant privatizations were promoted. And in the years between 2012 and 2015, under circumstances that we must never forget, New Democracy was the predominant force that kept this country in the eurozone, in Europe and, ultimately, in the Western world. Even during the nightmarish summer of 2015, New Democracy, alongside other progressive political forces, made an immense effort to keep the country from collapsing. In the final hour, New Democracy placed the national interest above that of the party, something that today’s government has never done.
I am certainly not implying that New Democracy was the only party that worked toward Greece’s integration in the EU. However, New Democracy emerged as the stable force which, during this crisis, succeeded in safeguarding national stability. It was able to do so by following in the footsteps of Constantine Karamanlis and the clear lines with which he predefined the country’s future.
What made Constantine Karamanlis stand apart was his insightful and realistic approach when dealing with great challenges: sometimes by softening disputes, sometimes by holding discussions with other political parties, and sometimes by boldly broadening the popular base of the party.
Nowadays, long-term weaknesses like those that our founder had faced from time to time have unfortunately not only resurfaced but also multiplied. I would not hesitate to say that some of those weaknesses have returned stronger under the dominance of the opposition’s nationalist populism after 2012, and also during their tragic and traumatic administration after 2015.
Greece’s image, its economy, its institutional function, its daily tranquillity and security, the geopolitical stability – everything that we have taken for granted – are now thrown into doubt. The self-confidence of the Greek people is subsiding, while strong underground currents are eroding the very values of democracy, by promoting authoritarianism and by undermining the institutions.
The situation outside Greece’s borders is growing more and more complex. Critical geopolitical standards are changing, and our neighbors are becoming increasingly unpredictable. In the meantime, Europe is in search of a new orientation and Greece is becoming the European Union’s weakest link.
The challenge for today’s Greece is to rapidly reboot the country. And for that to happen, it is worth remembering yet another piece of Constantine Karamanlis’s legacy, apart from his responsibility, his insightful view, his courage and bravery, which I have already mentioned.
I am referring to his radical nature. He was the leader who, responding to the demands of his time, proceeded to the historical renewal of the party’s ideological identity.
At this juncture, New Democracy and the progressive segment of society cannot be limited to a defensive role. There is a need for a bold step forward, a need to prepare the country for future developments in governance, financial and fiscal management and institutional reconstruction. Greece needs to become a modern democracy which will provide its citizens with security, meritocracy, justice and solidarity, a democracy that will adapt to the era of the fourth industrial revolution, which is already taking place, a democracy whose citizens will be proud and extrovert, creative and optimistic.
All of this of course must be achieved – following in Karamanlis’s footsteps – through hard work, by seeking common political ground, alongside a united people and – most importantly – with a positive core of values, leading the nation into the 21st century.
Greece needs a new long-term strategy, a strategy that might overwhelm or surprise many, just like the choices made by Constantine Karamanlis. Let us not forget that he himself was accused of being a traitor to the Greek Rally party (Synagermos) and then of deserting the National Radical Union (ERE). Later, he was accused of serving the interests of big business and at the same time of being “obsessed with socialism.” He was called a communist because he legalized the Communist Party of Greece (KKE), a right-winger because he believed in Greece’s European future, and a centrist because he expanded the party by bringing in new forces. However, it is precisely because of these choices that Greece was able to move forward.
Our mission is not an easy one, because unfortunately the forces of inertia are very strong. However, every generation defines its fate and, by extension, the fate of the country. We were given much during the years of prosperity. It’s time for us to give back what we must, our ideas, our struggles, ourselves, in order for Greece to emerge from the crisis and get back on track. The challenges are great. In our reflection in the mirror we see the responsibility that we have to assume. Anything else would be inconceivable.
Karamanlis taught us that history is written by those who are not afraid to shape it, those who do not whine, hidden behind the safety of easy criticism, by those who confront challenges with courage and see the public arena as a chance to offer, not to take.
In this respect, this anniversary is simultaneously a time of pride and of contemplation. But it also offers an opportunity. If we really want to serve what Constantine Karamanlis and his political associates expressed, we must broaden our horizons, going beyond the steps they took. We owe it to Greece, to our people and most of all to our children.
Kyriakos Mitsotakis is the leader of Greece’s main opposition New Democracy party.