Only a handful of Greeks can be said to have defined the course of modern Greece and had a profound impact on public life during 40 of the nation’s 200 years of independence. Konstantinos Karamanlis was one of them.
Karamanlis set out from his village a “nobody among nobodies, without title or distinction” – as he liked to say – harboring the ambition to change Greece’s destiny. And as incredible as it sounds, he did so to a great extent, in a way that reads much like fiction today.
He was a dedicated and erudite scholar of our nation’s history and believed that throughout that history, Greece faced three major and fundamental challenges: economic underdevelopment, external insecurity and political instability. Indeed, poverty was a constant companion for entire generations of Greeks throughout the country’s history. Never-ending wars, invasions and occupations deprived our nation of its freedom, but also of its ability to achieve steady and constant progress. Regime changes, uprisings, coups, movements and short-lived governments, moreover, have been a permanent characteristic of public life and a constant obstacle to growth in modern times.
Karamanlis was convinced that there was just one way to radically and irrevocably deal with all three of those problems: Greece’s full and equal participation in a united Europe – united not just economically, but also politically and militarily. A Europe, that is, which would safeguard the economic growth, democratic stability and external security of all of its members – and Greece, of course. It was this belief that prompted Karamanlis’ decision back in the 1950s that Greece should be a part of Europe, leading to the signing in 1961 of the Association Agreement between Greece and the European Economic Community (EEC). Even though the decision was made, its implementation was no easy matter.
To begin with, the effort was hampered by the 1967-74 dictatorship, while after the fall of the junta Greece had to prove that it fulfilled all the terms of membership. It was a monumental task that Karamanlis managed to accomplish. Within just a few months, he succeeded in consolidating a sense of security in the country, with free and fair elections and an inviolable referendum that settled the question of what form of government the country would have once and for all, and established a truly stable democratic system of governance. In short, he achieved what was internationally hailed as a political miracle, the smooth transition from a dictatorship to a democracy.
Nevertheless, Greece’s European accession still faced numerous obstacles, both domestic and external. Inside Greece, powerful political forces were opposed to Karamanlis’ policy of accession even though they fully espoused the exact same policies when they later came to power. There were also many outside Greece who did not want to see the country a part of the European Community, either because they believed it would be a financial burden or were afraid of Europe having to shoulder Greek-Turkish disputes and the Cyprus issue.
As a case in point, the European Commission denied Greece’s application for membership in 1975 and Karamanlis had to reach out to individual EEC governments to reverse the decision. It is also indicative that the initial reaction of the incredibly influential German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, on hearing of Greece’s aspirations, was “Over my dead body.” This is the same chancellor that Karamanlis not only managed to persuade, but also turned into a close personal friend, and, more importantly, a champion of Greece’s efforts to join the European Community. It is also the same chancellor who later went on to say, after the change in government in Athens, that “it is not Greece that entered the Common Market, it is Karamanlis.”
The sentiment was echoed by another close friend of Karamanlis – and of Greece – French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing. This was a time when the French-German axis was in full swing, when the decisions of the two powerful leaders were law in Europe – and both supported Karamanlis’ efforts in a way that was instrumental to the country’s eventual accession.
Greece’s preparations for Europe did not begin in 1974, of course. During his first premiership in 1955-63, an unprecedented period of government stability for Greece, Karamanlis laid down the foundations for economic growth and took the country out of its perpetual state of poverty. During this period, often dubbed “golden,” per capita income rose by an unprecedented 70%. Karamanlis also sought to smooth the edges of politics by implementing a water-under-the-bridge policy and abolishing capital punishment and exile, forms of punishment imposed during the Civil War.
Looking back, it is remarkable that Karamanlis accomplished what he did. I personally believe it was thanks to his personality and his dignity. He is famed for having inspired the respect not just of his friends, but also his rivals, and also for the trust he inspired in Greece abroad. Two particular incidents come to mind that illustrate what kind of man he was.
It is 1975 and we are in a meeting in the prime minister’s rather cramped office on the second floor of Parliament. Karamanlis, Foreign Minister Dimitris Bitsios, myself and a couple more associates are sat around the small table. One of these associates writes something down on a piece of paper, folds it and slides it in my direction. Mid-sentence, Karamanlis intercepts it with his hand. When the meeting is over, he pushes it back to me, without opening it or saying a word. It was a lesson in manners and respect that I remember to this day. It is an incident that demonstrates how Karamanlis combined dignity with discretion and foresight.
The other incident took place at Gymnich, a castle outside of Bonn used by the German government for hosting official guests. Karamanlis and Schmidt had reached an agreement on an issue raised by the German chancellor. When Karamanlis recommended an exchange of letters so there was some written confirmation of their agreement, Schmidt said it was unnecessary: “Your word is enough.”
That was then. What about now? Forty years after Greece joined the European Community, has it given us everything Karamanlis anticipated? Meaning security, democracy and prosperity? Meaning all the things Greece was so deprived of?
The truth is that Europe today is not what Karamanlis had hoped for and remains without unity on the political and defense fronts. Its leadership has often fallen short and public trust in its institutions is not at its best right now. Of course no one can predict whether these issues will be resolved in the future. My personal opinion – for what it’s worth – is that Europe will become fully unified, for the simple reason that this is in its best interest as it risks being sidelined by the new giants emerging on the global scene.
But even in its present state, Europe today vindicates Karamanlis, despite the numerous and significant challenges we face: Because we have a better and more stable democracy than we ever had; because today, after a decade-long crisis, we are well positioned (at number 47) among the 186 countries on the World Bank’s ranking of per capita income in 2019; because Europe gives us political and diplomatic support for our security challenges; because Europe is the only place where we found support and help during the economic crisis; because Europe is the only one to help us with billions of euros in dealing with the fallout of the pandemic.
In other words, Greece is more democratic, richer and safer inside Europe today than it would have been outside. Every public opinion poll shows that the majority of Greeks and the political forces representing them feel the same way too. This is why every government since the restoration of democracy, without fail, has adopted and implemented Karamanlis’ pro-European policies, regardless of their objections when they were in the opposition – and this is the best and strongest proof of his vindication.
Petros Molyviatis is a former Greek minister of foreign affairs.