Hopelessly devoted to EU

When I look out the window here in Faliron and see the endless effort being made by construction workers and their machinery to get the seafront ready for the Olympics next year, the coming and going of cars, trucks and motorbikes along the coastal avenue, and the sea stretching toward the capes of Sounion and Tenaron and beyond, I am assured we are still living in the real world. Because the rest – the endless buzzing of words that constitutes our public life – grows ever more bizarre and disjointed. Greece is nearing the end of a successful term as president of the European Union, given that Prime Minister Costas Simitis has had to steer a course of compromise through the roughest waters the Union has faced in a long time. Despite having appeared to have left preparations for the presidency to the very last moment, Greece has organized grand ceremonies (such as the Accession Treaty signing) with tasteful pomp and great success and has pushed forward the agenda on crucial issues, such as migration. However, Iraq has determined international relations and the global economy’s woes have continued with little sign of a recovery. So, just keeping the EU on a straight course for the summit (like Noah in an ark full of squabbling couples) has been an achievement. The European leaders’ meeting in three weeks’ time will be dominated by the unveiling of the blueprint Constitution for the future of Europe. It is most fitting that this will occur in northern Greece, the part of the EU closest to Turkey and the great Balkan hinterland, the troubled last part of Europe to be considered for membership of the EU. The future is upon us, with all the difficult decisions that this entails for each country with regard to dealing with our new neighbors and with each other. Unfortunately, the EU presidency’s demands have forced Simitis to spend most of the past month jetting from capital to capital to prepare for the summit – after April 16 there were a stunning 24 capitals to visit. And he has had to host many meetings in Athens as well. It is no wonder that Greece is now of the opinion that the EU should have a more permanent type of presidency, breaking ranks with other small countries who obviously have not recently had to face the rigors of running a presidency and a government at the same time. The problem is that while Simitis has been living out of a suitcase («raising awareness of Greece,» as he calls it) the natives at home have been getting restless, indulging in the old sport of feeling neglected for the sake of some grandiose scheme. Here we are witness, once again, to the way our politics creates a kind of virtual reality that has very real consequences. The laying off of 500 people by a factory relocating to another country and a couple of bankruptcies have been presented by the media as an economic and social catastrophe, despite the fact that more businesses have opened than closed, and more people have been hired than fired in the past few years. The high prices of fresh produce in street markets are the staple diet of the nightly television news. A tabloid’s allegations of corruption among some of Simitis’s closest aides (which a judicial investigation found to be groundless) were taken up by the opposition and media as proof that the government was on the ropes. This created a climate of tension out of all proportion to events. The opposition, which has precious few alternatives to offer in the way of policy, leapt at this. The government, in turn, took the easy way out, claiming to be the victim of a conspiracy between unnamed business interests and the opposition. Simitis declared he had been stabbed in the back at the country’s expense. «I have been prime minister for seven-and-a-half years and in that time I have observed the presidencies of all the other 14 EU countries. In none did I see such a rabid attempt to mar the reputation of the presidency, during the presidency. I did not see that in any other country. Was there criticism? Sure. Comments? Of course. But in other countries there is, to a lesser or greater extent, a common aim to make the country look good,» he charged at a meeting of his PASOK party’s central committee and parliamentary group on Tuesday. This is the pattern: The news media may dismiss the biggest stories while making mountains of molehills, and the government, used to years of coddling by most newspapers and television stations, tries to undermine its critics by questioning their motives. Whoever is to blame, all that this achieves is to take an otherwise minor issue and turn it into a major rift that will determine policy. In the end, the truly serious issues are left to drift, because a government fighting for its survival is not going to incur any more political costs. So, in the year left before elections, do not expect any reforms to the labor or pension systems, or legislation that will make it easier to try to start and operate a business, or anything else that will make the economy more competitive in the dog-eat-dog world of a bigger and less wealthy Europe. If we consider that 40 percent of Greek salaries go toward health and pension contributions, and that these are not expected to keep the system going very long, it is clear that something has to be done urgently. But that is an old story. Maybe some day there will be a government with the guts – or the right juxtaposition of news media and stars – to tackle these issues. But it is not just that we fight our greatest battles over secondary issues: Because of this same political weakness, we sow confusion as to who we are and what we are doing. It is an open secret, for example, that the Greek government has asked Washington not to include it in President Bush’s statements thanking countries that helped with the US-led invasion of Iraq. In fact, reports here claim Greece’s help was fourth in importance, following Britain, Spain and Portugal, all of which took an active lead in open support for Bush’s policy. Greece allowed use of Souda Bay, free overflights and port facilities – playing a crucial, if passive, role. The United States (in this, at least) did Athens’s bidding and Greece has been heroically absent from Bush’s thanks and Simitis has not been summoned for some cattle branding and other forms of male bonding at Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas. Seeing as the anti-war demonstrators had already tarred the government with the brush of collaboration, one wonders what is to be gained by keeping Greece’s contribution a secret, other than to keep playing the game of doing one thing while saying another. Strangely, we find ourselves, for once, in a stronger position than Turkey with regard to the United States, and we are doing our best to keep our distance from our chief ally. Surely there can be no other country as selflessly devoted to the idea of Europe. We hope that at least when we beg Paris and Berlin (and the rest of Old Europe) to acknowledge our contribution, they will be just as willing to accommodate us as Washington has been in denying our support. Personally, I believe that the European Union is the greatest thing to happen to Europe since the French Revolution and the American War of Independence, which preceded it by 13 years. The European Union, with the challenges that it faces in being able to keep its people in the comfort and security to which they are accustomed, is the great hope for liberal, democratic values and the laboratory for the solution of many of the world’s problems. But that does not mean that being devoted to the growth and development of Europe should force us undercover in our dealings with the United States. We made known our disagreement over Iraq, from there on we chose not to obstruct the US effort. We should be frank enough to acknowledge who we are and where we stand. Otherwise, the ones we help will owe us nothing, while the others will see us with suspicion and do their best to overtake us. But we would act that way if we were suddenly convinced that we live in a world of cause and effect rather than in a nebulous place in which we drift into bitter battles against each other on the basis of party and business affiliation, while the country, somehow, remains in orbit somewhere between the United States and the European Union, not even trying to determine its own course.