Greece, Helmut Schmidt and the start of a complex European relationship

Greece, Helmut Schmidt and the start of a complex European relationship

The death of former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt in November received minor coverage in Greece. Perhaps the fallout from the national elections a few weeks earlier or the bailout measures that had to be voted through Parliament outdid the passing of the charismatic German Social Democrat.

A different explanation, though, is that Schmidt was a somewhat misunderstood figure in Greece and rarely recognized for his role in smoothing the way for the country to join the European Economic Community in 1981. In this regard, the German politician lived permanently in the shadow of Valery Giscard d’Estaing, the French president at the time. The French leader was seen as the one who championed Greece’s cause and ushered Constantine Karamanlis through the EEC’s doors.

However, as historian Eirini Karamouzi outlines in her recent book “Greece, the EEC and the Cold War 1974-1979: The Second Enlargement,” Schmidt played a key role in paving the way for Greece’s accession. Kathimerini English Edition asked the Sheffield University lecturer about Schmidt’s contribution during this period and whether what we have learned about the tense negotiations of that time can be useful in assessing current relations between Greece and its European partners.
In Greece, Valery Giscard d’Estaing is seen very much as the champion of the Greek cause as far as EEC membership is concerned. However, your book suggests that the role of Helmut Schmidt in paving the way for Greek accession deserves a greater mention. Firstly, can you outline what impact Schmidt had in this process and, secondly, how his input weighs up against that of Giscard?

In contrast to France, where strategic interests played second fiddle to obsessive electoral maneuvering at home, Germany’s role was consistent and fruitful to completing the Greek negotiations. As paymaster of Europe, Bonn made compromises materially possible and was able to move beyond its narrow national interests even when the sensitive issue of Greek and Turkish workers came to the fore. Schmidt’s role in Greek popular perception is remembered in his reaction upon hearing of Greece’s desire to apply for EEC membership, when he famously exclaimed, “Over my dead body.” His vehement opposition referred to Greece’s structural economic problems at a time of global financial crisis, but mainly the future of the country’s foreign policy orientation in the aftermath of Greece’s withdrawal from the military wing of NATO and the unstable domestic situation following the Cyprus debacle. However, the story does not end here. As soon as Schmidt met with Karamanlis in 1975, he was convinced that they shared their same concerns about the politics of security and realized that failure to meet Greece’s EEC demands would undermine Karamanlis’s position, imperil the country’s democratization process and, ultimately, Greece’s foreign policy orientation. 

What kind of objections did Schmidt come up against in his own country when he plumped for Greece becoming an EEC member?

The major issue for West Germany in the 1970s was free movement of labor at a time of rising unemployment and recession for the whole of the industrialized West. Greece as a small country would have had a marginal effect and the truth is that already by 1978 there had been a net return of Greek workers from the EEC to Greece, with the total of those working within the Community falling from 250,000 to 150,000. As with the rest of the dossiers of the negotiations, Greece, because of its small size, did not pose serious problems. But it was the precedent that Greek accession would set for the Iberian countries and the potential for a future influx of workers from Spain, and eventually Turkey, that proved a major source of anxiety for Germany. The potential of the spillover was a recurrent theme in the Greek EEC talks and a reminder that it’s rarely the case that in European affairs a country or a problem is considered on its own merits and on ad hoc basis. On the contrary, there is a constant sense of connectivity and interdependence, which explains the slow-moving process of enlargement talks and European integration more generally.

What sort of issues were troubling the other EEC member-states about Greece joining the then Economic Community?

The major areas of dispute were in the areas of agriculture and social affairs. Mediterranean products in the 1970s were not as protected within the CAP [Common Agricultural Policy] as the northern products, so Italy and France stood to lose substantially from Greek competition unless the CAP was revised in their favor. However, a reform of the acquis is an expensive and long-drawn process. But most importantly, saying yes to Greece would make it much harder to say no to other Southern European countries, and thus the major danger was the effect such successive rounds of enlargement would have on the character and workings of the Community.

Turning to the view from Athens at the time, how was the Greek government handling the protracted negotiations and the resistance it was coming up against?

Most frequently, Karamanlis’s government has been accused of prioritizing speed to the detriment of substance. And it is true that the Greek government was negotiating with its back against the wall, with Spain and Portugal knocking on the EEC’s door and with the Europeans considering “globalizing” the negotiations, in other words pairing up all three countries. That would have been detrimental for Athens, as Karamanlis knew very well that the small economic size of the country was a huge advantage in the negotiations because of its minimal impact on the Community. Moreover, he understood that his political capital and convincing arguments of democratization and stability for Greece could get lost in the nitty-gritty of EC negotiations. And it was during this difficult period of the negotiations that tribute must be paid to the small groups of dedicated Greek negotiators such as [Vyron] Theodoropoulos and [Giorgos] Kontogeorgis, whose attention to detail proved to be crucial in stripping the Community of any excuses for further procrastination. The Greek success lay therefore both in the strategy and tactics applied as well as the favorable political context.

When the agreement was finally made for Greece to join, was it a case of the classic European compromise that we became familiar with in the ensuing years or was there a sense that the EEC was moving into a new era with renewed purpose?

There is always a sense of compromise. Greece paid a steep economic price but achieved political stabilization and the potential to realize its modernization ambitions. Similarly, the Nine were apprehensive about the future of the Community but also expected that in the next enlargement round, they could settle older disputes and correct injustices. What is more, the prospect of the Greek enlargement witnessed the emergence of a new sense of purpose of enlargement: the political role of promoter of democracy. In accepting Greece’s bid for membership, the Nine set out on a path that would eventually lead to far-reaching changes in the whole nature of the Community and its role as an international actor. By utilizing its newly found soft power – centered on the promise of enlargement – the European Community redefined itself as a civilian power and differentiated – most of the time in a complementary way – its role within the Atlantic world, offering a European solution to the European crisis of the South in the 1970s.

What kind of similarities are there between the deliberations to get Greece into the EEC four decades ago and the negotiations between Greece and its lenders over the last few years to keep the country in the eurozone?

It may sound like a cliche, but ultimately trustworthiness and consistency are indispensable, as is the appreciation that any crisis is as much about politics as it is about economics. All these themes pertain to the current negotiations between Greece and its lenders, and in their absence, the relationship is bound to go from cool to sour.

In what key ways has Greece’s relationship with the EEC, then the EU, changed since it joined in 1981?

Greece’s relationship with the EU has undergone, as all turbulent relationships, its ebbs and flows. From an awkward partner to one of the most Europhile member-states, from a paradigm of success to the sick man of Europe. For the Greeks, as the rest of the Balkans, Europe has represented the burning aspiration for modernization. The major question that will determine the Greek-EU relationship in the future is for how long will this aspiration be kept alive, and in what ways, if at all, will the EU be able to deliver.

To return to the late Helmut Schmidt, in recent years he was very critical of Angela Merkel’s handling of the euro crisis. What kind of qualities did he bring to the European project in his day that are perhaps lacking among the current crop of EU leaders?

He was truly a “global chancellor,” in that he understood the interconnections and interdependence of international affairs on a wider scale. However, it is unfair to compare these two periods, as the European project was at the time still a nascent, relatively small organization under the Atlantic cocoon, and West Germany was a completely different country.

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