Grexit, Brexit and whatever comes next

Grexit, Brexit and whatever comes next

I am neither a citizen of the United Kingdom living in Greece nor a Greek in Britain. At first, as I considered the topic “Beyond Brexit: What comes next for EU nationals? The Brexit effect on the status of EU citizens: Greeks in the post-Brexit Britain,” I wondered what I could contribute to the great debate raging in this country as it negotiates its divorce from the European Union and as it considers its future outside the bloc. And then it struck me: These are the thoughts that I, as a Greek in Greece, have had over the past eight years as my country has clung on to EU membership. How would Greece separate from the eurozone and the European Union if this became necessary? What would life for the Greeks be like on a moon orbiting the entity which they had once called home? So I have approached the issue as a European citizen who is concerned that if his country finds itself outside the Union, it may face even greater difficulties than it has faced before. I hope that some of these concerns may shed some light on issues that will interest or affect people in Britain – in the hope that my perceptions of Britain and the British will not appear presumptuous or out of touch.

The more I thought on the issue, the more I understood that the people of the two countries may have differing perceptions of themselves and of their country’s relationship with the European Union, but they also share common concerns. I believe that there is much room to improve the already excellent relations between the two nations as they both enter new chapters in their history – whether one remains in the EU and the other is out, whether both find themselves in a world where, for whichever reason, both are outside the EU as we know it today. Common to all, in any case, is the fear of our children having fewer opportunities, of roads closed and journeys suspended, of a deep sense of dislocation and disorientation, of having to deal with the major problems of the age with fewer friends and allies, without frameworks of cooperation that already exist within the European Union (despite its many weaknesses).

At the start of the great Greek crisis in late 2009 and early 2010 we in Greece suddenly found ourselves facing not only a dead end in our economy but also the great danger of exiting the eurozone and the Union itself. And, without going into the ideological or political reasons as to why Grexit would have been disastrous, I need mention only the practical problems of a country that will have to manage further economic and social decline while adopting a new currency. Surviving this would demand the strategic thinking, the tactical execution and the discipline that, had they existed, would not only have prevented Greece’s failure within the eurozone but would have made the country successful on many levels. The international bailouts helped prevent an exit from the eurozone, but, as we all know, this was achieved at great cost – economic, social and political – and without Greece being out of the woods yet. (Last year, with GDP at 178.6 billion euros, the European Commission’s latest report put Greece’s public debt in 2017 at 181.1 percent of GDP, or, according to the 2018 state budget a gross government debt of 318.3 billion euros. In 2009, the public debt was 299.7 billion euros, or 129.7 percent of a GDP that then came to 231 billion euros. In short, after the massive bailouts, after eight years of austerity and reforms, the state is deeper in debt than before. Even after 107 billion euros were cut off the total in 2012. And this without going into what so many Greeks now owe in taxes, loans and social security fees that they are unable to pay.)

When the possibility of Grexit loomed large again, in the first six months of the SYRIZA-Independent Greeks government in 2015, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was acutely aware that the majority of Greeks had not given him a mandate to lead their country outside the European Union. This forced him to perform the great and embarrassing reversal – or “kolotoumba” as it is now known in English too – voiding the result of the referendum of July 2015, a result for which he had campaigned vigorously, during which time he and his party had framed the equivalent of Britain’s “Remainers” – the “Menoume Evropi” people – as elitists and quislings, as not real Greeks.

The Greeks’ relationship with the European Union has been ambivalent, reflecting the political and economic situation within the country itself and its relationship with the Union. In 1981, the year that Greece joined the then European Economic Community, both Greeks and the British were rather skeptical about whether joining the EEC was a good thing. In the case of the Greeks, in October 1981, when the socialist PASOK party came to power in a landslide promising to lead Greece out of the EEC and NATO, 38 percent of Greeks thought membership a good thing, 26 percent thought it neither good nor bad, and 21 percent thought it a bad thing; in the United Kingdom, the corresponding figures were 27 percent good, 27 percent neither good nor bad, 41 percent bad. More Greeks than Britons were in favor of the EEC but not by very much.

These are figures from the Eurobarometer of the time. After that, as the Greeks saw the benefits of membership, through subsidies but also through the demands for better governance, by 1990 some 75 percent of Greeks thought that being part of the European Union was a good thing, with only 8 percent against it. In 2004, when Greece was at its apogee, with the Olympic Games in Athens, with Greece winning the European soccer title, with euro membership, 82 percent thought European Union membership a good thing. When the crisis hit, these figures dived, with 58 percent of Greeks expressing negative thoughts about the EU at the end of 2010. And yet, even then, they placed their hopes in the Union: 37 percent thought that the EU was best able to get Greece out of the crisis, followed by 17 percent who had faith in the Greek government, 10 percent in the G20, 7 percent in the IMF and 4 percent in the United States.

Also worth noting are some findings by Greece’s Public Issue company. In May 2016, just before the Brexit referendum (with 55 percent of those polled saying they wanted Britain to remain in the EU), negative attitudes toward the EU in Greece were at 55 percent, but the euro was supported by 54 percent of those polled. By February 2017, support for the EU had risen to 52 percent.

I hope I haven’t tired you with these figures. What I want to show is that even as the relationship between Greece and the EU has been a rollercoaster ride, even when faith in the European Union has been low, most Greeks want to remain within it. It’s interesting here to add a figure from the last Eurobarometer, which was published in December: Whereas 75 percent of all European Union member-state citizens have a positive view of the EU, Greece, with 58 percent, is right at the bottom, with the United Kingdom just above, at 59 percent. With such similar percentages, however, Greeks want to remain in the European Union while the British, albeit by a slim majority, have voted to leave.

The reasons that forced Prime Minister Tsipras to reverse himself and to “correct” the popular vote (which rejected the agreement said to have been offered by our European partners at the time) went far beyond economics. For Greece, membership of the European Union has been the fundamental achievement of the post-World War II years. Aside from the trauma of the ongoing crisis and the tensions that this created between the Greeks themselves and between Greeks and some of their fellow Europeans, the European Union has benefited the Greeks enormously. Not only through the billions of euros in farm subsidies (a mixed blessing) and the major infrastructure projects that were built, but through a huge leap in the quality of life, in expectations of better times and through an improvement in government. We know that things are far from perfect – indeed they are less than adequate at many levels of the public administration – but the EU has imposed rules of civil behavior and demanded the rule of law. It has safeguarded democracy after a history of division and military intervention in politics, it has provided a framework for stability and prosperity unprecedented in the country’s history. The euro put an end to perennial currency instability. The historian George Dertilis’s latest – and, he says, his last – book has the apt title “Seven Wars, Four Civil Wars, Seven Bankruptcies, 1821-2016.” The consensus is that it is not the European Union that is to blame for Greece’s ills, however tempting it always is to blame “foreigners.” The EU has been a positive factor in our lives and it is difficult to believe that any Greek would argue that the quality of our democracy, of our life, would improve outside of it.

Much of this positive balance can be traced back to the very British values that have come to Greece not through a century-and-a-half of efforts by the so-called “English” party in Greece (as opposed to the “French” and “Russian” ones) but through the European Union. These are the need for reform, for the rule of law, for an efficient banking sector, and so on. Liberal democracy, the Enlightenment, gained strength in Greece in this way. And though the battle between the forces of division does not end – and at times like these it sometimes seems vain to hope for more rational politics and discourse – the European Union has offered protection at many levels and also made us stronger.

In Britain, by definition those who want Brexit believe that EU membership weakens Britain. What lifts Greece they see as a burden. I will not get into the arguments for and against Brexit, what it will cost and whether it will benefit Britain. What I believe is that losing Britain will be a fundamental loss to the European Union at a time when it needs a combination of vision and pragmatism to meet pressing challenges. The British could always be counted on for pragmatism – on the need to make things work. And it is this need that will strengthen the bond between Britain and Greece after Brexit, or Grexit, or both. Greece may no longer have to depend on a military alliance with Britain to survive, as it did from the War of Independence until the last civil war, but the two countries share much and they have to defend their ties in education, in culture and the arts, in tourism, in shipping and trade, in defense, in health. In all sectors there are people and agencies on both sides working on new opportunities, strengthening those ties every single day. There is the potential for a special relationship, where both countries will benefit by providing opportunities to their citizens to move around freely – whether working or retired.

European Union membership brought a new equality between Greece and the United Kingdom and it facilitated relations at all levels. These bonds could have continued to grow stronger within the European Union but, in the case of Greece and Britain, the bonds may be stronger than their joint membership of the Union. The bonds will hold, whatever comes next. Because these two very different countries, with their different perceptions of themselves and others, with their very different histories repeatedly intersecting, know each other perhaps better than they know anyone else. In many ways they share a common culture, from ancient Greece to Hercule Poirot. And as long as there are people of good will and understanding on both sides – and there are many – Greece and Britain will continue to build on a shared past and face the future together.

What the Greeks can learn from the British

Chief among the benefits of Greek-British relations is the exposure to Greeks of what Yiorgos Theotokas, the novelist and one of the leading intellectuals of last century, called “a superior model of political freedom” that evolved in Britain. He hoped the alliance between Greece and the UK would facilitate the transmission of what he described as absolute respect for the principle of liberty and the rule of law; a love of tradition; freedom from dogma; the ability to adapt socially, economically and politically; the avoidance of violence and dictatorship.

To this we can add Britain’s experience in a wide range of issues: handling soccer violence (compare the recent, almost ritualized “pitch invasion” by angry West Ham fans to the “armed intervention” by PAOK club owner Ivan Savvidis in Thessaloniki); the assimilation of immigrants; control of oligarchs (to the extent that this is possible); management of real estate; pragmatism in exploiting opportunities and the ability to adapt in the face of challenges; extroversion in education; dealing with a wide variety of security challenges.

Together, Greece and the UK can look for opportunities in all sectors of common interest. For once, after their joint membership of the EU, they will be on equal terms – neither part of a larger whole nor with one in a hegemonic role and the other dependent on it. Common interests include the large number of students and an estimated 2,000-3,000 professors of Greek descent in Britain, the more than 70,000 Greeks living in Britain and some 40,000 Britons in Greece; the long British involvement in Greece, with the British School at Athens among the most valuable examples of this; shipping and banking; trade; defense; health. These are among the issues already on the agenda of the Greek-British Symposium that was initiated last year. 

What the British can learn from the Greeks

The need to avoid: arbitrary behavior and the selective rule of law; confrontational politics, division, nationalism and nativism; providing free rein to the rich and impunity for the violent actions of special interest groups and anti-establishment types; exorbitant taxes without corresponding services; a public administration with an agenda of its own. And, of course, highly partisan and combative news media. Looking at Britain in the runup to the Brexit referendum and at the level of debate after that, it is clear that the problems that have plagued Greece and against which its people have fought, are corroding the civility that we Greeks envied in British public life for so long.

Adapted from a presentation at a panel discussion organized by the Macedonian Society of Great Britain, “Beyond Brexit: What comes next for EU nationals? The Brexit effect on the status of EU citizens: Greeks in the post-Brexit Britain.” At the Hellenic Centre. March 15, 2018. I would like to thank the Society and its president, Natasha Svetzouri, for the gracious invitation to join such illustrious fellow panelists (the economist Vicky Pryce, Jolyon Maugham, QC, and Vassilis Monastiriotis, of the LSE, in the chair) and for their wonderful hospitality.

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