The first Greek-British Symposium, at Nafplio last year, inaugurated a high-level dialogue between politicians, businesspeople, academics and other specialists. The aim was to improve ties that were already good and to look for new ways of cooperating in the challenging international environment. That successful start was followed by the second symposium, held at Ditchley Park, near Oxford, on October 18-20. The focus of the meeting was the need for the two countries to look outward and the potential that this would release in various crucial sectors. It came at a time of great introversion in both the United Kingdom and Greece: On the last day of the symposium, a Saturday, more than 700,000 people gathered in London to protest against Brexit, the issue which dominated most conversations at Ditchley Park, as, of course, in the whole of Britain. At the same time, in Athens the foreign minister had resigned and in Skopje the Parliament of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia passed a major hurdle, moving toward ratifying the Prespes agreement; this, in turn, set off new political turbulence in Greece.
At such times, it is “natural that voters, the media, politicians and all actors engaged in the political process are focused on the domestic political battleground,” Ambassador Kate Smith noted in Kathimerini a few days before the meeting. “But for those of us involved in planning the Greek-British Symposium this year, it struck us that the solutions to these challenges lie not only at home but by looking outside.”
The excellent choice of topics and the expertise of speakers – ranging from politicians to young entrepreneurs – contributed to a rich and frank dialogue, both in the sessions and in the informal conversations among all participants throughout the symposium. From the start, the historical ties between Britain and Greece were clear, as were today’s strong bonds. Many Greek participants had studied and worked in Britain. More than 3 million Britons visit Greece each year and tens of thousands of Greeks live in Britain (among them some 11,000 students and about 3,000 academics). The City of London is the financial and banking sector of choice for Greek shipowners, who own 20 percent of the world’s merchant fleet. Trade between the two countries is increasing. As a British minister said, it is necessary to strengthen these bonds even further, to cooperate so as to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
The potential of extroversion, or “openness,” was examined with regard to relations between Greece and Britain; the economy and investments; cooperation in the Western Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean; security and tolerance of immigrants; the harnessing of global technology for economic growth in shipping, banking and tourism; and the linking of higher education research and business development. The discussions and exchanges of views were free of platitudes and conventional wisdom. Real solutions were sought for real problems. The difficulties posed by Brexit were not glossed over, nor were the obstacles faced by businesses in Greece. Indicative of this was the conclusion of most entrepreneurs that despite the uncertainty arising from the unknown conclusion of talks between the United Kingdom and the European Union, young Greeks who have set up companies in Britain are very wary about moving to Greece. Uncertainty may be common to both countries, but potential for entrepreneurship remains very different in each.
Last year in Nafplio there was a sense that Britain was moving away from the European Union just as Greece was moving closer to it, having managed to stay in the Union’s nucleus, the eurozone. The time seemed to be ripe with possibility, with opportunities for both countries. Even then, most participants were opposed to Brexit but appeared ready to face whatever challenges would arise. This year, aside from the effort of some British politicians to explain the need for the “will of the people” to be heeded (meaning to go ahead with Brexit rather than hold a new vote, such as that demanded in the London protest), there appeared to be no stronger argument in favor of Brexit. On the contrary, most British participants emphasized that the divorce from the EU would cause only problems at all levels. Now, the overriding feeling was the need to look for solutions despite the problems caused by Brexit, not because of the opportunities that this might create.
The symposium, the product of cooperation between the British Embassy in Athens, the Delphi Economic Forum and the British Council, again achieved its objective of strengthening bonds and opening new channels between the two countries. When, in a year’s time, the third such gathering is held, Europe will be very different; the deadline for an EU-UK deal will have passed and elections for the European Parliament in May will lead to a new European Commission. Then, the friendship nurtured by the Greek-British Symposium will be more valuable than ever.
(Editor’s note: The symposium’s rules do not allow attribution of participants’ statements and comments.)