Valery Giscard d’Estaing, who died on Wednesday, is tied to Greek history by his providing his presidential plane to bring Greek statesman Konstantinos Karamanlis back to Greece from France as the seven-year dictatorship was collapsing in July 1974. At a moment of great confusion and danger, the symbolism of the French president’s gesture was clear as day: Karamanlis had the international community’s support in his mission to restore democracy in Greece. In the years that followed, the relationship between the two men played an important role in Greece’s future, as Karamanlis had persuaded Giscard d’Estaing that a Europe cut off from its Greek roots would not be Europe and that Greece should join as soon as possible. The French president consolidated his support by visiting Athens in September 1975, shortly after Karamanlis had applied formally for Greece’s accession to what was then the European Economic Community.
Giscard D’Estaing and Karamanlis both had great political careers, and their personal relationship would have been no more than a footnote in their long lives and many achievements. However, the trust that built up through their conversations while Karamanlis was in self-imposed exile in Paris helped the Greek leader on his great mission to lead his country toward Europe and thus secure its political stability and territorial integrity once and for all. The accession process that he himself had initiated in 1961 foresaw accession by 1984. It is a testament to the force of Karamanlis’ will, the strength of his vision and the power of the alliances that he built up, that Greece became a full member of the EEC earlier, in 1981, despite the dictatorship, despite strong opposition at home, despite the reservations of many European leaders.
Not since the strong personal relationship between Britain’s David Lloyd George and Eleftherios Venizelos a century ago had a Greek politician impressed foreign leaders to the extent that Karamanlis did. Personal ties are an important and yet underrated aspect of politics and diplomacy. Trust between leaders can break deadlocks and present new potential for their countries’ relations. The negative side of this is that unwarranted admiration can encourage overreach and catastrophic policies.
The cooperation between Giscard d’Estaing and Karamanlis showed that Europe is built by leaps of faith, by personal contacts, by supporting democracy, by looking beyond domestic concerns. It is built through friendship.