A hard lesson

Constantine Karamanlis has gone down in our modern history as a determined, heavy-handed politician who never gave up on his vows to modernize the country. His greatest moment was pushing Greece into the European Economic Community, the forerunner of the European Union. If Greece is now at the center of Europe’s decision-making, if it has received over 50 billion euros in development funds and another 30 billion in agricultural subsidies, and if it has managed to overcome the typical Balkan underperformance, all that is thanks to the man who threw Greeks into Europe’s deep end in order to teach them how to swim. And yet, in 1979 the persistent Karamanlis was forced to back down, shelving legislation that had been supported by his party after a face-off with the opposition (PASOK and KKE). It was the abandonment of law 815 on university reform which later opened the door to PASOK’s overhaul after 1981 which is responsible for the current mess. The ill-fated law foresaw compulsory attendance of classes and the imposition of fixed time periods for students to obtain a degree; the same provisions as in the government’s latest reform package. Student protesters then took to the streets, even though the law would only affect newcomers. Student protests were a daily routine in the difficult summer of 1979 and a wave of sit-ins had brought the whole system to its knees. In his 18 years as prime minister, Karamanlis had never taken back any of his measures or laws. But because he had set the goal of pushing Greece into the EEC (the agreement was signed a few months later in Athens) and did not want to obstruct its path, he made his biggest political compromise, scrapping the law. Education Minister Yiannis Varvitsiotis submitted his resignation but Karamanlis refused to accept it. Current conservative leaders have a lot to learn from this episode.