At home in Europe

Greece is now so much a part of Europe that it is only when something exceptional occurs that one can see how European we are the rest of the time. The past week was particularly rich in incidents that both proved how much we are «converging» with the rest of Europe and how far apart we sometimes are. The fact is that, in this changing world, Europe is our home. From the euro coins in our pockets to the moves to create a unified border police force, we are part of the debate. Sometimes we play a minor role, sometimes we have a valuable contribution to make, and at other times we make a nuisance of ourselves – just like any member of any family – to achieve what we want. This was an historic week, with the signing of a partnership agreement between NATO and Russia which Prime Minister Costas Simitis described as «the official end of the Cold War.» As much of what we know as Greece today was shaped by the tensions, geographic isolation and strategic imperatives of that period, the alliance between the two polar opposites is the final confirmation that Cold War thinking no longer applies in the world. The division into Left and Right, Good and Bad, Useful and Sinister, Friend and Foe (which formed the basis of convictions on both the Capitalist and Communist sides) has now collapsed into a mosaic of far messier and far more difficult problems. Among the problems that all countries are now called on to solve are the formation of alliances in a world in flux, in which traditional enemies might become friends, while small groups of nihilists can humble great powers. This is a world in which people seeking better lives move in great waves of migration that change host societies already struggling to cope with problems such as unemployment, crime and exhausted social security systems. With Greece enjoying (as we will never tire of saying) its greatest period of uninterrupted peace and prosperity, which coincides with its membership of the European Union, it was refreshing to get a blast from the Cold War again this week, with the ruling PASOK party proclaiming that it was responsible for the purer «quality» of Greek democracy. Seeing as PASOK came to power in 1981, the same year that Greece joined the European Economic Community after years of PASOK’s trying to torpedo the effort, this was a choice piece of irony. Government spokesman Christos Protopappas said on Monday: «There was democracy in Greece. That is clear. But there were Greeks who were on the margins of society, there were Greeks who were treated by the State as if they were polluted. There was a question of quality. And this issue closed with the laws of Andreas Papandreou and the PASOK government.» New Democracy was outraged, seeing this as a slur against its late founder, Constantine Karamanlis, who led Greece to democracy after the collapse of the junta in 1974, legalized the Communist Party and pulled Greece into Europe by ignoring the left in his own country and bending the opposition of European leaders. Simitis, who on Tuesday hailed the end of the Cold War, borrowed its legacy on Wednesday to renew the barrage against ND, presenting Parliament with a police report on a public speech that Simitis, then a member of the opposition party and a university professor – gave in 1977. The point was valid. But with the Cold War dead, it appeared irrelevant, full of sound and fury, signifying very little. Unless, of course, one read into the show the desperate search for a solution to the dilemma of center-left parties across Europe: Do they adopt even more right-wing tactics in order to deal with growing problems or do they go back toward more socialist proclamations in order to bring back straying voters? Simitis has clearly chosen to appear leftist by talking anti-right. It remains to be seen whether any of this washes with the electorate. Unfortunately for PASOK, though, much as it tries, it cannot help but still have others (such as the Communist Party and its unionists) further to its left. Even as PASOK was talking about the quality of its democracy, port police were clashing with Communist activists trying to enforce a seamen’s strike in Piraeus on Wednesday. Communist Party leader Aleka Papariga, who had just seen Russia hitch its horse to the NATO wagon, was able to see in the Piraeus pushing and shoving «the spark» that will light the workers’ reaction. Stirring stuff reminiscent of a simpler time. But we are living in a very different time, as the changeover at the central bank on Monday illustrated. What would otherwise have been a footnote, the resignation of the governor and his replacement by one of his two deputies, took on greater significance because Chairman Lucas Papademos resigned in order to take up his position as vice president of the European Central Bank. This is a milestone in Greece’s ever-growing give-and-take with the EU and a credit both to Papademos and to the government which got Greece into the eurozone (but also to the Greeks, with whose efforts this was achieved). Meanwhile, the Third Community Support Framework (CFSIII) and its 50-billion-euro bonanza continues to bedevil the government. It knows that this is the last major infusion of EU funds before less developed countries join in 2004. These funds are also intended to be a bulwark for PASOK in the local and regional elections this October (and in the national elections that must be held by early 2004) and yet little of this money has been seen. So, the poor deputy economy minister responsible for planning the CSFIII projects and programs, Christos Pachtas, found himself under fire from anxious ministers at a Cabinet meeting on Thursday. And this came in the week when it emerged that the European commissioner in charge of such issues, Michel Barnier, sent letters to Simitis and some ministers demanding that contractors stick to agreed costs and deadlines. Despite Simitis’s assurances that this concerned projects planned before his government’s term and corrected since 1997, there was a strong sense of the EU laying down the law. There are, however, other aspects of change that need less funding but far greater effort and a radical change of mentality. One such measure that some of us never expected to see was the series of sweeping restrictions on smoking that the government announced on Thursday. These include a ban on smoking in public buildings, taxis, hospitals, etc., while also mandating that 50 percent of restaurants and cafeterias be set aside for non-smokers. It will be interesting to see how «European» the Greeks are when generations of egotistical behavior has to be shoehorned into unpopular regulations. Will they go with a bang or with a whimper? And to think the ban was announced after a poll revealed that 66.9 percent of Greeks believe their country has the least influence in the EU (whereas the average European believes that Portugal has less of a say than Greece). And this was still before Greece’s disastrous showing in the Eurovision song contest last Thursday. On the geostrategic level, the EU finally began to find its way toward a compromise that will allow Athens to agree to the operation of the EU’s rapid reaction force. We will see how the EU will manage to keep both Athens and Ankara happy. On Thursday, the EU also moved closer to something that Athens has been pushing for, a police force to help control illegal immigration but that will also, in effect, stress that Greece’s borders are those of the EU. Perhaps under this umbrella Greece will be able to allow US forces to board ships in Greek waters in search of terrorists. On Tuesday, Athens said no to this request, citing its sovereignty and independence.

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