OPINION

The economy and foreign policy

Not long ago, Greece stood head and shoulders above all its neighbors. It was the only member of both the European Union and NATO and its economy had developed way ahead of those in the region – with the exception of Turkey’s – which took off under the free market reforms of the mid-1980s. All this has changed. Turkey is now an economic powerhouse and regional power, with a uniquely important role in the supply of oil and natural gas to Europe. Albania is moving toward EU and NATO entry, as is the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, despite the ongoing dispute with Greece over its name. Bulgaria is now a member of both the EU and NATO and, as such, is an equal partner of Greece. Greece still has the most developed economy in the region and its companies are among the biggest investors, with significant stakes in all neighboring countries. But, as Greeks at home are finding out, the economy is a crucial factor in all relations. And, at this time of unprecedented crisis at home, Greece’s foreign policy finds itself in a new environment. This has prompted a worried Prime Minister George Papandreou to sound the alarm that unless serious measures are taken, Greece’s economic problems can undermine the country’s sovereignty. The main concern is that foreign institutions, such as the European Union (rather than the more dreaded International Monetary Fund) may assume a leading role in efforts to reform the economy. But there is no doubt that a Greece that is evidently weakened in European institutions such as the European Commission and the European Parliament, will have significantly less political capital to press for diplomatic solutions to its liking. If Greece does not act quickly to restore confidence in its economy, the country’s diplomatic clout will be similarly undermined. This is a time of national awakening in Greece, as its people come to understand that they cannot continue living beyond their means, that leaving problems to fester will only lead to a dead end and that they cannot count on the limitless understanding and support of their partners. In today’s world, every country and every nation is struggling to secure its place in the future. Greece is struggling to come to terms with the present, hobbled as it is by all the bad habits of the past. That past is most evident in the farmers’ blockades, which have soured relations with Bulgaria, a country that has economic problems of its own and cannot afford to see its trade hampered by Greek domestic issues. These economic problems have also prompted the abrasive government in Skopje to be even more patronizing toward Greece. Greece’s past will also spring to the fore in coming weeks as unions mobilize to block the government’s austerity measures. What everyone needs to realize – both in Greece and in neighboring countries – is that today no country can go it alone. What happens in Greece will have a profound effect on the region. A weaker, poorer Greece will mean a weaker, poorer Balkans. Greek investments in neighboring countries and the jobs provided to hundreds of thousands of immigrants show the benefits of cooperation. Economic collaboration is the only way out of the crisis, especially when one considers the small populations of most of the countries. This need for closer economic ties should lead to more diplomatic initiatives aimed at improving each country’s lot. Greece, struggling economically, can turn the tables by surging ahead with diplomatic initiatives that will bring the region’s peoples closer. And its neighbors must see this and appreciate the need for such an effort. This is the only way forward.