There is a wonderful, almost divine irony in the fact that
Greece, of all places, turned out to be the Achilles’ heel of the European Union, the weak spot that may in the end lead to the death of the whole mad project of a one-size-fits-all currency. So much nonsense has been written about the Greek debacle that is easy to lose sight of some basic facts. To begin with it had nothing to do with international currency speculation and everything to do with Greeks bearing gifts…to themselves.
It’s easy to understand the anger of the Germans, now faced with paying the bill for the way in which the Greeks have pampered themselves, effectively at their expense.
Greece created one of the most madly extravagant welfare and benefits systems in the whole Continent. The working day often finishes at 2.30pm. Retirement provisions are absurdly generous, with some people able to stop working at the age of fifty-three. Add to that a culture of corruption, symbolised in the words “fakelaki”, meaning envelopes containing bribes, and “rousfeti”, meaning political favours, then a bad situation became cancerous.
The revealing thing in this is that many Greeks themselves, at least those who are not communists and anarchists, recognise the depths of their own blameworthiness. Commenting on tax evasion, something of a national sport, one newspaper headline jeered with heavy irony: “No taxes – we’re Greek.” In public hospitals doctors often refuse to treat patients until the “fakelaki” is forthcoming. The private sector has all but been destroyed by an ever expanding bureaucracy. Loukas Tsoukalis, a professor at
Athens University, has said that Greece has a capitalist system with a Soviet state.
The fact that Greece was allowed to join the euro at all when it clearly did not meet the preconditions for membership can be put down to what I would call the ‘Byron Illusion.’ When Lord Byron went to fight and die in the nineteenth century Greek War of Independence he went not for a living nation but for a dead idea, an idea nurtured in generations brought up on the classics. The Greeks continued to play on the romance of the ancient past in their application for euro membership, something that seduced
Europe’s leaders, many of them also educated in the classics.
Greece of the modern age is not the Greece of the ancients, not the Greece of Plato and Pericles. Writing in the New York Times, Robert D. Kaplan rightly argued that it is far more the child of Byzantine and Turkish despotism. The EU, preoccupied with balancing France and Germany, ignored not just economic facts in the rush into the euro but far deeper historical fractures between the north and the south. Greece is not the ‘cradle of democracy,’ a label that is no more than a shallow pretence. In the modern age it has more often been the nursery of despotism.
So forget irresponsible bankers and wicked speculators. The whole of the sovereign debt crisis was based on one simple truth: it’s impossible to overcome centuries of cultural, economic and political differences in the illusion of monetary and political union. Europe is not one;
Europe will never be one. History is not fooled.