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Greeks Bearing Debts
Greece’s Long and Stormy Marriage With Europe

In Greece, it’s déjà vu all over again. In an excellent essay in the New York Times, James Angelos argues that the current resentments roiling Greece as it battles its EU creditors are nothing new in Greek history. Ever since its independence in the 19th century, Angelos reminds us, Greece has frequently been indebted to—and thus controlled by—European powers. For instance, a Greek default in 1893 paired with a subsequent military loss to the Ottoman Empire led to a European commission that controlled Greek public finances up through World War II.

Though the current anti-EU rhetoric in Greece draws on this long history of “humiliation,” Angelos nevertheless concludes that Greece is unlikely to leave the euro:

Greece pushed for European Community membership in the late 1970s in order to stabilize its fragile institutions after the fall of the American-backed military dictatorship. Europe’s acceptance of Greece brought benefits like agricultural subsidies and funds for infrastructure development. In the years before the debt crisis, Greece grew faster than nearly all other eurozone nations, benefiting from the relatively cheap borrowing euro membership provided.

As it has for nearly two centuries, Greece will remain dependent on its richer, more powerful neighbors, while bristling at their interference in domestic affairs. It’s an unhappy marriage, but it’s likely to endure. After all, both sides have deemed separation the only thing worse than muddling through together.

Angelos’ essay is excellent overall, but it has two important gaps. Angelos doesn’t mention the country’s complicated love affair with Russia, for one. When you add that into the mix, the Greece-EU relationship is like an unhappy marriage with an affair that never quite works out. This omission matters because the stage may be set for Greece to once again look to Russia as its unhappiness with the EU deepens. Syriza is historically pro-Russian and Russia has a lot to gain, geopolitically, from a closer relationship with Greece.

For another, Angelos also leaves out some modern details and dynamics. Between 1900 and 1973, hundreds of thousands of Greeks were forced out of what is now Turkey. The last groups left from Istanbul in the 1960s after the Istanbul pogrom of 1955, and Greek Cypriots were driven out of the north of the island in 1970s. That process set up a boiling resentment and fear of Turkey (resonating, of course, with memories of independence Ottomon control under the Turkokratia) which has helped keep Greece close to the West. It also hugely embittered Greek politics, creating a revenge-minded exile lobby.

These dynamics—some pushing away from the West and some towards—are directly relevant to the ongoing Greek-EU standoff. George Soros recently gave the chances of a Grexit to be about 50/50. As Angelos notes, the Greek population still wants to say in the euro currency union, but Greece’s complicated history could mean Soros is right to put the chances at a tossup. In either case, the only certainty here is that we don’t really know what will happen next.

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  • Anthony

    “Events would conspire to make already low levels of trust even lower. Greece was occupied during World War II first by the Italians and then by the Germans. Greek society had split by this point along ideological lines, and a bitter civil war broke out prior to the end of the German occupation between the Greek Communists and a government supported first by Britain and then by the United States. The war involved numerous atrocities on both sides and led to more than fifty thousand casualties, leaving a legacy of polarization that continues to this day.”

    I think Francis Fukuyama’s analysis regarding Greece as a traditional low-trust society also factors in when one sets to comprehend Greece’s economic EU/euro crisis. That is, as important as the complicated history, social patterns and their historical underpinnings also factor into the in again out again Greek EU current dynamic. So, to be fair all of the above (and perhaps much more) gives contour to the pattern intimated by post.

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