Gap closing between loving and mourning Greece

Sat, Oct 6, 2012, 01:00

Greece has untapped potential but clientelism and an irredentist mindset undermine it, writes RICHARD PINE

I AM frequently criticised by Greeks, both at home and in the diaspora (especially the diaspora) for writing harshly about the Greek political and economic systems. And I am also applauded by non-Greeks, especially those who have difficulty operating a business in Greece, for saying the same things. Both criticism and applause are misplaced.

The Irish historian Roy Foster wrote to me: “Greece is a country I both love and mourn.”

What is there to love about Greece? Quite apart from its spectacular scenery, its climate, its extant antiquities, and the fact that it was – perhaps still is – the cradle of civilisation, there is something much more fundamental: the intimate relationship between landscape and character, which makes Greece and its people so attractive and so challenging.

This relationship has created a grittiness that inheres in all Greeks, whether townies or villagers. It enabled the Greek army to repel the Italians on the Albanian border in 1941 – the first victory by the Allied countries in the second World War. During that war, it enabled the Greeks to form an effective resistance movement against occupying German forces, despite appalling famine in Athens and other cities. It fuelled the debate about the future identity of the country during the ensuing civil war. And it provided the animus that preserved it from the military junta of 1967-1974, especially the students (many of whom were killed) who eventually defeated that regime.

What is there to mourn about Greece? First, the perennial irredentism that makes Greeks long for restitution of its antique glory, including the idea of recapturing Constantinople (Istanbul) which led to the Anatolian catastrophe of 1922 and which, it can be argued, was a major factor in the political and economic upheavals from the 1920s onwards.

Next, the era following the exit of the colonels in 1974, when successive governments, first under New Democracy and then Pasok, created a “welfare state” based on clientelism and cronyism, encouraging a dependence on a fixer mentality which, along with other factors, has contributed to the present crisis.

Other aspects of Greek society that must be bewailed include the education system, inferior at all levels, which sees billions of euro spent privately by parents to try to ensure a better life for their children.

The lack of industrial development, which Ireland has overcome by attracting multinational manufacturing and financial services, has been a major absence in the Greek economy: there was an ambition, a part of the irredentism in the heart of every Greek, that Athens could become the financial hub of the burgeoning Balkan economic world, but that was never realised.

The lack of planning in the development of tourism, which is not only Greece’s major export industry but also coterminous with its attraction as a social and cultural magnet, leaves Greece competing badly with neighbouring countries in the provision of, for example, marinas and golf courses (there are only 12 courses in the entire country).

Perhaps most serious of all is the transition from a rural to an urban society which leaves many villages depopulated but without creating any technological or wealth-creating nodes on which to build.

And, since accession to the EU, Greece, like Ireland, used the begging bowl to attract adhesion funds which have now led to today’s loss of sovereignty.

Loving or mourning. Which?

The love and the pluses outweigh the bewailing and the minuses. But the gap is closing.

One could never despair of a country and a people that exhibit, in the face of adversity, such joie de vivre that pushes their bewilderment and misery into a corner. In the village where I live, on the island of Corfu, local expressions of opinion on the current situation are heated to the point of violence, but subside at the kafeneion, as evening continues, into equally heated games of cards and backgammon (perhaps the national pastime).

I for one could never forsake the country where I have made my home, but the gap is closing. Even if a “Grexit” from the euro results in the collapse not only of the Greek economy but also, possibly, the euro itself, and, as many are now arguing across Europe, of the EU as a credible entity, I would not blame the Greeks. I never loved the EU and I would not mourn it.

Even if we had a military regime – and that is not impossible – I would join the Greeks in resisting it, as they did in 1967-1974, and living in its shadow.

Greece may not be a modern, forward-looking society, keeping pace with the northern march towards unification and “progress”. Not least because of that idea of terroir, as the French call it – the rootedness of people in their locale, that intimate relationship between land and people that makes them more concerned about their vines and their olives (the grape harvest comes in the third week of September, followed by the long cropping of the olives) than about a factory in a nearby town. Only the sea – thalassa – has been a challenge to the land, and even then, despite Greece’s continuing domination of the shipping industries, benefiting only a few millionaires.

Greece’s potential is in so many areas untapped, even though the areas highlighted by economists and technocrats may not be those I am thinking of: the areas to be exploited are those that create the reasons for loving Greece; and the areas in which Greece is mourned are possibly those where mourning is inappropriate. But the gap is closing.

RICHARD PINEis the founder and director emeritus of the Durrell School of Corfu, where he lives