Greece is Ireland. Ireland is Greece

As Greeks prepare to go to the polls again next weekend, an ‘Irish Times’ columnist argues that their country is more like Ireland, culturally and socially, than most people think

I love Ireland, where I lived for many years. And I love Greece, where I have lived for the past 15.

The letters “eu” are the prefix for Greek hopefulness and positive thinking: euphoric, euphemism and eulogy speak of good things, and even eugenics suggests the way to breed a better type of person. None of this chimes with the current Greek experience of the letters EU; in fact, Greeks might greet this eu-turn with laughter if they still had the capacity to laugh.

Economics are marginal to the European crisis of identity. The intimate relationship within the household never centred on money; the essential glues in the household are filotimia, a combination of honour, dignity and self-esteem, and oikonomia, the economics of household management.

The Greek household, like any other, predates the money economy, and its priorities have not been overtaken by monetarism or even by globalisation. Extrapolate filotimia to the European or global level and you have the essentials of good universal housekeeping.

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The most vital factor affecting any society’s wellbeing is not its economy but its cultural identity, the essential “Greekness” or “Irishness”. If you cannot be yourself, and know yourself, then whether you’re in debt or have drachmas in the bank is of no consequence.

Bullying

For the ordinary Greek citizen the most shocking and offensive aspect of the run-up to the January 2015 election was that, in the face of an anticipated

Syriza

victory, individual politicians and officials in Europe attempted to coerce public opinion into voting for the status quo, by scaremongering tactics suggesting that a Syriza government would mean disaster.

Voters ignored these tactics because they were already familiar with disaster: austerity had reduced them to pawns in a global game of money power. Any as yet untried option would be preferable to the failed solutions that were also the cause of the problem they purported to solve. More disaster does not seem too terrible if you are without hope or resources – the man in the soup queue wearing a crumpled Armani suit.

The bullying of the Greek voters was blatant. In December-January of 2014-15 Jean-Claude Juncker, the chief of the European Commission, made it clear that “the Greeks know very well what a wrong election result would mean for Greece and the euro zone”.

Enda Kenny emphasised that, “while the forthcoming elections are a matter for the Greeks themselves”, he hoped that voters would “choose an option which keeps them in the euro zone”. Like Juncker, he wasn’t interfering in another country’s elections. Oh no.

Paul Krugman, the Nobel laureate in economics, referred to “a truly vile campaign, an attempt to scare the Greek public into getting rid of their government. It was a shameful moment in modern European history.”

Greece's essential problem is reducible to narrative: who writes the script, and who speaks it? We like to believe that in art the creator can sing his joys and sadness, even in defiance of distasteful and unwelcome authoritarianism; for a people to sing their narrative as they sing their national anthem (and Greece's is the Hymn to Liberty) is the vital component – perhaps the only one remaining to them – in their assertion of identity.

A leadership deficit

Today I see Europe falling apart, rather than cohering and integrated, due to cultural and moral factors. Not only are Europe and the nation state both falling apart, but they are moving away from each other at a destructive rate.

A former Italian prime minister, Mario Monti, warned his colleagues of the “dramatically declining” public support for the EU, while Juncker foresaw the possibility of a “social revolution”. The election of Syriza pointed very directly to such a revolution, against which Europe’s centrist politicians immediately closed ranks.

The Irish Times contributor Paddy Woodworth referred to "the moral failure of our political system"; President Michael D Higgins advised that many Europeans "feel more and more disconnected" and urged the EU to be aware of "the social consequences of its actions" and to widen its "limited moral base".

A Greek journalist wrote, “Few of the 27 EU leaders are paragons of virtue – any group that has Silvio Berlusconi as one of its most prominent decision-makers can hardly claim the moral high ground.”

European integrationists should have learned that “Maastricht”, “Nice” and “Lisbon” may be beautiful and meaningful places on the European landscape, but, as points on the route map towards European integration they have given their names to ugly and largely meaningless forms of words.

Europe is more divided than united for one basic reason: it consists of irreducible units of culture, of people, of behaviour. This is not always articulated because it is politically incorrect to do so.

Greece and Ireland

The most significant fact linking Greece and Ireland is that recent history has shown that neither country (nor indeed the UK) should be part of the EU. Greece and Ireland, for very similar reasons, are not truly European, either geographically or culturally, and the characteristics that set them apart from any European norm are amenable to neither homogenisation nor submission.

Both countries are multicultural; therefore in theory they should be amenable to being accommodated within the multicultural and multiethnic composition of the EU. Different peoples have different identities that can be harmonised but not homogenised.

Greece and the Greeks embody certain characteristics that cannot become “European” without a reduction of identity that threatens the core. Ireland, too. There are so many who are able to say “I am Greek and European”, “I am Irish and European”, but there are many more who cannot accept what is being done in the interests of Europeanisation because they are unable to reconcile the process with their sense of Greekness or Irishness.

Long-unified states such as Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark have a more solid and certain sense of national identity that can embrace cosmopolitanism. Greece and Ireland can not.

Before the crisis Ireland had been a poster boy, where the Hellenic Hound was intent, as a former minister for finance said, on making Greece “the Ireland of the south” and – something of a mixed metaphor – “the Florida of Europe”.

And Greece became, after Ireland, the second-best success story of Europe, in terms of short-term economic growth. After the crash(es), despite the common plight of the two countries, politicians were at pains to argue that “Greece is not Ireland” (the finance minister Giorgos Papakonstantinou in Greece) and “Ireland is not Greece” (the TD Tommy Broughan in Ireland).

But in so many more important ways Greece is Ireland, and Ireland is Greece. The two countries could not be more similar. Overspend, overindulge, exaggerate, be overconfident. Each on the rim of a fragile Europe and an even more fragile euro zone, each proud of its independence from the age-old dominant neighbour, proud of its historic contribution to European culture.

Nevertheless, both states are deeply ambivalent about their role in Europe and about the loss of sovereignty to supervening powers, the loss of that hard-won independence and identity.

And citizens in both countries are saying, “Don’t punish us, the ordinary man and woman in the street. Punish those responsible for these appalling debts.” In Greece they are called the kleptocrats, who have been ripping off the plain people of Greece and walking away from the debts – not so much the banks as those in positions of social, administrative and clerical authority.

Since Ireland concluded its bailout there has been a constant emphasis on Irish success compared with Greek failure. One of the most notable contributors to what amounts to an unwarranted superiority complex has been Michael Noonan.

Since the Syriza victory in 2015, he has constantly underlined Ireland’s new-found status as a good boy, leaving behind the other Piigs – Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain. Such smugness ill becomes him.

Ireland was once again in the uncomfortable position of being flaunted as the poster boy of Europe: its “efficient public administration, a modern open economy and not much culture of protest” (as Reuters put it) made it immeasurably more successful and admirable than Greece.

But commentators in both countries remark on their respective ungovernability. Fintan O’Toole’s observation could do duty for both countries: “A very significant part of the population has ceased to feel that the state is theirs, that it tries its best to treat them with care and dignity . . . People feel that they live in a political world whose ‘reality’ excludes them.”

Again and again we see the same commentaries highlighting the lack of viability and credibility of countries that permit such differences between rich and poor, between their own citizens and the opinions of outside forces.

At least two countries – Ireland and Greece – have endangered, and will continue to endanger, the future of this monster union.

Enosis, a Greek word for “union”, means something rather different to the Greeks than European “union”: it means cohesion of the family, the home, its dignity and integrity.

This is an edited extract from Greece Through Irish Eyes (Liffey Press). Richard Pine contributes a regular Letter from Greece to The Irish Times