Greece: between east and west

Unlike Ireland, Greece has little capacity for generating surplus wealth: despite urbanisation, it remains largely a subsistence economy tied to its rural past

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras with President Michael D Higgins in Athens last Thursday. Photograph: Thanassis Stavrakis/AP

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras with President Michael D Higgins in Athens last Thursday. Photograph: Thanassis Stavrakis/AP

 

The warm welcome extended to President Michael D Higgins on his state visit to Greece is evidence of the shared concerns of Ireland and Greece for the fate of Europe’s smaller nations, especially in relation to their economic vulnerability and their social cohesion.

But where Ireland successfully exited the bailout, Greece will remain under creditor scrutiny for many years. Unlike Ireland, Greece has little capacity for generating surplus wealth: despite urbanisation, it remains largely a subsistence economy tied to its rural past.

More significantly, perhaps, it is struggling with modernisation and the need to put in place essential reforms. Without such structural reforms, Greece will struggle for credibility and influence.

Tax evasion, corruption, terrorism, and bureaucratic intransigence seem to be ineradicable, with the state currently involved in a bribery scandal reaching to the top layers of government. Fascism, strongly represented in parliament, feeds off people’s fears, aggravated by the waves of refugees, mostly from war-torn Syria, who have arrived on Greek shores in recent years.

Fortunately, these are problems with which Ireland is largely unfamiliar, yet President Higgins’s obvious empathy with the Greek dilemma endears him to statesmen, politicians and academics in Greece who find these difficulties a daily obstacle to acceptance by the west.

Visitors to Greece are aware of being in an “other world”, due not only to the meteorological climate but the climate of culture which exudes the kaleidoscopic character of the Balkan melting-pot. For Greece to join the west unequivocally would mean loosening its ties to Albania, Macedonia and Bulgaria, renegotiating its geopolitical status and coming to terms with both Russian and Chinese ambitions in the region. In effect, it would mean leaving home.

Today’s Greek tragedy is the choice between east and west, between what it is and what is expected of it.

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