Greece: Like Any Other European Country?

Greece: Like Any Other European Country?

Mini Teaser: Greece is fundamentally a status quo country in part of the world where the status quo is being challenged from many directions. Its future prosperity and security depend on reforms at home and a more prudent diplomacy.

by Author(s): Loukas Tsoukalis

Much as they may wish to do so, EU countries simply cannot afford to stay away from the problems generated by the complex reality of southeastern Europe, be they in Kosovo, Bosnia or Cyprus. The Union has started negotiating with the government in Cyprus on its accession. Cyprus is one of the six countries in the so-called fast track leading to membership of the EU, and arguably it will be able to fulfill the basic criteria for membership more easily than any of the other candidates.

Yet it remains a divided country, and the crucial question is whether early accession to the EU could act as a catalyst for an internal political settlement between the two communities on the island or whether the internal settlement should be considered as a pre-condition for accession. Not surprisingly, the governments in Athens and Nicosia have opted for the former, fearing that if accession were to be made conditional on an internal settlement (i.e., on the willingness of Turkish Cypriots and Turkey to play the game), the accession of Cyprus would risk being written off ad calendas Graecas. This is another important reason why the Union will have to become more directly involved in the search for a viable solution to the problem of this divided island, something that would contribute much to the improvement of Greek-Turkish relations.

Domestic Reforms and External Alliances

Greece has traveled a long distance since the fall of the colonels' dictatorship in 1974. Democracy has been consolidated, and this has been achieved in an extremely peaceful manner. Greek democracy has had its share of demagogues, and public opinion falls prey sometimes to populist rhetoric. This is, of course, not totally unknown in other democracies. It could be argued that, for several years, economic stabilization and much needed structural reforms were sacrificed for the sake of democratic consolidation.

Membership of the European Union has acted as a powerful catalyst for domestic reform/modernization. Adjustment to the requirements of membership of this very unusual club, in which the most advanced democracies and mixed economies of Europe experiment in new forms of pooling of sovereignty, has been difficult and rather painful for Greece. Resistance to change from organized groups proved powerful enough to delay the process of adjustment for many years. The forces of reform/modernization have now taken the upper hand, although there is still much that needs to be done.

Greece does not have the luxury enjoyed by many West European countries for whom external threat has become a rather abstract notion since the disintegration of the Soviet empire. Developments in the Balkans in recent years, coupled with the continuing tension in relations with Turkey, reaching sometimes dangerous peaks, have tended to create a siege mentality in Greek society. In the early 1990s, and to a much lesser extent now, this was cultivated by a group of politicians across the political spectrum who apparently decided to invest in nationalist shares. They were strongly encouraged by a large section of the media. Again, this is, undoubtedly, no Greek monopoly.

In general, Greek diplomacy has experienced difficulties in finding the right combination of the language of might, right and common interests. It has often placed almost exclusive emphasis on what it perceives as right on issues of foreign policy, while not paying enough attention to the need for building coalitions and identifying common interests with other countries. It has failed to appreciate that moralizing in international relations is mostly the privilege of the strong.

For Greece, membership of the EU certainly constitutes the most important element of its domestic and foreign policy. But the country happens to exist in an unstable neighborhood; and no kind of foreign policy can transport it away from that location. Moreover, it will, unfortunately, remain on the frontier of the Union for many years to come, because none of its neighbors is likely to be able to fulfill the criteria for membership for some time. Guarding frontier posts requires continuous vigilance and sang-froid. It also requires skillful diplomacy. Greece needs to act as a stabilizing force in the region.

Relations with the United States suffered for several years as many Greeks were critical of the attitude adopted by the Americans during the period of the dictatorship. The invasion of Cyprus by Turkish forces and the widely held suspicion in Greece that U.S. policymakers tended to favor might over right in the wide range of Greek-Turkish disputes added much to the problem. Greater care for Greek sensitivities shown by American officials in the more recent period, coupled with increasing self-confidence on the Greek side, have gradually contributed to the healing of old wounds. Membership of the EU is not incompatible with active participation in the Atlantic Alliance and a close relationship with the United States. That relationship has a long history and deep roots, including the presence of a sizeable and highly dynamic community of Americans of Greek origin. Greece should always avoid being placed in the position of having to make a choice between the European and the Atlantic dimension.

Greece will need to combine domestic reforms with careful diplomacy abroad. Structural reforms can only succeed if social cohesion is preserved. This will be a difficult task for reformers/modernizers. On the other hand, national interests can only be defended successfully through alliances, formal or ad hoc. It is to be hoped that Greeks have learned a valuable lesson from sometimes bitter experience.

Loukas Tsoukalis is the Venizelos Professor in Contemporary Greek Studies at the European Institute of the London School of Economics.

Essay Types: Essay