The European Union and the Greek-speaking world

Richard Laming (picture Bruno Boissière)

By Richard Laming

Normally, discussions of the involvement of Greece in the process of European integration start by remarking that Greece is the original home of democracy, and that it is therefore unthinkable that the union of democratic countries developing in Europe should not include Greece.

However, I don’t believe in history.  That is, I don’t believe that politics today should be constrained by the politics of yesterday or, as we shall see, even longer ago than that.  What I do believe is that politics should be guided by modern principles, of democracy, human rights, and liberty.  The significance of this will become clear later.

First of all, then, I should outline what I intend to speak about.  The subject of the relationship between Greece, Cyprus and the rest of Europe is a vast one, and I cannot possibly hope to cover it all in any sort of depth this evening.  What I will do, therefore, is give a brief survey of that relationship, and then look in more detail at one or two aspects that perhaps interest me a little more.  Feel free to ask questions, either interrupting me as I go through or waiting until the end.  If you interrupt me with a question, I may decline to attempt to answer it, but that will only be because you will have pre-empted what I am about to say next.

The place of Greece within the European Union has perhaps been the most troubled of any of the member states, within the exception in some sense of Britain.  Greece joined late – in 1981 – having missed out on the early years through a combination of poverty and fascist rule, the same combination which prevented the accession of Spain and Portugal, too.

Since joining the European Community, as it was then, the path of Greece has not been a smooth one.

Greece as a member state of the union

Greek democracy is both an ancient and a recent innovation.  In its recent form, it dates back no further than 1974 and the overthrow of a military government that had itself seized power in 1967.  Since then, democratic politics has been established reasonably securely, without an equivalent of the attempted coup in Spain in 1982, for example.

I think that much of the credit for this stability should be given to the European Union.  By providing an external anchor for the Greek political system, it has buttressed democracy against those who might have tried to threaten it.

Living memory in Greece includes occupation during the Second World War, a bitter civil war in the immediate aftermath in which the Communists were defeated by the Western-backed government, and military rule in the 1960s and 70s.  It is easy for those of us who live in a country where these things have not happened to take stability and security for granted.  In recent times, Greece has not been so fortunate.  We can be sure that these things are valued now.

The major parties, like almost everywhere else in Europe, are Christian Democratic and Socialist, and have alternated in government.  Neither has been able to get to grips with the structural problems of the Greek economy – a considerable aptitude for protectionism, a bloated public sector – and this has led to an uncertain development of the Greek political scene.  Stability here is a critical factor in both internal and external political relations, and Greece has undoubtedly suffered from the lack of both.

For example, the current prime minister, Papandreou, has a long and distinguished record in politics, reaching back to before the military coup in 1967, but he himself is old and frail, his government affected by scandal and doubt.  In such circumstances, it is hard for him to govern Greece effectively.  He is unable to take decisive measures domestically, and cannot play a full role on the international stage.

Turning to the economy, it has without a doubt grown very rapidly in recent years.  A combination of investment in tourism, an increase in trade with the rest of Europe and subsidies and aid from the EU have served to increase the average Greek standard of living considerably since 1981.

Even in this, however, there are difficulties.

First, it is starting from a very low base.  Greece never experienced industrialisation on the model of the western European countries that make up most of the rest of the EU.  Ambitious plans for development and an appetite for public spending – countries can pick up some very bad habits during years of unaccountable dictatorship – have left Greece heavily indebted.  Indeed, so bad has the position become that Greece has been forced to seek loans from the EU on what can only be considered political grounds, rather than from the markets assessed on the more normal economic criteria.  This is compounded by the fact that Greece has in fact failed to keep to the terms even of these “political” loans.

I will describe later how this difficult economic position, particularly in the context of the EU, affects the country’s international standing.

Looking further at the international scene, the gloomy outlook for the Greek economy gets worse still.

The crisis in what used to be Yugoslavia has affected Greece very severely.  Greece has lost a major trading partner and also an essential trade route for communications with the rest of the EU.  It should never be forgotten that Greece is the only member state which does not have a land border with another member state.  This sense of isolation is important to the Greeks.  I will come back to this point, too.

Prior to the collapse of Yugoslavia, the EU was investing substantial sums in the transport links between Italy and Austria in the north and Greece in the south: the Yugoslav government was of course a willing recipient of this foreign investment.  Since the war, of course, this investment and the free flow of trade has stopped.  There are alternative routes, but they are slower and more expensive, and Greek trade has been hindered.

The war in Yugoslavia has had knock-on effects in other areas.  There were ambitious plans to develop Thessaloniki in northern Greece as a major port to handle the trade from Bulgaria, Serbia and the rest of the Balkans.  Much of this has been delayed, due to the lack of demand and the lack of certainty that such a large scale investment requires.

The recent enlargement of the European Union to include Sweden, Finland and Austria will undoubtedly help this position in the short term.  All these three countries will be net contributors to the budget, a budget which is in substantial measure spent on development in countries such as Greece.  A bigger EU therefore has more spending power.

But there are problems on the horizon.  These are posed by both deepening and widening.

Deepening poses difficulties

First of all, there is the prospect in 1996 of further steps towards political union and of the subsequent economic and monetary union towards the end of the decade.

It might appear to an outside observer that these two are separate processes.  After all, EMU was agreed and a timetable laid down in the Maastricht Treaty whereas the Inter-Governmental Conference in 1996 is intended to build on it in the institutional sphere.  However, this view would be mistaken.

No-one should doubt that the moves towards both political and economic union are inspired by the same motive and are borne by the same vision.  There is a very serious discussion going on in Germany of how much further political integration will be required both politically and constitutionally in order to permit the merging of the deutschmark into the ecu.  This is a discussion with importance of the first order, and in what follows you should bear this in mind.

The principal document in the current debate on deepening is a paper written by two leading German Christian Democrats, Lamers and Schäuble, and published under the auspices of the CDU parliamentary group in the Bundestag in September 1994.  While not therefore an official government publication, it may nonetheless be treated as representing the provisional view of the German government.  It was the subject of much debate in last autumn’s German general election – is this really what we want? – in which of course Helmut Kohl was re-elected Chancellor.

This document, as is probably well-known by now, proposes, among other things, the development of a “hard core” within the European Union.  What is more important here is that it does not mention Greece once.

There is no question that Greece will not join the monetary union for a long time to come, but it is also argued that Greece could not therefore join the political union either.  Furthermore, it is apparent that, in the view of the authors, Greece does not have a significant role to play in this development at all.

Personally, I do not accept that the first part of this is true – that immediate participation in monetary and political union must necessarily go hand in hand (perhaps we can discuss that later) – but that fact that such senior German politicians can state publicly that they do has to be a problem for Greece. It is not considered that Greece has even a part to play in developing the union.

I should stress at this point that I don’t think that EMU is adding to the relative weakness of Greece.  A country with such an underdeveloped service sector and a weak currency stands to gain more than most from the advantages of stable prices and the abolition of uncertainty.  All that EMU is doing is highlighting the weaknesses that already exist.

We can see, therefore, that future deepening of the European Union is not being planned with Greece in mind.  This is a challenge for the Greek people for the future.

So does widening, too

The other strand of development within the EU, that of widening, doesn’t offer much of a prospect for Greece, either.  There are some, such as our own John Major, who are under the impression that deepening and widening are mutually exclusive alternatives.  The reality, that widening must inevitably be accompanied by either deepening or stalemate, is too much for people like him to cope with.  Naturally, we here are a little bit more far-sighted.

The last round of enlargement, as I have mentioned in the context of the EU budget, was good news for Greece.  It added to the financial resources upon which Greece could draw.  The next round of enlargement will have quite the opposite effect.

Countries such as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, which are waiting in the wings ready for their cue, will not add to the funds available.  Far from it.  They are even less well-developed than is Greece and will make a substantial claim on the EU’s resources.

To make matters worse, they also have large agricultural sectors.  Greece benefits considerably from the distortion of the EU budget which diverts perhaps two-thirds of the money available into agriculture.  In all these areas, the present systems simply cannot survive the accession of these central European countries.  Arrangements which are comfortable for Greece are going to change, and you can be almost certain that these changes will not be in Greece’s favour.  The Greek government has not been dealt a strong hand.

After all these years, one might doubt whether the lethargy that seems ingrained in the European Union’s political culture will actually permit the changes I have identified.  I think that doubt should be fairly short-lived.

Even the most reluctant politicians, who up until now have had to pay heed to the vociferous farming lobbies in their own countries, are starting to realise that Hungarian and Polish farmers cannot be offered the same deal as applies to EU farmers at present. There is great danger here for Greece.  Accept the implications of this, and the Greek economy may be hit badly.  Reject them, and block enlargement, and Greek political credibility will suffer a potentially fatal blow.

The inability to repay loans from the European Union and the continuing impasse over Macedonia have strained the patience of the other member states.  Putting a stop to a long-cherished objective like enlargement to the east could kill it completely.

Lessons for eastern Europe

While I’m on the subject of central and eastern Europe, there’s another point that could usefully made.  I realise that post-Communist Europe doesn’t yet fall under the title of the European Union, but it will soon and the things I want to say can’t really wait.

And what I want to say is this.

The new democracies in the east of our continent would do well to study the recent history of Spain, Greece and Portugal.  They too have come recently to democracy from totalitarian rule.  They have adapted to the new rigours of the European free market and popular democracy, and their economies have developed rapidly.

The most important lesson to learn is that of stability.  Spain and Portugal have been more stable, and have prospered more, than Greece.  It is enough for them slowly to join or, should I say, rejoin the European mainstream.  Their fishermen have moved a step closer to full equality within the European Union in the past month.

Attaining normality is a slow process, and some cases a difficult process, but it is unavoidable.  Democracy is like a good wine or a good cheese: it takes time to mature.

Not forgetting Cyprus

I will now digress a little from the subject of Greece.  The title I was given was the European Union and the Greek-speaking world, and I think that gives me licence to talk about Cyprus.  It may make my talk a little disjointed, but the Cypriot problem is both fascinating and important, with many resonances for Europe as a whole.  I will come back to the subject of Greece later, so you needn’t worry.

As I think we all know, Cyprus has applied for membership of the European Union.  Its application is being considered conceptually along with that of Malta, another small Mediterranean island state with close links with Britain, rather than with those of the countries of central and eastern Europe.

There is of course an additional factor which makes the Cypriot application unique, and that is that some 30 per cent of its territory is under occupation by a neighbouring power, namely Turkey.

There is a long-standing difficult relationship between Greece and Turkey, of which this is a prime example.  Turkish troops invaded northern Cyprus in 1974 at a time when the Turkish Cypriot minority on the island – around 18 per cent of the population – feared the prospect of annexation by Greece.  You cannot find any objective source these days on whether or not such annexation was likely.

Greece at the time was under nationalist military rule.  Union with Cyprus – enosis – would have been attractive to such a regime, as being exactly the sort of action that boosts the support of a military dictatorship.  The Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982 is a more recent and more familiar example.

The Cypriot government led by Archbishop Makarios was overthrown in a coup, leading to political instability on the island.  There was a certain measure of support for the idea of union among the Greek Cypriots at the time.  The whole thing stacks up.  However, now, you would be hard pressed to find many Greek Cypriot leaders who would accept that there was a demand for union then.  The evidence I have quoted is entirely circumstantial, they would say.

There is of course a very strong motive for saying this.  Greek Cypriot policy these days is for the unity of the island as an independent state within the European Union.  This depends on the agreement of the Turkish part of the island, and so naturally the leaders of the Greek part wish to downplay any suggestion that they might not be wholly committed to this bipartisan approach.

As I said at the start, I don’t believe in history and I frankly don’t care whether or not the annexation of Cyprus by Greece in 1974 was likely.  The fact remains that Turkish troops invaded the island and drove many thousands of Greek Cypriots from their homes.  The island became partitioned, with the United Nations policing the divide, and it has remained that way ever since.

A separate Turkish republic has been established in the north of the island, but this has never been recognised by any country other than Turkey itself.  I could talk some more about how Cyprus got into this mess, but the most important point is that Cyprus is in it.

Cyprus is a small country, with a population of about 700,000, and with a GDP per head of about 7300 ecu (about half the EU average).  It is not a major player on the economic scene and so there are no significant economic issues to be dealt with when considering the prospect of Cypriot membership of the European Union.  In fact, I could go further and say that in many ways – company law, for example – Cyprus has been deliberately shadowing developments within the EU, which will make the process of joining still easier.

It has signed an Association Agreement and agreed a customs union with the EU, so most of the barriers have already been overcome.

The issues that need to be tackled in absorbing Cyprus are I think threefold.  First, there is the over-riding problem of the occupation, secondly, there is the wider question of the relationship between the European Union and Turkey, and thirdly, there is the institutional challenge of accepting another small state.

A country under military occupation

First, then, the occupation.

All the figures I have quoted and the policies I have mentioned are those of the “official” Cypriot government and not those of the North.  The Turkish separatist government is desperate simply for recognition: second degree problems like the EU figure not at all on the political landscape there.

The question for the EU is whether Cyprus can become a member while its government rules only part of its territory, and, if so, how.  There is an obvious precedent which has some bearing on the first point, which is that of Germany.

When the EEC was created in 1957, the fact that East Germany was under Soviet occupation and unable to take part did not prevent West Germany from becoming a member state.  Special rights were in effect granted to East Germany because the EEC refused to recognise the post-war dividing line and the usual sort of international frontier.

The first conclusion then is that the Turkish occupation of the north does not in itself mean that the south could not join, and it would bring with it a special place in the European firmament for the north.  This would in turn place the Turkish Cypriots in a dilemma.  On the one hand, they are trying to create the illusion that theirs is a country like any other, but on the other, the acceptance of a special relationship would be a valuable boost to their economy.  The economy of the Turkish part of the island is very weak and very vulnerable, thanks to a Greek boycott and the more general lack of international recognition, and it would be difficult for the leaders in the north to turn down such an offer.

There is a possibility that the south would wish to deny the north a special deal, on the grounds that it would hasten the end of the separatist state.  I think that this would be a mistake.  Experience shows that in these sorts of circumstances, trading relationships will lead to other sorts of relationships again and the gradual normalisation of the situation.

I don’t see that the separate Turkish Cypriot state will ever be starved into submission.  More likely, the divide between the two parts can be simply dissolved away.

Relations with Turkey itself

A second aspect of the partition of the island is that of the EU’s relationship with Turkey itself.  Regrettably, the question of Cyprus cannot be looked at solely on its own merits.  It has to be put into a wider political context.

Clearly, Turkey proper has invested considerably in the future of the Northern Cypriot state.  It has stationed thousand of troops there for the past 20 years, it has encouraged many thousands of settlers to move there to bolster that state’s development.  It is not going to take kindly to anything that might serve to undermine it.

One could pretend that the two parts of Cyprus are two separate states – that is the official Turkish line – and that the accession of one to the EU would have no bearing on the other.  But no-one believes that that is really true.  The Cypriot situation is delicately balanced, and the proposal we are discussing here would change all the different relationships involved profoundly.

Turkey is in itself an important partner of the European Union.  Its strategic location on the edge of the Middle East – bordering Iraq and Syria, for example – and its large and growing population inevitably demand a lot of attention in EU foreign and trade policy.  There is also a significant number of Turkish people living in Germany, and the continuing instability in Russia and what was the rest of the Soviet Union also brings Turkey into play.

For all these reasons, good relations with Turkey need to be maintained.  Indeed, the “hard core” proposal I mentioned earlier specifically identifies developing a partnership with Turkey as a key priority in foreign policy in the future.

However, my personal belief is that the EU has to start laying down the law.  If we allow our ambition that the union should gradually expand to incorporate all those European countries which are willing and able to join to be compromised by threats from others, the whole European project is put into great danger.  Its greatest strength is its internal development – it is not dependent on the rest of the world but is a demonstration of the effectiveness of democracy and self-government when applied as principles rather than simply convenient ways of organising a pre-existing national state.

Accommodating another small state

Finally, there is the problem of how a small state such as Cyprus can fit into the EU’s institutional mosaic.  Jigsaw puzzle is probably a better description: all the pieces are different sizes, and it is a continual problem to find ways to get them all to fit together neatly.  We don’t even have the original picture to know what we are trying to get towards.

The origin of the European Union is in a diplomatic club with six member states.  Decisions were taken by unanimity, every state was represented in every decision.  The six member states were of very different sizes, from Germany with perhaps 60 million people all the way down to Luxembourg, with 360,000.

As the European Union grew, the inter-governmental principle of equality became harder to enforce.  Decision-making would simply have broken down under the strain of trying to find compromises that would have suited all.  An attempt to speed things up with the introduction of majority voting collapsed in the 1960s, but was successfully brought back in the Single European Act in 1987.  Since then, legislation has been adopted at a pace which was not dreamed of all those years ago when the EEC was first established.  I think that moves in this direction were certainly expected, but that perhaps the scope of them in some quarters was not.

Although there have been moves away from the idea of equality between governments, it still retains an important influence on European decision-making; so much so, in fact, that there are likely to be further attempts to restrict it in the Inter-Governmental Conference in 1996 that I have already mentioned.

As Cyprus has a population of 700,000, it would on present showing expect to have 6 or 8 MEPs, two votes in the Council of Ministers, and one member of the European Commission.  However, it is not going to get them.

There is a large number of small countries hoping to join the European Union in the medium term, and to grant all of them the rights that Luxembourg enjoys at the moment would lead to a complete breakdown of the system.  The time would come when the small countries could outvote the large ones, even though it is the large ones who contribute most of the money and make up most of the population.  And most of the time, we wouldn’t even get as far as a vote: one country or another would find a reason to veto the whole proposal, whatever it might be.

Do not think that this reaction is aimed at Cyprus specifically, but small states such as Cyprus will not be admitted without a change in the distribution of votes within the institutions.  Perhaps later we could discuss what those changes might be.

Recognition of Macedonia – or not

Finally, I return to Greece and come to one of the more obvious sticking points in the EU/Greek relationship.  The fiasco over the recognition of the Former Yugoslav Republic Of Macedonia (FRYOM), which I shall call Macedonia for short, has attracted considerable attention throughout Europe.

Rarely has an issue so ignited popular feeling in a member state – there have been demonstrations in Athens of more than a million people at a time, in a country of only 10 million, don’t forget – and rarely has the rest of the union been so baffled.  What can these Greeks possibly be so worked up about?

From the outside, the trouble seems to be that the Yugoslav republic is stealing the name, an ancient Hellenic name.  But how can this be a problem?  After all, Luxembourg seems to fear no threat from the Belgian province of the same name.

But it’s not all in the name.  That’s just a symptom of the problem and not the whole thing.

I talked about earlier about the isolation felt by the Greeks in Europe and the effect that this has on their policies.  This is why I mentioned it.

Greek independence was won relatively recently from Turkish domination, and the country was engulfed in a bitter war with Turkey in the early 1920s.  Encouraged and then abandoned by the western powers, many long-standing – if not positively ancient – Greek towns and cities were abandoned and lost to the Turks.  The devastation and massacre of Smyrna, now Izmir, is only one example among many.

Since then, the near presence of the Warsaw Pact on the northern border, the distance of the rest of the European Union from Greece, and the lingering and mutual suspicion of Turkey, have conspired to cement this sense of isolation.

Greece remains one of Europe’s heaviest military spenders.  In the circumstances, this is not surprising.

In the independence of Macedonia, therefore, the Greeks see a further factor in their isolation.  Much is made of the Muslim connection, that the Turks, Albanians, and many Bulgarians, Macedonians and Bosnians are all Muslim and that they are conspiring against Christian Greece.  I am not convinced by this.  I don’t think you need to go as far as religion to explain the position in which Greece finds herself.  Geography and politics are quite enough.

So, back to Macedonia.  What is to be done?  Greece has vetoed the recognition of Macedonia by the European Union, to the exasperation of the other eleven member states.  The EU set up a commission to investigate the new republics of former Yugoslavia and recommend which should and should not be recognised.

That commission set out some principles on which the recognition decision should be based, and concluded that Macedonia and not Bosnia should be recognised.  As we all know, of course, the EU recognised them the other way round, Bosnia and not Macedonia.

It is not often that there is such a clear example of the dominance in politics of the expedient over the principled, of compromise over determination.  However, I really think that arguments such as this can be taken too far.

Greece is a member state of the union with the same rights as any other.  Here was a matter of vital interest to the Greeks – remember the millions of them demonstrating on the streets – and they acted accordingly.  Fair enough.  The challenge for the rest of the union is not to condemn this attitude, or to seek to undermine, but to find a way of working with it.

As I have said, I don’t believe in history and I don’t particularly care for the argument that the name Macedonia belongs to Greece.  Over time, that argument is inevitably going to be lost.

Whatever anyone thinks of what the Greeks may think, the fact remains that that is what they think, and that has simply got to be accepted.  Policy relating to Greece cannot be made without reference to the interests of Greece as Greece sees them.  In the European Union, that is a fact of life.

Future prospects for Greece

The Greek government faces an uphill struggle in entering the fast stream of European life.

I mentioned earlier the hard core proposal in which Greece is not referred to once.  I have also described the economic and political problems which Greece faces.  I have talked about the different views of issues such as the former Yugoslavia and enlargement that are held in Greece.  All of these present difficulties for the Greek political class.

We can all take heart from the efforts of the active and committed European movement in Greece, which I think recognises these problems and is determined to overcome.  The recent history of Greece may not place it at the heart of European decision-making, but that is not an impossible objective for the Greeks in the future.

Finally, as I am giving this talk to a branch of the European Movement in Britain, I should conclude by emphasising how all this matters to us.

I’m sure we can all think of another EU member state, on the geographical edge and with a difficult recent relationship with the rest of the union, in which the same dream of moving to the heart of Europe may seem at times a little distant but is still nonetheless both possible and essential.

Based on a talk given to the European Movement, 27 January 1995

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