Sunday, 28 June 2015

The Challenges of Greece by Ben Gummer

The Challenges of Greece

A house divided against itself…?

Article by Ben Gummer, MP for Ipswich
for the Ipswich Star 27/06/2015

The Greeks are really two peoples in one.  So concluded Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, soldier, adventurer, and travel-writer, after spending the best part of a lifetime travelling through the Greek peninsula and getting to know its people.  On the one hand, the Modern Greek soul is the living embodiment of the ancient past.  The breathing son of the silent marble statues of the great men of the ancient world.  The heir of the Classical Athens that we like to think founded Western Civilisation.

This mask, that of the Hellene – the word the ancient Greeks called themselves – was found by Leigh Fermor to conceal a deeper, somewhat darker and perhaps more instinctive identity.  Beneath the rational, philosophical Hellene, we find the proud, violently emotional and stubborn, Romaios

You would be right to think that this word, which stopped being used to describe Modern Greek speakers only towards the end of the 19thcentury, sounds remarkably like ‘Roman’.  It is the word Greek speakers started to use to call themselves when they became a part of the Roman Empire.  It is also the word that they continued to use during the harsh centuries of Turkish rule.  It resonates, therefore, with the spirit of resistance to foreign rule that set the Greek peninsula alight in the 1820s, leading to the overthrow of imperial Ottoman power by an army of shepherds…with some help from the British navy.
The spirit of the Romaios appears to have animated the apparently everlasting, last-minute, make-or-break negotiations that have once again dominated our television screens and newspapers in the past week.  It is predictably a tragic situation.  But the cycle of drama we are constantly being told is about to explode or be solved for good is not without comedy – that other ancient Greek theatrical invention. 

It is very easy to sympathise with the Romaios.  Greek national wealth is about 20% lower now than it was in 2008.  Wages, and the standard of living, have fallen dramatically.  State employment has been cut by just under a third.  There is also something admirable about the Greek prime minister’s resistance to what some Greeks perceive as some form of foreign control over his homeland.  The flashy charisma of Marxist lecturer turned finance minister Yanis Varoufakis – who rides into work on a motorcycle wearing a leather jacket – is admittedly refreshing.

But then the Hellene kicks in.  Greece’s problems are far, far deeper than the impact of the bailout regime imposed upon them by various international bodies.  Greek governments have been historically profligate.  We should not forget that the Greeks even defaulted on the loan raised by western powers to support the war of independence against Ottoman Turkey.  Greek politicians, of all parties, have promised far more than they can deliver year after year, misleading their own people into thinking that they can expect something for nothing.  Tax receipts, importantly, never seem to be as high as they should be. 
It is unclear, therefore, how refusing to reach an agreement with the EU and other international lenders would solve Greece’s problems.  Crashing out of the Euro – not entirely an impossibility – would cause Greek living standards to collapse.  Savings held in Euros would see their value disappear as they are converted into a new currency.  Greek governments would be locked out of the international money markets for decades.  Social unrest could spiral, something that could create mass-migration into northern Europe as enterprising Greeks look to forge a new life.

As I write, it is unclear what the Greek government will do.  They may not even know themselves.  Portugal and Ireland, who were in a very similar position to Greece a few years ago, have now come out of their bailout programmes and look set to return to economic health.  After five years of reforms under the Coalition Government, Britain is now the fastest-growing developed economy in the world, where more jobs have been created in Yorkshire in the past year than in the whole of France.

I hope that the sprit of Hellene prevails, for the sake of Hellene andRomaios alike.     

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