“Crooks in the Euro-family,” said Focus, “Our debt, you may take it,” replied My Country.
Greece’s image has been suffering as of late. Just in the past ten days, Reporters without Borders ranked Greece the EU country with the least press freedom, Transparency International found Greece to be the most corrupt member of the EU, and the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Cruel Punishment found Greece’s facilities for detaining irregular migrants to be “inhuman and degrading”. All this of course follows the European sovereign debt crisis of last year where “Greek profliglacy” threatened the existence of the Euro, concluding in what was perceived to be a “German bailout” of Greece (actually a joint EU-IMF €110 billion loan at 5% interest). This entailed a good deal of chauvinistic Helleno-Germanic exchanges of slurs and stereotypes (lazy Greeks, Nazi Germans) culminating in the Focus cover showing a classical statue, normally armless, giving the finger to the German nation. I want to suggest, however, that far from being simply indicative of a defective national character, that Greece’s problems largely foreshadow or reflect broader European issues.
The troubles in Greece are partly accentuated by internal dysfunctions, most notably the wretchedness of the political class and an intense nationalism. The latter can have a decidedly petty character, apparent in the refusal since the 1990s to recognise Skopje and its environs as anything but the “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”. (As opposed to just “Macedonia,” a term to be purely held by the legitimate heirs of Alexander the Great.)
This nationalism also entails high defense spending of 4.3% of GDP, far more than even the relatively high spenders that are Britain and France. This expenditure is partly meant to sustain the military, as in many countries, as a vast national “welfare” scheme. Partly it is based on enmity with Turkey, which is deep-rooted national tradition. It matters not that the two countries have been NATO “allies” for over half a century. Greek and Turkish warships continue to occasionally provoke one another and play idiotic games of chicken in the Aegean. It has all turned out to be mostly harmless but the inability of the Greek government to stay afloat financially appears particularly unacceptable given that the country, until last year, was still the biggest recipient of EU funds, amounting to some 3.3% of GDP.
It would be wrong, however, for other Europeans to be too smug or condescending with the Greeks as the problems of their country also reflect those of the continent. The IMF/EU loan required the Greek government to implement drastic budget cuts and tax increases, particularly on VAT. These have resulted in an economy projected to shrink 3% in 2011, the rise of unemployment to 12% and massive public protests. These problems are all affecting other European countries to varying degrees. Spain is still struggling with a 20% unemployment rate. Ireland’s austerity measures have led to a “double-dip” recession and is planning further cuts. Britain is poised to implement similar unprecedentedly deep cuts across the board while in France massive strikes and protests are underway. Indeed, the long-term budgetary outlooks of many EU countries, and not just the “PIGS” for that matter, are no more encouraging than that of Greece. It remains unclear how our societies and our welfare states will emerge from this crisis.
Similarly, while the situation with regard to press freedom is particularly alarming in Greece, it also forms part of a broader European trend. The RWB report has Greece plummeting 35 places since last year to 70th, ahead of Moldova but behind the Central African Republic. The report cites in particular political meddling in the media and physical attacks on journalists. However this is not isolated. RWB’s Secretary-General said that “the EU [itself] risks losing its position as world leader in respect for human rights”. In France, there is the violation of journalists’ sources and the heavy influence of the President in the hiring and firing several major media figures. Recently, journalists from Le Monde, Le Point and Mediapart (all investigating Sarkozy’s government) had their laptops stolen, apparently coincidentally. In Italy there is extreme concentration of media ownership and many journalists, often fearing reprisals from the mafia, live under police protection. As a result, RWB rank these two major founding members of the EU beside Bosnia and Burkina Faso. The situation has also deteriorated in several Eastern European countries, notably Romania, where the government recently deemed the media a “national security threat”.
Finally on immigration and the mistreatment of detainees, we are talking about what is ultimately a European issue. The UN rapporteur indeed discovered horrifying conditions for irregular migrants held by the Greeks. In one center he found that “sanitary conditions were bad, with some mattresses hiding hundreds of cockroaches”. In another the detainees were “often forced to sleep for up to two weeks on benches or on the floor” in “dark and suffocating cells”. Facilities would be too cold, lack adequate medical care or even access to toilets and showers. One can imagine the resulting “respiratory, skin and psychological problems” of people held in these facilities, sometimes for 18 months before having a trial.
Yet if the Greeks are not treating these people humanely, it is also a question of capacity. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of people entering the EU illegally do so through Greece. Greek police estimated that in 2008 some 150,000 people entered the country illegally and they do so generally to reach the El dorado that is Western Europe. More generally, the politics of race, religion and immigration are increasingly dominating Europe. We see this as much in the race-baiting government in France with the perpetual taunting of Muslims and the expulsion of the Roma as in the stunning sales of Thilo Sarrazin’s book on the existential threat Muslims pose to the German nation. Even traditional liberal model-countries have seen the rise of the politics of xenophobia with the electoral breakthroughs of the Sweden Democrats and Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party in the Netherlands. Indeed, with the first dispatch to Greece of armed European frontier guards by the EU agency Frontex, we are seeing the formal Europeanization of the immigration question.
So if the Greek predicament is depressing, it appears that country may be only blazing the trail upon which many other countries will follow. It would be wrong to think that “everyone is Greece”. The country’s situation is uniquely bad and there is significant variation across Europe. For example, as a rule of thumb, the “liberal Germanic Nordic-Alpine countries” (Holland, Austria, Switzerland and Scandinavia) continue to generally dominate the corruption, press freedom and other rankings. But Greece serves an illustration, albeit an extreme one, of the new trends in Europe. Lets hope Greece is not the proverbial canary in the coal mine and that we are not seeing the untimely end of a generous, liberal Europe.