Beware of Greeks …
A recent re-watching of the movie ‘Troy” got me thinking about the stand off over debt between the modern Greeks and the EU.
The film portrays the Greeks as a vainglorious bunch who have to resort to deceit to take and sack Troy.
Whether or not this is a misreading of Homer, I was left asking myself why, if the Trojans are so guilty of hubris and fated to get their comeuppance, the Greeks needed to employ tricks to win.
But maybe that is the way the Greeks are themselves fated to be portrayed.
Some commentary this week has characterised Greek Prime Minister Tsipras’s trip to Moscow as a ploy to put pressure on the rest of the EU to be more receptive to demands to renegotiate his country’s bailout.
The timing of the visit around Orthodox Easter was a gesture to the historic links between Greece and Russia and an unwelcome reminder to Germany in particular that Athens could prove awkward for the EU beyond wanting to ease its debt burden at Berlin’s expense.
But, however justified Mr Tsipras may be in undertaking his Russian visit or calling for Germany to pay reparations for its World War Two occupation of Greece, he may be underestimating the long pedigree of distrust with which his country is perceived going back to the story of Troy and long pedigree of the adage “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts”.
Greece’s EU partners are in no mood to give the Syriza-led government in Athens a win in the debt talks because they have much to lose – whether they are creditor governments like Germany or debtor governments like Spain’s which has implemented deep spending cuts and faces a similarly popular anti-austerity party, Podemos, in elections later this year.
By extension, is it going too far – as this piece does – to suggest that it is in the interest of the supporters of austerity that Syriza fail, and be seen to fail, to deliver on its promise to the Greek electorate, so voters elsewhere don’t follow their example?
If this is so, it isn’t the first time Greece has been held up as a negative example to keep others in line.
In the Italian historian Claudio Pavone’s epic account of the 1943-45 partisan war against the German occupation and its client fascist republican regime in northern Italy, Una guerra civile, he argues the Greek experience was used effectively as a negative example to the Italian resistance.
In Greece, the communist-led resistance against German occupation mutated into a civil war after the Nazi withdrawal in 1944 and fighting broke out between the communists and British forces backing the new government in Athens.
In Italy, the Communists were also a leading force in the resistance, but despite their admiration for their Greek comrades, they didn’t come to blows with the British, Americans and the forces of the new royalist Italian government who were advancing north to push the Germans out of Italy. One of things that held them back was the prospect of civil war “a la Grecque” being used as an effective deterrent by the more right-wing resistance groups.
And the deterrence of the Greek experience seems to retain its potency today.
The brinkmanship being employed by Mr Tsipras and his Syriza colleagues doesn’t seem to be working as the rest of the Eurozone has remained united – and is indulging in brinkmanship of its own, giving Athens six days to come up with acceptable proposals for an extension of funding.
Financial leverage has been added to diplomatic pressure with the European Central Bank restricting the ability of Greece to raise emergency cash while international investors and wealthy Greeks withdraw their money.
In a few short months, things have moved from a position under the previous conservative New Democracy government, which was being praised for restoring confidence in the Greek economy, to the current financial crisis facing the left-wing Syriza administration.
So it looks like the odds are stacked against Athens in the coming days as it plays a hand weakened not only by the mismanagement of Greece’s finances in recent years, but also the historically and culturally ingrained distrust of its European partners.