Can Europe Make It?

Some harsh truths for Germans, Greeks, and Europeans

As Greek-German antipathy threatens to tear Europe apart, a committed European - and Greek-German - challenges each of his nations' stubborn provincialisms to offer a vision for European reconciliation.

Fil Lekkas
15 July 2015

The Hellenic Parliament in Athens, designed by German architect Friedrich von Gartner. Wikimedia. Public domain.As the existential tug of war between Greece and its creditors moves into its hair-raising end game, its hard for me not to feel like I’m being squeezed by the knot in the middle. I’m Greek-German: my mother, the German, is from outside of Düsseldorf, while my father, the Greek, was raised in Athens by parents who moved from Crete to the capital in their 20s.

Apart from five years as an expatriate in the US, I spent my entire childhood in Athens in a Greek-German limbo. After my British school in the northern suburbs of Athens had closed for the day, I’d watch German television by satellite. In the summers, I’d follow a few weeks at my grandparents house in the Rhineland with a few more of languishing on a beach by the Aegean.

Next week I depart Berlin after a year on a research fellowship. In simpler times the last days of a year like this would be spent touring the old hunting grounds and ticking off items on a bucket list. Instead, my last week has been a disorienting vacillation between a manic, fantastical desire to get to Athens or Brussels and do something and a bitter but resigned acceptance of my personal powerlessness.

I cope by Skyping with friends back in Athens,by eavesdropping on the whispered conversations of everyday Berliners for some hint at what the policy-shaping voter thinks. I still obsessively scour three live web-feeds for every tweet of gossip, through after two week of running coverage, I’m flagging. When I go for a walk through my neighbourhood, every glimpse of a functioning, line-free ATM sparks a twinge of sadness and guilt. We Greeks with lives abroad, as Roxanne Krystali suggested, can do little but voyeuristically consume "crisis porn” like the explosions of bombs dropping at a distance. My German passport and lengthy CV will shield me, unlike most Greeks, from the possible fallout if the worst comes to pass. Whatever that may be. 

My willingness to so far simply consume news passively is also motivated by humility. Apart from brief visits during semester breaks while studying in the US, I haven’t experienced the furnace of Athens in many years. Perhaps my suburban youth means I never did. I certainly don’t feel qualified to stipulate what the terms of a just agreement would be, or speculate about life post-Grexit. But as someone who cares deeply for both nations, and who has had the privilege of following the half decade of debate about the crisis in English, Greek and German, there are some statements I feel now is the time to make.

To many observers, much of this will read as platitude. That may be the price of writing in times where the centre may not hold. In any case, a healthy public sphere demands that its citizens expose their experiences and thoughts, half-baked as they may be, to criticism and correction. In this era where hysteria has seemingly gripped many otherwise calm and keen observers, may I be forgiven for adding my own voice to the cacophony.

To the Germans: lets not be so lulled into complacency by the state of our economy to blindly believe the Mittelstand obstinacies peddled by our tabloids on which the post-war socio-economic order is allegedly based. Debt is political - it can be restructured, repackaged, relabelled, reimagined - and we, whether we like it or not, are the national public with the greatest capacity to play a leading role in the creative rebirth of Europe.

This is not just because we owe it to a continent we victimised. That fuel alone is too spent, too weak, to power a new era of pro-European sentiment, especially for the new challenges the coming decade will face Europe with. We should be open to challenging our basic assumptions about Schuld because we aren’t as secure alone - geopolitically, economically, intellectually - as we might think, no matter how ‘gemütlich' the view from Stuttgart versus that from Porto or Patras might be.

It's not just because we will face common threats, and will need to have trusted, financially sustainable partners in Europe. It's also because Europe is a two-way street, and we have much to appreciate and respect about others in Europe as they have things to learn from us. And the values and causes we have in common with all Europeans are more glorious when shared and experienced collectively.

Let’s not be so naive as to read the results of Sunday’s referendum as a sign that the people of Greece believe in a future outside of the eurozone, let alone the European Union. The much-mythologized kinship with an Orthodox, statist Russia peddled by the Greek far right does not reflect mainstream Greek attitudes. Greeks overwhelmingly identify with the values and institutions of Europe, even if for the past half-decade those values have been tarred by the strict conditionality associated with two bailouts.

Greece’s dysfunction doesn’t flow from the heat of its climate, the tenets of its religion, or the essential character of its people. Greeks that leave for more developed economies - to places like the US, Australia, and Germany - excel professionally. Greece’s actual Achilles heel is a state apparatus moth-eaten by years of neglect, abuse, and aborted reform, and a society grown opportunistic in response. 

But despite their cynicism Greeks want a leaner civil service. They want more rigorous tax collection, even if individual citizens through their actions make clear that they don’t want to be the only suckers paying. So do your research about a fellow European state, look to upend your settled assumptions. Even if you don’t think you owe it to the Greeks, you surely owe it to your credit, and co-national creditors. You certainly won’t be getting any money back if you depend on crude caricatures to make sense of your debtors' challenges.

To the Greeks: there is tremendous potential in our country. Any one visitor who has seen the sights, eaten the food, or chatted to young Athenian tech entrepreneurs knows this to be the case. But we will only enjoy the fruits of our labor—maybe even find pleasure in the governance of our country—when we take primary responsibility for its reconstruction. This crisis isn’t the brainchild of some German banker. It bears the indelible fingerprints of a regime we validated at the voting booth and were employed by for decades. For all the suffering experienced by other struggling European nations, it is us who are the deepest in crisis, our pathologies that are the most virulent. Let us find in us our own saviours. I’m not waiting for Aegean petroleum or wealthy Greeks of the diaspora to save us.

Even if our debt is forgiven - and it seems like this is necessary - let's not be quick to read in this a victory of the Homeric hero against conspiring higher powers. If it happens, it will be the grace of our creditors and our partners in Europe who saw reason despite considerable taunting. Especially for the young, the debt we carry may not have flown from our individual insufficiencies - but they weren't parthenogenetic either.

Pride cometh before the fall - now that we’ve fallen, lets approach the world with more humility. Our body politic, thickly veined from centuries of pumping patriotic blood from swollen heart to narrow mind, too easily circulates the nationalist sludge of ANEL and Golden Dawn. Our ancestors may have achieved great things - but they aren’t around to fix this mess. Instead, we have partners in Europe, so let's take what they say more seriously. And let’s respect their elected representatives. There are 19 democracies in the Eurozone, and many of their governments are procedurally more legitimate than is produced by our corrupt, majoritarian, system - one which still hasn’t passed provisions to implement the constitutionally mandatory vote for Greek citizens abroad that this crisis has driven out. 

To the Europeans: it might be hard to accept, but the midwife of a European project that will stand in the 21st century will have to be forgiveness. Let us forgive a Germany that in our lifetime will be populated in the majority by people who were born after the fall of the Wall or to ethnically non-German parents. Don’t let the legacy of WWII cloud your relationship with a country that has been among the most resilient to the rise of the far right in recent years. Calls for Germany to lead, often with an open purse, are undermined by taunts that resurrect the ghosts of 1933-45 at every available opportunity. I sincerely believe Germany could be that pacific power at the core of modern Europe that many want it to be. But many Germans have so internalised the lessons of the 20th century that they prefer to turn happily inwards and occupy themselves with domestic concerns than take the risks associated with a transfer union and military investment. 

Roger Cohen described Germany’s as “the history that precludes leadership”. I’d say that preclude is too pessimistic - but only you non-German Europeans have the power to influence this. If Martin Schultz is the most qualified candidate for the Presidency of the European Commission - and I’m not saying he is - let's not preclude him for occupying the position out of fear of German domination. Statements like that of Radek Sikorsky’s now legendary quip about worrying about German inaction more than German action are a fair-handed use of that power. Though I speak as someone who by virtue of my parentage cannot but shoulder my own share of war guilt, I’m more optimistic than many that Germany can play the leading role others implore it to. I’ve met many young Germans who hold the lessons of the 20th century close while recognising the need for German leadership in and solidaristic engagement with Europe. It’s a tough but possible balancing act. But be patient. Don’t forget that this year Germany celebrated only 25 years from the fall of the Berlin Wall, a date that prefigured tremendously expensive transfers from West to East in the name of national solidarity. That well might take a while to fill.

Last night’s bailout approvate suggests that Grexit may well be averted, at least for now. But no one dramatic concession from either the Greek or the European side in the next week will singlehandedly build a sustainable structure for Europe. There is no Gordian Knot to be cut; no button to be pressed, as Varoufakis would have it. Our only hope is in the cultivation of long-term inter-public trust, of jointly nurtured good will.

The negotiation strategy employed by a party that evidently only in the last few days understands how Europe works has dramatically depleted whatever reserves of good will were left. Hyperbolic promises of negotiations being completed in a matter of 48 hours must be the product of a genuine belief that this crisis will be resolved when the cabal of bankers who appointed Merkel to impoverish Europe finally admit defeat and declare that they would have succeeded if it hadn’t been for the Greeks and their pesky Alexis. The cost of this ignorance has been two brutal weeks and a harsher bailout. The harder task of building trust must now commence.

What uses for this trust? European solidarity must mean more than doing the minimum to prevent fellow European nations from the geopolitical equivalent of repeating a grade. A vision for Greece—and to other struggling European states—has to flow from a genuine commitment to national flourishing, not just survival. In time this might mean we forgive Greece its debt. The troika-midwifed collapse of ERT, the national broadcaster, is a case in point. The troika, in its single-minded obsession with "black zeros”, created an environment that encouraged the Greek government to shutter an institution of immense national significance, undermining support for necessary reforms.

But more broadly, the conversations we have in Europe must not be between adults of the core and children of the periphery, but between adolescents all trying to find their place in a world that has become a lot more complicated since the collapse of the Soviet Union. So let’s not let national chauvinism blind us to well-intentioned advice for how best to patch up our own homes. We should dare to know more about problems in other European countries, and to take seriously other countries' criticism of our own problems. 

A lasting solution to this crisis can only come in the form of a redesigned, reimagined European Union, with a monetary union cured of grotesque asymmetries at its heart. But our existing institutions and values are a solid foundation on which to build. Wednesday's debate in the European Parliament, with Guy Verhofstad’s speech as its centrepiece, may well be the proudest moment in that body’s short history. This is the forum to air the continent's dirty laundry, to shame its Victor Orbans. 

I don’t care for sports, but I do care for similes. I leave you with one. One of the few pan-European passions I can count is football. In 2004, heady like late August by the Aegean, perennial underdog Greece managed to defeat all rivals and win the UEFA Cup. As much a hero as the individual players was the coach, dubbed King Otto after the first head of state of an independent Greece. But he wasn’t Greek—he was a child of the Ruhr by the name of Otto Rehagel. Greek-German collaboration produced some of the greatest moments of modern Greece’s history. It is again time for that sort of partnership. May our leaders have the political courage and talent to pull it off.

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