Can Europe Make It?

When Greece and Germany saw eye to eye

A look at Helmut Schmidt's little known but pivotal role in bringing Greece into the European Economic Community in 1981.

Zoe Koustoumpardi Eirini Karamouzi
19 November 2015

Helmut Schmidt in 2014. Demotix/Simone Kuhlmey. All rights reserved.Helmut Schmidt, former West-German Chancellor from 1974 to 1982, known for his sharp-tongued bluntless and praised for his pragmatism and assertive crisis-management, will be remembered as the ‘global chancellor’ that propelled Germany into the role of an international Cold War leader. What he is less known for is the pivotal role he played in Greece’s entry to the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1981. Now, more than ever, this turbulent climate calls for a deeper understanding of Greece’s relationship with Europe, that goes beyond short-termist, ahistorical analyses.

Coming to power in 1974, Schmidt had an arduous task ahead. OPEC’s oil embargo in 1973 had led to a sharp rise in oil prices, and the world economy suffered from low growth, high inflation and increasing unemployment. The German Chancellor, appreciating the importance of prosperity for stability, feared the consequences of an economic crisis on the safeguards of democracy. Schmidt’s legacies in the international arena - he was one of the principal creators of the G-7 in 1975, the “dual-track” decision of 1979 and European Monetary System in 1979 - reflected the importance he placed on interdependence and the Atlantic Alliance.

Together with his friend and close ally, French president Valery Giscard d’Estaing, Schmidt shaped and drove the European project, paving the way for the common currency - the euro - adopted by EU members in 1999.

It was during his time as the ‘global chancellor’ that Greece applied for EEC membership in 1975 - a mere eleven months after the collapse of a seven-year military junta, prompted by Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus in July 1974. The application took the EEC by surprise, and throughout the period of accession negotiations Schmidt’s core principles and experiences guided his evolutionary stance towards Greek accession.

There has been voluminous writing on the special relationship between Giscard d’Estaing and former Greek prime minister Konstantinos Karamanlis, and how this personal rapport translated into France’s unconditional support for Greece’s entry to the EEC. Contrary to popular belief, behind the closed doors of Brussels, it was Germany that proved to be the driving force behind the second enlargement.

Keeping true to his legendary bluntness, upon hearing of Greece’s desire to apply for EEC membership Schmidt famously exclaimed: ’over my dead body’. His vehement opposition referred to Greece’s structural economic problems at a time of global financial crisis, but also the future of its foreign policy orientation. Greece’s withdrawal from the military wing of NATO, its unstable domestic political situation in the aftermath of the Cyprus debacle and the crisis of economic, political and social stability across Southern Europe, brought the issue of Western security to the fore of Germany’s thinking.

In their first official encounter in May 1975, Karamanlis had a difficult task of alleviating Schmidt’s doubts and apprehension over Greece. Karamanlis stressed that apart from the economic incentives, being an EEC member was identified in Greece with prosperity and a long-term guarantee of liberal democracy. Karamanis was able to speak Schmidt’s language when it came to the politics of security.  Whilst repeatedly affirming his allegiance to the West, he convinced the Nine that a failure to meet Greece’s EEC demands would undermine his government’s position, imperil the country’s democratisation process and ultimately, its foreign policy orientation in the future.

Through frequent and pragmatic dialogue, Schmidt grasped the daunting task that confronted the Greek prime minister and quickly realised that the future and stability of democratic Greece was undoubtedly tied tο Karamanlis’ personal governance.

“Karamanlis was the only person I knew in these years who was trustworthy and on whose word you could rely.” - Helmut Schmidt.

Yet, the Cyprus and Aegean disputes with Turkey still contained the potential for Karamanlis’ political downfall. So it was the harsh geopolitical realities of security and stability in Southern Europe during the Cold War, which led Schmidt to embrace Greek EEC enlargement unequivocally.

Schmidt moved beyond symbolic gestures and ensured that Germany’s support was translated into practice once the serious bargaining began. In contrast to France where strategic interests played second fiddle to obsessive electoral manoeuvring at home, Germany’s role was consistent and fruitful to completing the Greek negotiations. As paymaster of Europe, Bonn made compromises materially possible and was able to move beyond its narrow national interests even when the sensitive issue of Greek and Turkish workers came to the fore. Labour movement touched on political sensitivities at home due to rising unemployment at a time of recession. Schmidt, together with his Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, believed that the security and stability of Southern European democracies overrode the economic and institutional difficulties arising from enlargement.

As current German-Greek relations go from cool to sour, leaders of both countries can learn a thing or two from the Schmidt-Karamanlis era. Trustworthiness and consistency are indispensable, as is the appreciation that any crisis is much about politics as it is about economics.

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