(RIEAS Senior Advisor)
Much of the worldwide political and economic discussions entering 2012 focused on the reconciliation of economies, public budget deficits and how it affected standards of living. For a number of reasons Greece serves as the bellwether for what other European countries wish to avoid; in essence the stark reality posed by austerity. While Greek history defines our earliest understanding of democracy and citizenship, the more poignant lessons of Greece’s current situation lies further beneath the surface; namely the symbiotic relationships between government, economics and the cloak of security that envelopes them both. No one in their respective capitals speak openly over the tear gas rolling across Athen’s Syntagma Square because this equally mirrors home just as much as the television news. While the discourse over who is at fault and who should pay is played out for journalists, something far more symptomatic is at work. The issue is what I identify as ‘counter-intuitive nationalism.’ In other words, this is not an exclusive Greek example. Instead all countries are guilty of it to some degree and it is what they intend to do about it that ultimately determines the direction of an economy, a government’s leadership during unpopularity and a country’s overall security. Greece only happens to be one of the first countries to undergo this catharsis.
The issue of ‘counter-intuitive nationalism’ is not necessarily an original one. In fact it has been alluded to a number of different ways. Aristotle for instance was one of the first to distinguish the divide between the elite dynasteia, the poor and those somewhere in between. Bentham took into account how the fabric of society was held together, declaring that ‘custom and tradition must prove themselves innocent of the hazards they inflict on society.’1 For Hobbes there had to exist a code or social contract between segments or strata within a society in order to be both functional and viable. In terms of international theory, the collective decision-making made on behalf of a population follows the realist notion of self-interest – a rationalization and responsibility that Machiavelli placed at the apex of a society’s power. 2
Herein lies the problem. Greece has a proud tradition. Along the course of history they have had their highs, their lows and not a few close calls. With a cultural memory that rivals bigger and more affluent per capita countries, the paradoxical nature of nationalism can actually be part of the problem. These perspectives are starkly counterintuitive and pose the biggest threat to its security – albeit indirectly through its economy.
Case in point is the raising of taxes across the board. Unfortunately, tax revenue alone will not pay for the gap between what is collected and what is needed.3 One possible solution would be to export more or spread such costs to trading partners. This would mean less monetary burden on ordinary Greek citizens. But how can Greece’s largest trading partners make up the difference when they are despised or thwarted by Athens at every turn? By whatever naming convention appropriate, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) along with every international and regional organization has been subjected to every form of diplomatic harangue over an issue4 that in the end proved next to nothing to further Greece’s political agenda much less fatten their bank accounts. That does not mean advocating a country’s name one way or another. What it does mean is that the two neighbors have a developed inclination towards opposition rather than cooperation. It couldn’t come at a worse time.
Strangely Kosovo ‘s largest trading partners are Greece5 and Serbia6 – countries that do not recognize it as legitimate.
Currently there is an active boycott against imports from Serbia.7 A parallel boycott targeted against Greece not only affects the balance of trade between the two but lengthens the transport for the movement of Greek goods throughout Southern Europe. While that ultimately remains a nationalist decision, the unwillingness of these state security, border, customs and police officials to talk and exchange information with Kosovo or any other neighbor only benefits the smugglers. In other words, the most ardent patriots in the civil service counter-intuitively undermine their own countries based on traditionally instilled beliefs instead of the best interest of their citizens. The concept of putting aside differences to engage in constructive discussions is also Greek in origin; dating back to 8 BC. To this day, the United Nations observes the practice of ekecheiria by calling on all sides to put aside animosity for the common good.8 Good dialogue promotes trade. No dialogue promotes illicit trade. Illicit trade means that Greek citizens ultimately pay.
Sometimes cutting government costs can backfire if you lose the things you really need. Greek civil servants in such agencies as state security, border, customs and police are also part of these massive layoffs and firings throughout the Greek government. The problem with an ‘across-the-board’ approach is that Greece remains the entry of least resistance into the European Union9 and the Schengen Zone. Despite the building of a fence along the Turkish border,10 Bulgarians are still detaining illegal crossings originating from the Greek side.11 If human beings can get through so can cigarettes, narcotics, or far worse weapons.
For the long-term Albanian workers exiting Greece, 12 ardent nationalists complaining of foreigners might find satisfaction but its impact is not only counter-intuitive but inflationary. Higher wages to hire scarce workers leads to higher business costs hence higher prices. While such an exodus does lower unemployment, the Greeks needing jobs will possess skills and education that is ill-suited for such menial work. At the end of the equation are fewer residents paying taxes. With fewer residents paying taxes, Greek citizens not only continue to pay but regrettably pay more.
A functional government is one that is equally secure and economically viable. It is accountable and looks further than the next election and the division of the civil service patronage jobs. During good times, such inefficiencies and counter-intuitive nationalism can be easily glossed over. It is when times are dire that real change is forced – sometimes good, sometimes bad. Historically stability wins over discord but order based on xenophobia can be just as ruinous and destabilizing for Europe as Weimar ended up proving. The solution is for Greeks to pay less because export revenues increase the balance of payments and employment levels. It means accommodating a strata of workers that keep domestic prices low and exports competitively priced. It also means that elements with a disregard for society are stopped because dedicated nationalists in each of the respective countries are resolved to defeat efforts to undermine public treasuries.
By taking a renewed approach towards it neighbors, Greece can improve both trade and security despite disagreements over history. The greater goal is not to determine winners and losers in a debate but provide a safe, secure and prosperous Greece. By maintaining that focus, Greece’s neighbors would be wise to do the same. Despite the starkness of these austerity measures however painful, the last century has proved these events to be cyclical as well as event driven. That is what makes Greece unique. Not only because it is one of the first countries to undergo this reassessment but also the one able to conjure a nationalism that is better suited to its future.
1 Strauss, L. and Cropsey, J (eds). (1987). History of Political Philosophy: Third Edition, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
2 Rohmann, C. (1999). A World of Ideas, Ballantine Books, New York.
3 Birnbaum, M. and Irwin, N. (2011). ‘Greece Passes Property Tax Increase in Effort to Avert Default, Secure Bailout.’ The Washington Post, 27 Sep 2011 [online], http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/greece-passes-unpopular-property-tax/2011/09/27/gIQACtUb2K_story.html [Accessed 14 Feb 2012].Kyriakidou, D. and Melander, I. (2012). ‘Promises, promises…Greece’s History of Missed Targets.’
Reuters, 14 Feb 2012 [online], http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/02/14/us-greece-promises-idUSTRE81D1AG20120214 [Accessed 14 Feb 2012].
4 Speigel. (2008). Greece Blocking NATO Expansion. Spiegel Online [online], http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,544167,00.html [Accessed 14 Feb 2012].
5 Brajshori, M. (2011). ‘Kosovo Builds Ties with Greece on Economy, EU.’ SETimes.com [online], 10 Sep 2011,
[Accessed 14 Feb 2012]
6 Arbutina, Z. (2011). ‘Kosovo and Serbia Battle Over Customs Stamps.’ Deutsche Welle [online], 27 July 2011, [online] http://www.dw.de/dw/article/0,,15272616,00.html [Accessed 14 Feb 2012]
7 Karadaku, L. (2012). ‘Kosovo's Vetevendosje movement works to block border crossings with Serbia.’ SETimes.com [online], http://www.setimes.com/cocoon/setimes/xhtml/en_GB/features/setimes/features/2012/01/14/feature-01 [Accessed 15 Feb 2012]
8 United Nations. (2012). ‘The United Nations and Olympic Truce.’ [online], http://www.un.org/events/olympictruce/index.shtml [Accessed 15 Feb 2012]
9 Michaletos, I. (2012). ‘Heroin Trade and Illegal Immigration in Southeastern Europe.’ Phantis [online], 29 Jan 2012, http://www.phantis.com/blogs/ioannis-michaletos/heroin-trade-and-illegal-immigration-southeastern-europe [Accessed 15 Feb 2012]
10 Kantouris, C. (2012) ‘Greece Stepping up Security on Border with Turkey.’ Associated Press, ABC News [online], 6 Feb 2012, http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/greece-start-work-anti-migrant-border-fence-15521244#.TzvHgLR-HcY [Accessed 15 Feb 2012].
11 Focus (2012). ’21 illegal immigrants detained on Greek-Bulgarian border checkpoint.’ Focus Information Agency [online] http://www.focus-fen.net/index.php?id=n269707 [Accessed 15 Feb 2012]
12Economist. (2012). ‘Albanians in Greece: Heading Home Again.’ The Economist [online], 14 Jan 2012, http://www.economist.com/node/21542818 [Accessed 15 Feb 2012]