The current Greek financial and social crisis is not only the result of poor management of many successive Greek governments. A huge contribution to this calamity has also been made by various decisions of the European Union. Like many major political upheavals around the world, this one as well has important lessons for Israel. The importance of the Greek crisis does not lie in whether or not it has an immediate impact on the Israeli reality, but rather what Israel can learn from it.
In Europe, most of the attention on the Greek crisis is placed on its financial aspects. Questions frequently heard are, “Will Greece have to leave the Euro?”, “What will be the financial impacts on the Euro”, and “How will it affect possible other aspects of the European Union?” The most recent agreement doesn’t change much of Greece’s structural problems.
This strong focus on financial issues is one-sided and short sighted. There are political aspects to this crisis which, in the long run, may become far more important. One only has to remember that at the Yalta conference of 1945, Stalin and Churchill discussed their spheres of interest in post-war Europe. Stalin agreed to British demands that while the Balkan countries would be in the Soviet Union’s control, Greece would almost entirely be in that of Great Britain.
Chaos in Greece may have a tremendous political fallout. Increased Russian influence within the country could have a substantial nuisance value for the West. Chinese influence, admittedly less probable, might be even worse. For NATO, Greece is very important, and for many reasons. There is a major NATO naval base in Crete at Souda Bay, for example. Greece has not always been a friendly partner. In the 1980s then Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou stated that his foreign policy goal was his refusal to be a “client state of the West.”
A foreign observer recently asked me whether it was conceivable that Greek terrorists would carry out attacks against the EU, whether in Brussels or elsewhere. I was initially taken aback by the question, but after giving it some thought, I answered that although highly unlikely, it was not totally inconceivable. The particularly dangerous Marxist-Leninist November 17 terrorist group for instance made 23 victims including Greeks as well as American, British, and Turkish diplomats during its activities from 1975-2002.
I recalled the years when I worked in Greece at the end of the 1990s. I was then a strategic advisor to the president of one of the country’s largest corporations which were not under state control. As he frequently had time constraints, I accompanied him from time to time to the airport. We could thus have a quiet conversation in the car, a prestigious model of one of the luxury Italian car makers. I doubted whether there was any similar car in Athens. An armed bodyguard on a motorcycle rode ahead of us.
After we reached the airport, I would return to the company’s office in the same car. The bodyguard had no intention of accompanying me back to the office–he had been hired to guard the president and nobody else. During those rides, I would often muse that potential terrorists could not know that the person in the highly visible vehicle was not the company’s president but just me. It was an uncomfortable feeling, but part of my Greek reality at the time.
There are more practical considerations regarding the current Greek crisis. Israeli exports to the EU will be affected by a further decline in the Euro. There would be significant consequences, as the EU is Israel’s largest market abroad. There are also other far reaching considerations which have less to do with Greece’s internal problems and more with how the EU deals with such issues. From my frequent visits to Greece, fifteen or more years ago, it was clear to me that there were huge economic problems, including an overgrown and often incompetent bureaucracy. Its ranks were filled with supporters of the two parties which alternated in having political power: the socialist Pasok and the liberal New Democrats. As a foreigner I could not understand the details of the substantial corruption, but I could sense its impact.