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The European Conundrum

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As the EU and its member states face another year of uncertainty and conflict, Myrto Iztaigov takes stock of Greece’s recent history to pose the question what does it really mean to be “European”?

With the continuing imposition of Western Europe’s mandated austerity, Greece enters another period of uncertainty and perhaps a re-evaluation of what it really means to be European. “Is Greece really European?” seems to be an increasingly frequent question within a western media who often portray Greeks as lazy, corrupt and distrustful of all kinds of institutions. Features that are deeply carved into their DNA, they say; products of the country’s wrong policies over the years.

But let’s not forget that Europe’s bad boy has had a vastly different trajectory from most Western European nations. Greece may be the ‘heart of European Civilization’, but for more than four centuries it was a child of Ottoman despotism. For the next 150 years, the country was marked by constant foreign intervention and occupation, waves of immigration and a civil war. In the meantime history moved north into colder climates and the Industrial Revolution created powerful colonial empires and wealthy states in the U.S. and Western Europe. Greece was poor, agricultural and largely shaped by the trends of the Near East and the Balkans. Its ‘schism’ with Europe’s dominant countries was still obvious when the country joined the E.U. in 1981, a decision based on the need for a wider market and a romantic vision of the continent stretching from Iberia to the eastern Mediterranean. “Europe without Greece would be like a child without a birth certificate” had said former French President, Valery Giscard d’Estaing (back in 2000), who had relentlessly supported the country’s integration.

Standing between the ancient ideals and reality, Greece chose to follow the western paradigm. “We belong to the West”, the prime minister, K. Karamanlis  had famously proclaimed  following the country’s integration in the European Union. Yet, his words seemed more like a challenge to achieve rather than a statement of the obvious. By de-emphasizing the country’s cultural and religious particularities, Karamanlis hoped to reassure, even announce, the country’s ability to participate actively and become part of the modern western world.

But Greece wasn’t mature enough to cross to ‘the other side’. As taught by centuries of Ottoman rule, Greeks still identified the authorities with oppression, brutality, bribery and corruption. A perception later reinforced by the modern state’s inefficiency. According to D. Danikas, a journalist on protothema.gr, the gap between Greece and Western Europe started as soon as the Greek Orthodox Church split ten centuries ago from Roman Catholicism and is still there. “The state, for us, is the worse thief. Thus, the only thing we can do is steal from it as well. On the contrary, Western Europeans view the state as a privileged, ideal area that provides infrastructure and social benefits”, he writes.

Twelve years after his famous dictum, in a Spiegel interview, Giscard d’Estaing acknowledged that the country’s integration was, indeed, premature. “To be perfectly frank, it was a mistake to accept Greece. Greece simply wasn’t ready. Greece is basically an Oriental country”. A rather discrete remark compared to the journalist Z. Hatzifotiou’s comment to the Associated Press, in 1979, after the country joined the EEC: “What? Greeks European? Never! Greeks have made tremendous material progress in the last years to push their way into Europe. But they will never be genuine Europeans unless they correct their Oriental manners”.

So where do Greeks stand? In a world dominated by productivity, balanced books and the protestant ethic, questioning Greece’s ‘Europeanness’ is not incidental (especially when the notion of being a ‘good European’ is dominated by the Northern European definition). But it is still something to ponder: what does it really mean to be European? Is it enough to have a common currency, a single market or EU identity cards? Or maybe it’s just a question of ideological belief…but what if your children don’t share your values and ideals, are they not ‘European’ anymore?

We can’t measure or calculate someone’s ‘Europeanness’. As Maria Hnaraki, director of Greek Studies at Drexel University in Philadelphia, told IB Times: “Greece is at the borders of the so-called East and West. That is exactly where its uniqueness lies. It has served – and still does so- as a crossroads amongst three continents and, historically, people of various socio-cultural backgrounds. Thus, Greek identity is a mosaic, an amalgam of all those elements”. Europe is a beautiful mosaic – trying to categorize each piece individually would make it fall apart.

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