Friday, February 8, 2019
Most Europeans are unaware of the highly interesting and crucial times they are living.
Starting from the current year of 2019, our continent will go through major changes and challenges, that if met successfully, they will alter Europe as we know it.
By the end of March, one of the oldest and prominent EU members will leave the union, forcing the block to readjust internally and externally, on economic and political terms. When Britain leaves the EU, it will impose several trials to everyone in Europe.
There will be winners and losers on economic terms, as many EU countries will compete for firms, companies or banks that were based in the United Kingdom until now. However, the EU will lose out a valuable member, a wealthy nation, an economic, political, diplomatic and military powerhouse; one of the only two EU nations with nuclear weapons.
Britain, on the other hand, will see its citizens' rights being diminished, as they won't enjoy the same rights Europe-wide anymore, in case of a no-deal Brexit. In addition, many of them will have their financial status downgraded.
The country's influence in Europe will be significantly less, as it will abandon its seats in the European Parliament, EU Commission and Council. It is doubtful if it will be able to forge similar influential alliances and partnerships with other blocks.
As if this wasn't enough, there is a good chance that the U.K. itself will be drastically altered, as Scotland keeps threatening to have a second referendum if a no-deal Brexit happens. Never mind, of course, the Northern Ireland backstop and the border issue there.
Two months later in May, the EU will have its first elections after Brexit. Traditionally, the turnout for these elections is always low. But as the European Parliament seats will be reallocated with Britain's departure, how will the new EP look like?
Furthermore, with a new EU Parliament and its President, we will have a new EU Commission President as well as a Council one. That will mean many new faces on the European steering wheel, but also new alliances.
We have witnessed two different camps forming in our continent. One that has been gaining momentum for the past few years and has managed to uphold significant power in many EU states. The union might be losing one of the most vocal euro-skeptic nations, however the economic and refugee crises have managed to provide the EU with worthy successors.
Austria, Hungary, Poland and recently even Italy, have all been to a certain degree, moving away from core European values and returning to more conservative, nationalistic, protectionist and even authoritarian political leadership, that in some cases they fought so hard to rid of in the past. The reason for this is of course migration and the problems that arose from it.
Lately the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, has travelled to Poland to "break the dominant Germany-France axis", as he strives to forge far-right alliances before the European parliamentary elections in May.
He stated that the two countries could build a new Europe, bringing about a “renaissance of European values," away from the one that is run by bureaucrats. (The Guardian) He plans to reach out to many euro-skeptic parties from across Europe, like Marine Le Pen's Front National, in order to achieve his vision.
On the other hand, France and Germany-the union's two powerhouses- have recently renewed a decade old peace agreement, the Treaty of Aachen, in which both nations reinstated their commitment for deeper cooperation. It only remains to be seen, if they can or are interested in extending this spirit to the rest of the remaining EU members, or the future ones.
So, we are headed for another dramatic showdown in Europe by May, just two months after Brexit is expected to happen. Divisions in Europe about the future direction of the continent are not anything new, however while after the establishment of the EEC, the consensus was mainly towards building a more integrated continent, nowadays we see an effort to undo what has been achieved so far.
The disappointing thing is that it all happens for protectionism and vested financial interests, immigration and diverging ideologies. The more liberal northern European states, in order to balance out the loss of their like-minded Britain, have signed another treaty of cooperation in 2018, named as the New Hanseatic League of nations. They are calling a greater role of the European Stability Mechanism, in scrutinizing national budgets.
Contrary to this, the Visegrad group of countries in central Europe, want less interference from Brussels in their internal affairs, but then why they decided to join a block that requires the opposite? The absolute disunited southern nations on the other hand, are still too absorbed by their financial woes and internal political and social problems. The Balkans are a brilliant example of this, thus it is no wonder that they are still one of the poorest regions of the continent.
And while one may blame external factors and meddling, from Russia or the US administration, we should not rid ourselves from the responsibility of our own decisions. In a democratic society or community of nations, there is no guarantee that the right resolutions can always be taken. That is the very essence of democracy and why this political system requires responsible participation.
Take Brexit for example. For the Tories deal with their internal problems, they threw the whole country and Europe, in a totally unnecessary process that will leave everyone worse off. It is understandable that many in the British leadership were tired of fighting with other nations in order to promote or safeguard their interests and values. Especially when not everyone else wants to commit or play by the rules.
Yet, when it comes to giving more powers to a centralized European government, in order to achieve consensus faster, it was Britain and the other big nations in the EU who opposed it. Europe is thus a confused continent going in circles, not willing to let go of the vision of a closer union as it realizes the benefits, yet not ready to do what it needs to be done; agree to a common vision for the future and commit to it.
And while many accuse Germany of taking over Europe, they do not show the same determination to take the initiative and offer an alternative plan that will work for all, inspiring them to adopt and devote to it. If the Franco-German Axis persists and dominates the rest of EU nations, will it work equally for everyone, without creating second class member states at the periphery?
If these two countries want to set out a plan to unite the rest of Europe, then they cannot be seen to serve solely their own interests. If they want to beat the protectionist, nationalist and populist leaders in the peripheral states that oppose decisions taken in Brussels, then they will have to offer better solutions to the citizens' problems of these countries.
But that will be hard to achieve, without rocking the boat too much in their own pond. Chancellor Merkel experienced a drop in her popularity when she decided to show leadership during the first years of the refugee crisis. Similarly, the current French President Macron is realizing now with protests by the "Gilet Jaunes" movement, that showing leadership and reforming a country is not always welcomed by all.
And that is only the reaction on a national level. Imagine what will happen if one seeks to reform a whole continent. However, us citizens must not wash our hands completely from the direction that Europe will take in the future. It may be easier to blame our bad politicians, corruption and external "meddlers," yet we also have a fair share of blame.
Our participation in the European elections has been dwindling, while on national lever we seem to prefer populist, conservative and nationalistic parties out of desperation and disappointment. Nonetheless it has been proven that they cannot offer long term solutions, their only positive effect is to soothe our anger for a while.
Yet the effects to our societies that a temporary, emotionally charged change will bring, can have long term disastrous consequences; like Brexit. That does not mean that we should sit and observe idle, when coming against injustice, corruption and bad policies from our governments. We just need to stop swinging from one extreme to the other and commit to a vision that will offer collectively European nations, stability and prosperity.
And while we focus on that vision, then create a pan European civil society and pressure groups that can promote this goal. But even more importantly, participate increasingly and more responsibly in Europe's politics; starting of course by voting in the European Parliament elections. It is in our interests and we cannot expect a national government to provide us everything that we need, in an ever interconnected and globalized world.
The current year will pose Europe with a lot of challenges, that will set up the agenda which could shape the future of our continent for decades to come. Will we, the citizens, turn our back to each other while focusing on our own version of the very similar problems that we are facing, or will we decide to be bold and set the foundations for a very different continent?
Friday, January 18, 2019
Last Friday Northern Macedonia's parliament voted for changing the country's constitutional name, in order to end the naming dispute with its neighboring Greece, over the use of the term "Macedonia".
The 27-year-old disagreement, which was the main obstacle to the Balkan country's NATO and EU aspirations, seems to be finally about to end.
However, nothing is set in stone just yet. The new name and the ratification of the Prespa Agreement, signed by the two countries last June that paved the way to the recent breakthrough, must be approved now by the Greek parliament.
A task that won't be easy. After the euro-zone economic crisis, which saw the Greek economy shrinking, a humiliation of the country with three bail-outs and a serious downgrading of the population's living standards, the Greek voters are ultra-sensitive on matters of national interest.
As result, the country's parliament has a strong percentage of nationalist parties and MPs, which will make almost impossible such ratification. Not only that, but the Greeks have taken to the streets numerous times until now about the issue, as is sure they will do again in the future.
The current ruling coalition is that of the Left-wing Syriza and the right-wing party of the Independent Greeks, which have decided to pull out of the government, over Syriza's support for the Agreement.
Independent Greeks' leader Panos Kammenos was always against its ratification and he resigned last Sunday, forcing Greece's PM Tsipras to call for a confidence vote this coming week. Given the fact that Syriza's government is highly unpopular due to its failure to reverse some of the austerity measures adopted to deal with the economic crisis, it is highly likely that Greece will head to elections much earlier than expected in October.
Some that keep few hopes in a new Greek government in order to ratify the Agreement, should be wary. If Syriza is forced to go to elections, possibly it will lose as the party is quite unpopular right now among the Greek voters.
Thus, New Democracy will gain power, in which there are many nationalist MPs also opposing such treaty between Greece and North Macedonia. In order to halt the progress of Golden Dawn and other right-wing parties in Greek politics, the leading opposition party has itself been forced to give prominence to its more nationalist politicians.
In North Macedonia, the opposition nationalist party VMRO-DPMNE, boycotted the ratification session and is also against the deal. If Greece fails to pass the Agreement, then there is a risk that the current ruling party in its neighbouring country will also lose the next elections and be replaced by the nationalists again.
Sadly, pushing any potential solution back for many more years. The Europeans and Americans are most keen to see the issue gone and resolved, but as they are in an ongoing tug of war with Russia about influence in the region, things get complicated.
There are numerous issues and factors involved, not just Greece and its sensitivity on the heritage, history and territory that feels that are threatened by its neighbour. The Balkans are a very strategic area, which if Europe manages to integrate, can be transformed to a very vital region for the continent.
Naturally various players want a role in it. Turkey and Russia keep their foot in their region, as well as the US and Europe. This often hinders development, as the hostility and competitiveness of the big powers, spill over and fuels nationalism and petty disputes.
Bulgaria had its own issues with the small Balkan country, which like Greece was on linguistics and ethnic identity. Although it was the first country to recognize its independence, it refused to recognize the existence of a separate Macedonian nation and language.
It argued that the Macedonians are a subgroup of the Bulgarian nation, and that the Macedonian language is a dialect of Bulgarian. Yet despite their differences, the governments of Bulgaria and Northern Macedonia signed a friendship treaty to bolster the relations between the two Balkan states in August 2017.
The treaty was ratified by the parliament of the Republic of Northern Macedonia on the 15th of and of Bulgaria on 18th January 2018. However, despite this, there have been occasionally diplomatic fall-outs.
Only last December, a junior partner in Bulgaria's coalition government, the Bulgarian Nationalist Movement (VMRO-BND), raised the possibility of new hurdles for Skopje, by threatening to withdraw Sofia's support for Macedonia's Euro-Atlantic integration.
The party led by Defense Minister Krasimir Karakachanov, was annoyed over recent arguments made by Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev about the existence of the Macedonian language. (Radio Free Europe).
The party led by Defense Minister Krasimir Karakachanov, was annoyed over recent arguments made by Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev about the existence of the Macedonian language. (Radio Free Europe).
Incidents such as these, make many Greeks wary about the point of such compromise. In addition, when they look at how many Central-Eastern European member states, switched from pro-European and progressive governments back to more authoritarian, they doubt that EU membership for Northern Macedonia, will control their irredentism and a slip back to nationalism.
Given the fragility of the deal and the urgency the US and Europe to round up the integration process in the region, Athens will be facing pressure from its Western partners. However, dry diplomacy cannot always win over deep-rooted nationalist sentiments in all sides.
There is a major lack of trust, which combined with populism, lack of dialogue and communication, will to change and compromise that are aggravated and manipulated by foreign powers, as well as nationalist local ones, that make this ratification a huge challenge.
One would wonder why on earth can't there be a Macedonian region in Europe, inhabited by a number ethnic groups-as it always has been the case- which can all be called "Macedonian". And why one of these groups can't establish a country named Northern Macedonia, which speaks Bulgarian and if it likes, can proudly hail Greek heritage through the famous ancient Greek kingdom instead of presenting it as its own, fabricating new history.
The whole of Europe claims Greek heritage so I don't see any problem here. And there are many countries with no separate distinctive national language, like Switzerland with four official languages, Ireland with English, Cyprus with Greek and Austria with German as their national language. Why can't Northern Macedonia adopt Bulgarian as theirs, in return with guarantees from Bulgaria, that it will respect their right to exist as a separate distinctive nation.
What we have instead is a tiny state with an identity crisis, rightly wanting to self-determinate and create a state, yet insisting on allowing misguided nationalists poisoning its relations with its two neighbouring countries, which should be its partners and brother nations.
In addition, as a reaction to this madness we have Greek and Bulgarian nationalists blocking the country's prospects to prosperity and stability, which is the only way to achieve a less nationalist sentiment in its population. Poverty as it is known, goes hand in hand with lack of education, populism and irrational nationalist ideologies.
Not just in North Macedonia but in its neighbours too. It is no coincidence that austerity helped the rise of the far-right in Greece, exposing the Greeks' weakness of keep feeling insecure about their future and see enemies all around them; instead of trying a different approach to the problems they are facing.
Sharing the name is not a threat to their identity, if the people of North Macedonia learn to respect Greece's sensitivities on their history and heritage. But that will require mutual understanding, dialogue and above all trust and time.
I wonder why the inhabitants of this region prefer to stick to old grudges and century old legends or history and allow what they can have in common, splitting them ever apart.
No one can guarantee that Northern Macedonia will stick to its promises once it joins the EU, but as the block helped sooth the rivalries between France and Germany, I am hopeful that someday the Balkans will finally realize their common and shared future.
Should they fail in a process that took nearly three decades, the only losers will be the people of this region. Caught in petty nationalism and foreign interests, the region will remain the one of the least developed of Europe and most unstable.
Thursday, November 1, 2018
As with most other European countries, one of the main topics of debate in the recent Swedish general elections in September was immigration. The issue has lodged itself at the epicenter of public debate across our continent for a long time now.
It has been a main factor in major developments in Europe like Brexit, the rise of populism and so called "radical" parties and political movements, the rift between the old 15 EU member states and the Visegrad group, as well as the North-South division when it comes to dealing with the refugee and immigration crisis.
Our leaders might prefer blaming Russia, China or the Trump administration for the misinformation or propaganda war that fuels the rise of populism, however one cannot ignore Europe's internal issues; and they mustn't be blamed on any external factor, if we want to deal with them successfully.
Accusing others for your problems, no matter how substantial evidence you have, should not prevent you from taking stock and responsibility for your own mistakes and actions; something that the European leadership often tries to do.
The immigration problem in our continent is not anything new. It has been brewing for decades now, however the European elites and media chose to ignore and avoid it, hiding themselves behind the often illogical political correctness policies.
Yet when you do not give a chance for such issues to be debated and discussed openly, in fear that you may offend certain groups of people or that you will be branded as racist, you only brush the problem underneath the carpet. You are not dealing with it, you are just kicking it further down the road for others to take responsibility.
Nowadays in the era of social media, voters but also young individuals will try to discuss issues that affect their communities in various online portals. If they lack the right information, or if their concerns are not met or answered by their politicians, or if at least they are not exposed in an open debate in the main stream media, they are going to express their views on these web-pages.
And this is exactly where radicalized individuals exist and thrive, behind the anonymity that the internet is offering them, that enables them to offer their distorted views as answers to the people who genuinely wish to discuss their ideas and concerns.
Wouldn't it better to have open debates on our media, schools and educational institutions, political parties' membership or any other civil society platform, on issues that affect us and our children; like immigration, EU membership, the adoption of the euro, our country's integration into the European family, racism, culture, multiculturalism and so many more.
Our continent was always multicultural, since the Roman times. Free movement from Europe to the Middle East plus North Africa and vice versa, meant that people from other races inhabited our continent since antiquity.
But in modern times it has become an issue and a topic of debate, only after the ‘50s, when many of the Western former colonial powers, invited workers from their one-time territories to settle in their countries. Soon after, they sought to attract "guest workers" from countries like Turkey and Morocco, but prepared poorly to integrate them as they did not expect them to stay permanently.
As result, many of these immigrants found themselves living in ghettos or in tight ethnic social circles, often being alienated from their host country and its other communities. The failure of the old 15 EU member states to deal with their immigration problem, fuels in fact the resistance of the new Central-Eastern European countries of the block to follow their example. They reject the Western multicultural social model because they see only its failures, not the advantages.
Yet it doesn't have to be this way. They can learn from the Western states' mistakes and do not repeat them. But this will require not fences and coming in direct clash with the EU itself, rather the formation and adoption of a comprehensive, fair and functioning immigration and integration policy, that will avoid the shortcomings of other countries, by examining them first.
Almost all immigrants that arrive in their new adoptive country are ambitious and have much to offer in terms of knowledge and skills, if we only attract the right ones that we need for long term or permanent settlement, while perhaps offering short term contracts to seasonal low skilled workers. It is really frustrating that we treat issues such as these with the complex of our bygone colonial history, the fear of being branded racists or xenophobic.
The reality is that we cannot absorb all immigrants, without totally dismantling the social fabric of each country, with serious economic and political consequences. Thus the refugee crisis puts out ability to cope and adapt to the test. Some countries such as Germany and Sweden, tried to show how open and progressive they are, by taking in the largest amount of refugees.
The recent election results and polls though, signify a concern in both nations about the future of such policies.
We may choose to ignore the shift in the public opinion, try to blame internet trolls, but that would discredit the concerns of the ordinary European; and that is not a sign of a true democracy.
Having endured austerity and a very crippling economic crisis, it is understandable that people feel that changes are out of their control, there is a sentiment of mistrust and betrayal and thus they feel disconnected from the establishment parties.
They are seeking solutions from new parties, which naturally act opportunistically and take advantage of the citizen's concerns, by simply addressing them. Our governments might brand this as populism, but it is evident that it works, so why haven't they managed to get rid of their institutionalized political correctness and becoming more accountable and transparent about the policies they chose to adopt?
Yet not all immigrants are refugees. Apart from the Syrians that are fleeing a war torn country and deserve to be accommodated- not only by Europe, but the whole of global community- many others are joining the queue to enter our continent. They come out of hope and desperation. They are attracted by our living standards, which are even after the crisis, still among the highest in the world.
However one cannot ignore that another reason that Europe is so attractive to immigrants, is its colonial legacy. Since a lot of them have a European language as their first or second official back in their native, while still being raised in a post colonial mentality and educational system, is it any wonder that they feel more connected to Europe than any other region of the world?
In addition, when Western culture is the predominant one though Hollywood movies and stereotypes, how can a young Asian or African not be dreaming in living in a Western nation, since we promote our way of life through advertisements, trade, films and our overall cultural domination?
Finally, since we are promoting and priding ourselves as open, equal and welcoming society, why then we find it so hard to accept the fact that others see us as a beacon of hope and opportunity, just as America was long before us?
The recent divergence of Europe towards a more conservative, xenophobic and euro-skeptic stance, puts a question-mark on how open are we as a society, how prepared are we for a globalized, multi-polar world and signifies an identity crisis. We are simply not sure what we want to be, or which role do we want to play in the globe for the future.
That is understandable, as European nations have walked a different path in history. Some where conquered and oppressed by different countries, while others were the oppressors or the invaders. Some only managed to form a state quite recently, while other nations have been empires or kingdoms for much longer.
Some have had a more peaceful history than others by maintaining neutrality, while the different ideological and religious divisions have created a variety of mentalities, sensitivities and approaches in our continent.
However we should not destroy what we have achieved so far, just because we feel insecure. The reason we are still one of the most prosperous continents, is exactly because we have established the biggest market in the world, we have opened our borders to each other and the world and have abandoned- well to a certain extent- protectionism.
Immigrants are needed to fill the jobs that we are not willing to do and to sustain the very generous welfare system that we all enjoy. The alternative model would be that of Japan, which offers close to no social welfare benefits, yet it is a very homogeneous nation, for the time being at least. Instead of scapegoating them for our problems, perhaps we should simply re-evaluate the policies we have adopted so far, streamlining them to a pan-European common immigration policy.
If we continue to maintain so many loopholes for people to enter Europe, without however any proper integration policy, all we are doing is worsening the problem. We are encouraging more people to live on the fringes of our societies, often unemployed or cut off from equal opportunities and relying on social welfare.
It is no wonder then that radicalization of certain immigrant communities, or rising xenophobia in the native population take hold and they make matters worse. Combined with an economic crisis and an increasingly competitive continent, in an increasingly competitive world, these issues can not be ignored.
We have been disregarding the weakest and most vulnerable in our societies, both native and migrant, making them feel left behind. Not everybody is equipped to catch up with the changes, like our older generation. In addition, we have been slashing the opportunities of our youth, forcing them into unemployment and a bleak future in order to save the banking sector.
All the above add to the toxicity of European politics. If we want to succeed in creating and above all maintaining an open, democratic and liberal community of nations, then we cannot ignore these issues any more.
We will have to adapt and reform our societies, educational systems, job market and economy, or people will increasingly opt for political parties that will promise changes, even though they cannot deliver them.
On the issue of immigration we will have to learn from the mistakes of the past. If you think that you are promoting a tolerant and progressive image, by allowing too many immigrants to enter in your workforce, yet without a sustainable plan to integrate them, then the only thing that you will achieve is clashes and the opposite of what you hope for; the image of an intolerant society.
Problems will always arise, but we will have to anticipate and face them, not avoiding them in fear of offending people. Plus we will have to be bold and resourceful. We could establish a number of EU work permit embassies abroad, so people can enter Europe legally, bypassing criminal gangs that smuggle them into Europe for profit. Safeguarding European borders will need a stronger policing or security force, thus coordinating our efforts on this front is also essential.
Cooperating with the transit countries is important, so maintaining good diplomatic relations with them is key. And if we decide that we need to reverse the flow, or at least limit it, we should encourage other regions to become big players in the globe and especially, to invest in the countries of origin of the potential migrants, creating jobs there.
If their citizens feel that they have a future in their own communities, then they won't be as keen to migrate to Europe. And by allowing a multi-polar world to emerge, with many new players and prosperous regions, then Europe will not be the only continent too appealing to the potential immigrants.
Therefore we need to engage with all other regions in the world, promoting stability, prosperity and education, together with our values and aspirations for a more united, interconnected world and set an example for others. But this won't happen when we are not sure of who we are, what we want or how to deal with our own problems, because we are unable to hold an open debate on the type of European society we wish to create for our future generations.
Sunday, September 30, 2018
However, the EU institutions and other European leaders, gave a warning to Athens, to stick to the policy commitments it made in exchange for €289 billion of loans. (Financial Times)
EU economic affairs commissioner Pierre Moscovici said on Monday (20 August) that Greece will once again be treated as a "normal country" after over eight years of international aid and austerity measures.
He added that the EU lenders will no longer impose "any kind of measure or decision", adding that Greece is now free to define its own economic policy within euro-zone structures.
The commission does not aim to give Greece an entirely free hand, however. EU officials will travel to Greece on the week of 10 September to check on developments. Four such visits will be made annually.
Over the last 10 years, Greece's GDP also went down by 24.2 percent. Unemployment is around 27 percent. It will also have to keep it at 2.2 percent until 2060 to pay back debt, a massive task for a weakened economy.
But the commissioner said he was confident the Eurogroup’s decision to implement a series of "robust, short and medium-term debt measures will meaningfully lighten Greece's burden and secure its sustainability."
Moscovici also said Greece's economic structures had been modernized and should be capable of helping create jobs and attract investments. (EUObserver)
Something that is highly needed if the country is to get back on track. But even if we accept that the worse is over for the Greeks, one can only wonder how the country will become "normal," by simply focusing on debt repayment.
As if the only thing that Greece's lenders care about is getting their money back; with interest of course. And while the "Eurocrats" celebrate, the ordinary Greeks have little reasons to be jubilant. For the next 42 years they will be paying off a massive debt, that will hinder a generation's opportunities. If course during this time, another economic crisis doesn't weaken further Europe's most vulnerable, peripheral economies.
The problem with Greece.
Greece's trouble was not only its debt, rather political and social to begin with. The country had little chance for stability since its formation and liberation from the Ottoman Empire, that left it with a totally broken and outdated system.
And if you think that stability and peace have nothing to do with modernization, then take a look at Sweden, a country that avoided both world wars, with diplomacy and political manoeuvring, that sometimes required to cooperate with both sides of each conflict.
Greece did not enjoy that luxury. Ever since its liberation from the Ottomans, the country entered every war on the European continent, initially with its neighbouring countries over territory, but later in the two most catastrophic world wars with the Western powers' interference.
In fact, the modern Greek state would never have existed without European participation, meddling or influence. For example, it was only able to free itself from the Ottomans, after European public opinion was in favour. After its liberation, it has always been a European protectorate.
Its first king was a Bavarian named Otto, while during the rest of the years leading up to WW1, Greece was swinging between being a democracy and a kingdom, with heavy political influence by the European powers.
After Otto was forced to leave the country, the Greeks accepted a Danish King, mainly because the proposed British candidate-Prince Alfred was blocked by other European powers. As a reward for accepting a pro-British new king, Greece was allowed to be united with the Ionian islands, which where until then under British rule.
This "give and take" in fact, was continued for many years to come, when Greece was sometimes favoured, while others losing out in territories, depending the interests of the European powers of the time.
With the Balkan wars, Greece expanded its territory by nearly doubling its size, always with the agreement and permission of Western powers. However so did its debt to its European lenders. The country went from boom to bust, defaulting many times on its debt to its creditors and all this to gain more land, while the Balkans were being redrawn.
After the two Balkan wars came WW1, which Greece was coerced in by the Allied Powers. Subsequently territories have been awarded to Greece for its participation and being among the victors, which later were lost during the Greco-Turkish wars. A massive humanitarian disaster was unfolding, with the uprooting of millions of people, under the exchange of populations between the two countries.
Then the horrors of WW2 followed, together with a brutal Nazi occupation. Again, Greece tried to remain neutral, but its hopes sank with the attack of Italy in October 1940. The country had not only to endure the pillaging of its resources by the Nazis and the extermination of nearly all of its Jewish population, but the Allied food embargo, which aimed to restrict the supplementation of the Nazi army. It caused thousands of civilian Greeks to die of hunger-especially in Athens.
This war ended again with Greece being among the victors, however it was not treated accordingly. It was in fact used as the battleground of the first proxy war between the two emerging ideologies in Europe; communist and capitalism.
In December 1944, Greek nationalist army and the Athenian city police, together with the British forces started fighting against the Greek communists and their various insurgent parties, that were joined by many Greek guerrilla regiments which until then, they were fighting together with the nationalists and the British against the Germans.
This led to a disastrous civil war during 1946-1949 between communists and nationalists, that divided Greece for decades to come. British forces were actively involved in this war and the years after, just to make sure that the country will remain under Western influence. Greece nearly ended up becoming another British colony.
For the same reason a US backed junta was promoted in 1967 that lasted 7 whole years. During this time the Greek state was the oppressor of its people, turning it into a brutal police state, just to keep the Soviet and communist influence out of Greece. It wasn't until the late '70s that the country has finally managed to establish a robust enough democracy, that soon allowed it to join the European Community in 1981.
However, it has never been a "good pupil" in Europe. With the "Metapolitefsi" years (the return of democracy in Greece after the junta) we have seen the rise of the PASOK political party, which mostly ruled Greece through the '80s.
One of the characteristics of this era, was that PASOK and its leader Andreas Papandreou's policies were focused on reducing the gap between Greece's social classes, which was created by years or conflict and the Cold War, by using EEC funds. While the goal was reached, it created a culture of entitlement, corruption and nepotism as the centralized Greek government relied on the expansion of its public sector, to create jobs.
With the promise of political allegiance, people found employment in the public sector and for a few decades, Greece had finally a thriving middle class. However, while PASOK and its main opposition -the New Democracy party- were wasting Greek and European funds in order to stay in power, the country saw little reforms in order to become competitive.
The Greek public was starting to enjoy prosperity, but it was standing on weak foundations. Not only the years of wars have allowed corruption to take hold in the Greek society, as the only way to survive in such harsh and dehumanizing conditions was to do deals "under the table," but also it led to a huge mistrust towards the Greek state and its institutions. This attitude can be blamed for avoiding engaging with government bodies such as the revenue or the police.
After such oppression during the junta years, coupled with foreign meddling, political, social and economic instability, extreme poverty, deep social divisions due to the civil war, the Greek psyche has become self-centred and survivalist, with a great disregard to the country's laws. It had to during the difficult years, yet it should have abandoned such practices after the '80s.
In addition, the Ottoman Empire has left Greece with a system that was not compatible with the rest of Europe, however it only needed a strong and stable political environment to proceed with reforms, something that Greece never got the chance to enjoy. The divisions caused with the civil war, created a society in conflict with itself, that instead of focusing on modernization, they wasted resources in fighting each other, living to constantly reopen past scars.
This schizophrenia was encouraged by the two main political parties, in order to stay in power. They deliberately kept the country divided, with populism, nepotism and the promise of job in the public sector. If anyone was to change the country and proceed with reforms, it should have been the PASOK and New Democracy administrations, which failed in this task dramatically.
However, the mess that followed was not just Greece's fault. Europe was becoming increasingly unhappy with the country's use of European funds, yet not only they tolerated it, but they invited to join the euro-zone, although it was clear that the country was not ready. It was a political decision that made no sense in financial terms.
Since then, every time the European institutions and their supporters called for further integration, or deepening fiscal union, it was the governments of the biggest EU economies like France or Germany that opposed such development. Even when the economic crisis started being felt, Europe decided that it needed a scapegoat to put all the blame on, not to accept that the euro-zone was incomplete and lacking the right tools to govern itself and be sustainable.
Soon after the Greek government admitted that its budget deficit was much higher that the euro membership allowed, the other EU governments started a barrage of accusations and counter accusations towards the Greeks as a nation.
Not only they paid little attention to the fact the economic crisis started in the USA, with the corruption and bad financial choices made by many of its institutions-notably the meltdown of the Lehman Brothers Investment Bank-but they turned Greece as the single cause of what was to come. In fact, the first European country to default on its debt and go bankrupted was Iceland, yet no one bothered to examine why this happened to them in the same extent.
But for the Greeks things were different. Soon German workers were blaming them for not getting a salary rise, not the euro-zone's weaknesses. The country's media and government, angered at Greece's lack of clarity and responsibility, poured a toxic propaganda against all its citizens.
It resembled the harsh treatment and humiliation that Germany itself received after it lost WW1, which resulted in the rise of nationalism and the Nazis in the country, paving the way for an even more disastrous war in Europe. Our continent it seems never learns from its mistakes.
In return, the Greek media opted for old clichés about the Germans, that were equally unrealistic, biased and offensive. Europe was turning against itself and its unity was put to the test. Soon people realized what they haven't done since the euro was introduced; that whatever happens in one country, deeply affects the other and the continent as a whole.
You see until then, money lending and borrowing was easy. Everyone got complacent and overspent, each government according its own agenda. In Greece, partially this was to sustain the public sector with little appetite for change or reforms, to maintain the status that has been established since the '80s.
In addition to this, the country had to overspend as now was sharing the same currency with economies such as Germany, the Netherlands and Finland, which were more robust. In fact, the euro itself was designed around the German mark, making it more fitting for exporting, more industrialized economies like the Northern European ones, not for a largely agricultural country like Greece.
In order to cope with rising prices that the euro itself, together with greed by the local tradesmen brought, Greece opted in increasing its public spending by raising of salaries and pensions, hosting the 2004 Olympic Games and generally living beyond its means.
One could blame solely the Greek government for that, but after all it was French and German banks that profited from this madness and continued to encourage it by throwing cheap money towards Greece. Once the euphoria ended, someone had to pay the price, and it was the ordinary European citizens, not just the Greeks that ended up with the bill.
The view from an EU citizen from two bailed out countries.
Suddenly European media were so focused on Greece and its faults, that the country went through scrutiny and humiliation. No other nation had such an extensive prying in its internal affairs, than Greece.
During the first years of the Greek economic crisis, I was living in Ireland and have established myself for good there. One of the reasons why I left my home country, was because I could not stand its sluggish, corrupt government and always wished for Europe to become a federal entity, as I saw this as the only solution to modernize not only Greece, but Europe as a whole.
However, soon I realized that the main impediment to such goal was not corrupt little Greece, but the bigger, richer nations like Germany or Britain. Thus, I found it peculiar that now it was them that were so keen in accusing Greece for lack of compliance with EU's requirements, while themselves dominated the European project, often shaping it according their own interests.
Many times, it was them who first broke EU rules, like Germany did with the Maastricht treaty. As I continued to observe this unfair ridicule of Greece, I often wondered if I grew up in the same country that the European media were describing.
Not that I was not aware of the level of corruption and nepotism in my native country, yet I found it hard to accept that all these things were happening only there. People claiming benefits illegally or pensions for their diseased members of their family. Taxi drivers not issuing receipts, while nobody paying taxes. It felt surreal.
I had to explain to my Irish colleagues why Greece was so corrupt, while they expected me to answer their questions which they often could not accept or understand. "Why do Greeks take so many holidays and don't like to work harder," they were inquiring, but when my response was to ask them why do they often call sick at work, usually on Mondays after a heavy drinking night out, left them uncomfortably surprised.
They expected me to apologize for my country's bad behaviour. Yet they haven't done their own self-criticism beforehand, just like any other European nation. Instead of blaming the collective bad policies regarding how the euro was introduced, European leaders needed to diverge their voters' anger towards Greece.
Having lived in Ireland already for over 5 years, while working in the country's public sector, I have witnessed the same type of corruption here, although I cannot be sure about its extend. No taxi driver in Ireland-and in fact in most European countries that I have visited- ever gave me a receipt unless I asked for it.
The same applies for free tradesmen in Dublin, like plumbers and electricians, which also often avoid giving an invoice unless asked. I have heard of cases of people working while claiming benefits, while many landlords not declaring the true number of tenants in their properties and thus, the real income they generate.
No European media bothered to look so extensively in Ireland's, or in fact any of the other EU members engulfed by the economic crisis, like Portugal, Spain or Italy. It is highly unlikely that the same level of corruption that exists in Greece, is not also present in Italy-a country with Mafia still in control of a large part of its economy in the south.
The fact that even the OECD supports the Greek people's claim that they work among the longest hours in the EU, naturally escaped everybody's attention. You really need to work hard in Greece, especially if you are in the private sector. The problem is the system and the economy are so fragmented and disorganized, that it does not generate enough products for exports, or sustainable growth.
A look at modern Greece's true problems.
In addition, many of Greece's problems were highly exaggerated. Yes, people in the Greek islands often leave their homes unfinished to avoid higher taxes, however this is because they enjoy a different tax regime than the rest of Greece. It is not something that applies all over the country, as the government is trying to offer people in the islands an incentive to stay there, by offering them various tax breaks.
The habit of many of the Greek people to offer money to doctors, allegedly for a bed in a hospital was also something that was portrayed very poorly. Yes, there are doctors who take advantage of this Greek custom, resulting in corruption. However, the phenomenon started out as a way to thank doctors for their help and services, back then when Greece was very poor, and its doctors inadequately paid. People often used to support them financially, but it was not obligatory initially.
One good thing that came out of Greece's shaming though, was the soul searching that followed. Many Greeks admitted their mistakes and realized how badly this affected the economy. I have heard people regretting the things they've been doing, like overcharging tourists or not declaring some of their income.
But the truth is that they were brought up to believe that what they were doing was "necessary" to make money. These people were raised in almost absolute poverty, most were uneducated in a very unequal system that in order to achieve anything you needed to bribe or affiliate yourself to a local politician. It is a system that originates in the Ottoman years, yet our ruling elites conveniently used it to remain in power.
And while it is easy to blame the Greeks for perpetuating a highly dysfunctional system, how many countries have proven to be quick in reforms? One of the biggest EU economies is France, itself being brought to a standstill in every attempt to reform. You see once a system is set, it is hard to change as people who have profited from it will resist the necessary reforms.
In the case of Greece, not only the established elites resisted reforms, but through the constant instability, wars and foreign meddling, the country has never had a chance to take control of its finances, politics or social issues and tackle them. Greece is in fact a very young, immature democracy, despite being the birthplace of this political system.
What it mainly lacks though is leadership. Ireland's governments want to match its neighbouring countries and forced ahead with major reforms. Being surrounded by progressive, rich nations while itself being the most conservative and backward country in Western Europe, gave the Irish an ambition to change and reform.
Once their economy got almost in parity with the rest of the developed EU economies, it could attract educated workforce from all rich nations of the world; US, Australian, German, French, Japanese, Dutch, Swedish, Italian and British young job seekers arrived in Ireland, changing its social fabric and influencing further the necessary reforms.
Greece on the other hand, has a leadership which thinks nobody else but themselves and wants to remain in power by perpetuating the status and the policies that allow them to do so. Most young educated Greeks are leaving the country, to find work elsewhere in Europe and around the globe, since there are no jobs created in their country on the field of their studies to offer them a career.
So, Greece is left with its pensioners, lower skilled workers, pensioners from the richer European countries that buy property there and lower skilled immigrants from poorer non-EU countries. How can this nation be modernized, where can it find a dynamism and ambition in order to achieve this goal, since the pensioners and the public sector workers care little for change?
Consequently, I was very surprised when the European leaders tried to bully the Greeks to not vote for a "populist" party like Syriza in the elections right after the first bail-out, trying to maintain one of the establishment parties-like PASOK and New Democracy- in power.
They were afraid of the changes and the challenges they would bring, if another political regime gained power in Greece, although they knew very well that it was the establishment parties that brought the country in this mess; with the cooperation and tolerance of their European partners of course.
That can be explained if you look at how the Greek governing elite, blamed its own people and threw them at the mercy of the foreign tabloid media, by portraying their voters as lazy and corrupt. Naturally to hide their share of responsibility, while maintaining their power and Europe's support, by avoiding the grilling by the EU institutions and the other European governments. Something that the Irish leadership did not do.
Not only the austerity measures in Ireland were not as harsh as in Greece, but the country's government came up with a far more functioning plan to solve the problem. They did not impose savage cuts in salaries that amounted to 40% of the wages, allowing the debt to grow further and throwing the country into the jaws of international usurers; just like the Greek leaders decided to do.
The NATO burden.
On top of that, Greece is burdened with heavy NATO membership spending, something that countries like Ireland or Austria and Sweden do not have to bare. It is second only to the USA in keeping up with its membership obligations and payments, while richer countries like Canada, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany itself are falling short in their contributions.
With an excuse that we need to protect ourselves from Turkey, a NATO ally of ours, the Greek government has convinced us that we need to overspend in arms and military spending. To the detriment of course of our economy and to the benefit of those countries that sells us their weaponry; like Britain, France, Switzerland, Sweden, Germany and the United States.
It is no wonder that this situation is being perpetuated and tolerated by our European and NATO allies, since they are making good money out of us, yet they blame us for being on the receiving end of the EU budget; while we must spend a large part of it straight back into buying arms from them.
When this crisis begun, I was hopeful that Greece will receive some of the punishment that it deserved, in order to get a grip and modernize, so that one day I can return back home in a fully functioning European economy and democracy.
However, it soon became apparent that Greece was being scapegoated and used to sustain other nations’ economies, that in fairness tried to get their money back and protect their interests. What Greece needed all these years, was a new governing elite to push for reforms and proceed with attracting investments, not become heavily indebted one more time.
And while calls were often being made for another approach to solve the euro-zone crisis, the European elites, following Germany's wishes, opted out for punishing the Greek people for their government's lack of competence. But how could any Greek, that had no choice when it was decided for their country to join the euro, bare the whole blame for the block's woes?
Does any EU citizen have an acute knowledge of their country's finances, or is fully aware of how their government run its books? We as Europeans must realize that we need to familiarize ourselves with each other's background and problems that we are facing. It is not good enough to accuse or to blame, without understanding the root of the issue.
We now have managed to deal with the crisis, yet still we haven't achieved long term reforms on a pan-European level. The debt is spread to the periphery of the euro-zone, however what happens when the next crisis challenges our economies?
In Greece things are so bad that people confess that they are forced to tax evade again. "If we were to declare everything, there will be simply no money left to survive," many of the country's small business owners declare. The type of austerity that the EU and Greek governments have imposed on Greek people, with taxes higher than Sweden's yet salaries and pensions as low as Slovenia's, have destroyed the local market and money is scarce.
The country's brightest have abandoned the country, while public spending is limited, as expected by Greece's lenders. However now they declare the country as "normal," ready to accept investments and generate new jobs. What I fear is another generation being raised in poverty, forced into corruption and tax evasion due to lack of opportunities just like their grandfathers, thus perpetuating the very attributes that Europe despised in the Greeks in the first place.
I hope this time, Europe's "meddling" in Greek affairs, will be to bring it in line with the rest of Europe. The country does not need more European money from now on, in fact it never really did, and it is obvious that the reliance on EU subsidies proved to be a huge mistake.
What Greece needs is investments, jobs and a fully integrated European economy under one single currency and market. If the Germans want to have the Greeks as equal partners, they will have to realize that they need to establish a new Greek economy that is compatible with theirs; which means the industrialization of Greece so that it can become an exporting country.
And not just Greece, but the whole of the euro-zone must be reformed and the problem here is not the peripheral economies, rather those of the core. Will they choose to keep subsidizing the weaker European states, or will they accept to spread investments outwardly towards the periphery?
We need to realize that we are trying to integrate countries with a very different mentality, due to historical, religious and cultural differences. In addition, Europeans need to understand that this type of economic model which Europe tries to adopt, was not designed to match equally everyone's mentality or available resources; rather that of a small core, which in their majority belong to the north-western, protestant group of countries.
We cannot force the rest to change as quickly, especially when we ridicule and humiliate them, imposing either debt or subsidies over them, instead of offering equal opportunities for employment, prosperity and growth.
It is not just Greece that must change after all and become a "normal" country, but Europe as a whole that needs to be transformed into a "normal" functioning union of states, if that is what its people desire.