With the Corfu summit at the end of June Greece’s presidency of the European Union came to an end. Although the dire predictions that during it Greece would attempt to pursue a Balkan policy in flat contradiction to that of the other members failed to be realised, Andreas Papandreou’s imposition of a blockade of Macedonia in a so far fruitless attempt to force the former Yugoslav republic to change its name, amend its constitution and drop its national emblem caused quite a storm. The embargo has been almost universally criticised and has led to Greece’s arraignment before the European Court.
Even before its imposition, Greece had been subject to a barrage of press criticism, and nowhere more vehemently than in Britain. One recent Times leader urged Greece to ‘grow up’; another remarked that Greece is the ‘least pleasant’ country in Europe in which to live – not a view that would be universally shared. The right-wing press here has a traditional pro-Turkish and anti-Greek bias, but even the Guardian regarded the prospect of a Greek presidency under Papandreou as absurd and argued that if Greece were not already a member of the Union, then she would scarcely qualify for admission.
Greece’s European partners are both baffled and irritated. Brussels bureaucrats mutter in private that Greece should never have been admitted to a Community which she looks on as little more than a milch-cow. The Greeks, for their part, feel hurt and abandoned. Like the Serbs, for whom they have a strong sympathy, they feel themselves to be a ‘brotherless’ nation in a volatile and threatening world.
They have sought refuge in a nationalist fervour which embraces much of the political spectrum. This is nothing new in Greece. Some years ago, Greek and Turkish dignitaries gathered at the birthplace in Salonica of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, to celebrate his centenary. An imaginative gesture of rapprochement was ruined, however, and the episimoi, as the Greeks term them, were sent scurrying for cover when the pilot of a light plane, thought to be packed with explosives, threatened a kamikaze attack on the house, which is now the Turkish consulate. The pilot was later acquitted after the public prosecutor argued that those inflamed by patriotic sentiments could not be held responsible for their actions.
It was the Greeks who, in the early 19th century, introduced nationalism to the Balkans, with their ‘Great Idea’ of uniting within the bounds of a single state, with Constantinople as its capital, all the compactly settled Greek populations of the Near East or, to use the evocative Greek phrase, ‘Our East’. Today, the other countries of the Balkans, whose national movements were both inspired by, and in part developed in reaction to, the Greek, are no less in thrall than Greece is to the rampant nationalism that has had such destructive consequences in the former Yugoslavia and which threatens further havoc. But membership of the European Union has focused the spotlight, and much abusive comment, on Greece.