Greek Drama Has Lessons for the Western World

November 7, 2011

As Greek prime minister George Papendreou submitted his resignation to the president on Saturday, there were no cheers of exaltation rising from the streets of Greek cities.  Instead, there was only a palpable sense of dread, as the future looked  more grimly uncertain than ever. 

Papendreou, the scion of the country’s most prominent political family- whose father and grandfather had both served as prime ministers – became the latest victim of  the sentient notion that  Europe would be a harbinger of a new era for mankind – a place where conciliation would replace confrontation and where amity would replace division.

But the Greek political class on Saturday demonstrated that the new Europe would be a far more divided place than any European leader could have imagined sixteen years ago following the signing of the Maatricht Treaty.  One can only gasp in wonder as a country roiled by a one trillion euro debt and confronted with the snarling contempt of other major European countries, could not bring itself to recognize that without a unified voice which accepts the austerity plan imposed upon it by the European Union, the entire country could be engulfed in an economic cataclysm that would make German stagflation of the 1920s look like a Saturday afternoon game of Monopoly.

For what had collapsed by Saturday night in Athens was not only the prime minister’s center-right coalition but  the very idea of a unified Greek nation, one that believed that as a people and a country it possessed a common destiny and common purpose.  The failure of the two major parties to forge an alliance to stave off the worst financial crisis in the country’s history, is a telling sign of what will become of other European countries as they pass through exactly the same crisis in the coming twelve months. It is very difficult to fathom how a democratic country, faced with such unflinching and demanding partners – who control the very monetary lifelines necessary to keep their economy alive, could be so conflicted on what is the only possible course for it to take. 

But this is the face of the New Europe.  Given to years of lassitude, the Greeks, and most Europeans have no stomach for austerity.  Profligacy, social welfare, neoptism, corruption and a vibrant, fairly open black market, has produced a country where people don’t work much, retire young and take long vacations. 

The Greek model actually describes the bulk of Europe, where the work ethic has given way to the pleasure ethic and the lambent idea that government can always be counted on to bail out failed enterprises.  But what happens when the government has no money to bail out anybody and the source that it must rely on – namely foreign investment, remains skittish and uncertain about the country’s future?  What happens when no one – not the European Union, not the United States and not China – is prepared to say we believe in your future and we will continue to fund your debt?

What then happens is a complete collapse of confidence and a fatalism that grips everyone from the prime minister to the local fruit vendor.   That is what was on display in the streets of Athens on Saturday night.  No matter what happens with the dissolution of the government or new elections in the not-too-distant future, the crushing weight  of debt will be the overriding, ever present concern of whomever takes over the running of the Greek Republic.  

The Greeks have good reason to wonder who will ultimately control their fate.  Angeliki Martaki, a retiree quoted in the Los Angeles Times on Friday, summed up what many ordinary Europeans must be feeling about their future:  “All the Euro has bought us has been pain.  At least with the drachma, we were what we were: Greek.  Now, I don’t know what we are and who is in charge of our national destiny.”

I heard the same sentiments expressed to me in villages in England and coffee shops in Madrid.   A collapse of national purpose; the absence of great leaders who can rouse the population to work and save; the lack of a pervasive national sentiment boldly declaring” we are all in this together.”  Instead, as countries such as Italy, Spain and Portugal progressively unravel, the citizens of these once great, independent countries will find themselves having to fend for themselves, with no one but the Gods to hear their cries of pain.

That idea – that soon there actually may be no one willling or able to come to the rescue – is a lesson that every citizen in the West should take to heart.

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