I have come to Greece in search of sanity over Brexit. Ostensibly it is a symposium to discuss relations between Britain and Greece. But it is also an excuse to step away from the minutiae of the negotiations to think about the future of Europe. It was from Greece, of course, that our continent derived its name — from the mythological Europa who was ravished by Zeus and bore a future king of Crete. One contributor notes dryly that Greece is also not a bad place to think about the rise and fall of empires, the follies of politicians, the failings of institutions and what happens to elites when they become obsessed by Byzantine theological detail. The EU has no monopoly on schism.
This gathering of great and good, organised by the British embassy and Greek businesses, is taking place in Nafplio, a beautiful town on a small peninsula tucked up on the east coast of the Peloponnese. It was here that the Greeks chose to locate their first capital city once they had wrested their independence from the Ottomans in 1830. As I sit in the converted mosque where Greece’s first parliament sat, I am reminded not only that this modern nation state was forged long before the likes of Germany or Italy, but also that there was a time when nationalism gave identity and political expression to millions of people and was not always an excuse for authoritarian barbarity.
Chatham House is the rule of the day, so no names, no pack drill. But common themes emerge. One is the need for more honesty all round. The British government, several people say, needs to be more honest with itself and the 27 member states about what it really wants from Brexit and the trade-offs that this will involve. The rest of the EU should be more honest about the inflexibility of its institutions and its complacent failure to ask searching questions about why its second largest economy has chosen to leave. ‘Without penance it is hard to be forgiven,’ says one distinguished speaker. ‘Without honesty it is hard to move on.’ Other themes: there is a lingering, misguided fantasy in some European elites — even now — that one day the British are going to wake up and reverse their decision to leave; the EU is not very good at reading British politics and underestimates the constraints under which Theresa May works; there is not enough popular support for the integrationist reforms being promoted by President Macron; if such closer union were attempted, Greek politicians are hoping they will not be excluded from the fast-track.
One cannot escape Lord Byron here. His image towers over the conference, staring out from a portrait imagining his triumphal arrival at Messolonghi in 1824. Speaker after speaker refers to him. One cannot exaggerate the importance given to him by Greeks, even today, as the romantic symbol of Britain’s support for their independence. It was Byron’s decision to live and seemingly die for the cause that promoted a surge in philhellenism in Victorian Britain in favour of the Christian Greeks against the Muslim Turks. But it turns out that Britain’s involvement may not always have been benign. A tour guide tells us about one of the first Greek independence leaders, a fellow called Ioannis Kapodistrias. He was a fascinating character, a kind of freewheeling international diplomat who represented the Russian Tsar at the Congress of Vienna before returning to fight for his homeland. The guide reveres his memory, assuring us he was the best leader Greece ever had. And there are tears in his eyes as describes the way Kapodistrias was gunned down on the streets of Nafplio in 1831 at the behest, he suggests, of the British government.
There seems to be a competition among the panellists to find the oldest known link between Britain and Greece. I am astonished to learn that after the Norman Conquest, thousands of Anglo-Saxons fled to Constantinople, some of them later joining the Byzantine Imperial Guard. The hands-down winner is Theodore of Tarsus, who was an early Archbishop of Canterbury, consecrated in 668. Yet it is the modern comparisons that prove just as fascinating. The historian Roderick Beaton notes that Britain and Greece are both seafaring island nations on the geographic periphery of Europe — and both are countries that trade on their past glories. ‘Britain and Greece,’ he says, ‘are the only two member states of the EU where it is possible for the word ‘Europe’ to mean simultaneously either “us” or “them”.’
At symposia like this, one cannot escape national stereotypes, such the reluctance of some Greeks to pay tax. ‘We can no longer blame the Ottomans,’ said one Greek banker wryly. In turn, the drunken antics of British tourists are raised by a Greek hotelier. ‘The quality of guest is not what it once was,’ he says with a sigh. ‘It is always the Brits, the Russians and the Poles who cause the trouble.’ No one demurs and we feel embarrassed on behalf of our inebriated compatriots.
James Landale is the BBC’s diplomatic correspondent.