Peter Jones

Solon vs Jean-Claude Juncker

The EU is pursuing just the sort of policy that took ancient Athens into deep trouble

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The combination of terror and outrage with which Brussels has greeted Greek Prime Minister Tsipras’s referendum tells us everything we ever needed to know about the EU, i.e. stuff the people — what have they to do with us?

The farmer-hero Dikaiopolis in Aristophanes’ comedy Acharnians (425 BC) felt much as modern Greeks must do when the Athenian Assembly refused to do anything about the war against Sparta. All the executives cared about was getting the best seats, he complains: ‘For peace, they don’t give a toss. Oh Athens, Athens, what are you coming to?… I’m longing for peace. All I want is to get back to my little village — ah, my village!’ So he makes a personal 30-year peace with Sparta, marks out the boundaries of a market on his farm and opens it to everyone — Spartans and all — who want to trade with him. It is a triumphant success, and the play ends with Dikaiopolis drunkenly celebrating a festival with a girl on either arm. All very Tsipras.

The EU would do well to be driven by the spirit of another great Athenian, the arkhon Solon. In 594 BC pre-democratic Athens was in serious social and economic trouble, primarily because of debt laws. Debtors unable to repay their creditors lost their land, but were allowed to work it as serfs, giving a sixth of the produce to their creditors; if the debt was far larger than their assets, they would be enslaved. All good, solid EU policy, causing untold misery.

Solon was invited to sort it out. He restored all their original property to the serfs; freed those who had been enslaved; and enslavement for debt was banned. Naturally it did not satisfy everyone, but it freed up the peasants, removed some of the power from wealthy aristocrats and with other measures laid the foundations for the radical democracy to come. Solon then left Athens for ten years to allow his proposals to bed in.

No chance of the EU doing anything so imaginative. Colin Leach well summarised their view: timeo Danaos referenda ferentes.