John Psaropoulos

Why Greeks abhor and applaud Brexit

British imperiousness appeals to Europe’s disenfranchised south

Why Greeks abhor and applaud Brexit
Text settings

Pavlos Eleftheriadis is as Anglophilic a Greek as they come. His wife and children are British, and he is a professor of public law at Oxford. But the prospect of Brexit has altered Eleftheriadis’s view of Britain.

‘Psychologically, it’s difficult to accept that half of the society you live in is against the presence of Europeans,’ he says. ‘This came out very strongly, including from the prime minister herself. She said we have to stop the free movement of workers from Europe. It’s her primary objective. This wounds you. You wonder why they say this and what led them to it.’

Eleftheriadis says that he’s never seen a hint of racism or prejudice in professional life. But he’s hedging against the attitudes of the next generation. This year, he’s taking a sabbatical, partly in order to acquaint his children with their Greek roots.

‘My children have Greek names. I’m not sure I want them to grow up here 100 per cent British. I want them to be Greek, they can have a choice in case things become very ugly in Britain.’

Brexit divides Britons, but a majority of Greeks found the 2016 referendum enormously satisfying. Many Greeks felt that Britain had dealt the EU the well-deserved punch on the nose that Greece was incapable of delivering.

In 2015, 62 per cent of Greeks had voted in a referendum to end the harsh austerity policies the EU had demanded in exchange for emergency loans. Those loans kept the country solvent after 2010, and balanced the budget, which had a gaping 15.5 per cent deficit in 2009. These were remarkable achievements, unprecedented in the postwar developed world. Equally unprecedented, though, were the side-effects.

Greece’s economy shrank by a quarter. Unemployment topped 27 per cent. The cure was so devastating that, though Greece’s economy is now growing modestly, its population is in an accelerating decline.

The political humiliation was perhaps greater than the economic pain. The Eurogroup, the Eurozone’s informal gathering of finance ministers, dictated legislation to Greek parliament, and in 2011 forced a prime minister from office. The Eurozone crisis transformed the EU from a consensual confederation of equals to a two-tier theater. A German-led bloc of surplus countries dictated fiscal policy to Europe’s south.

In 2015, Greeks elected a radical left Syriza government. Syriza promised to demonstrate that Greek votes were a harder currency than Eurozone money, and that democracy did not depend on creditworthiness. It vowed to humanize EU fiscal policies without getting Greece expelled from the Eurozone. Syriza instead capitulated to its EU creditors, reversing the 2015 referendum result and accepting a third fiscal adjustment program.

When Theresa May promised to respect the British referendum result, despite its narrower majority, Greeks watched British defiance of the EU with bitterness and admiration. Now, with May’s government unwilling or unable to negotiate Brexit, Britain divided and the EU determined not to make endless concessions, the UK appears more vulnerable, as well as characteristically unprepared. This divides Greek sentiments. On the one hand Greeks, like other Europeans, have every material interest in the UK's continued welfare. On the other, they’re fascinated to see whether the UK fares better alone than as part of the German-led bloc. The latest UK employment figures suggest optimism, despite the loss of some investment banking business.

EU Council President Donald Tusk has suggested that the EU could ‘consider a short extension’ to Brexit negotiations, conditional on Theresa May winning support in the House of Commons for her twice-rejected Withdrawal Agreement. If May gets her requested three-month extension before Britain formally leaves the bloc, this will be welcome news to the Greek government, which has expressed a strong preference for a departure negotiated with all EU members. If not, the EU faces the possibility of emergency sessions of the type that were held for Greece's sake in 2012 and 2015.

Though Britain did not come to Greece’s aid, it too views the Eurozone bailout programs, which included Ireland, Spain, Portugal and Cyprus, as disastrous.

‘When Greece is mentioned, it’s as an economic “basket case” that should never have been allowed to join the euro, and therefore an object lesson for what a disaster the Eurozone is supposed to be,’ says Roderick Beaton, recently retired professor of Greek at King’s College, London.

Britons living in Greece do not share Eleftheriadis’s concerns about bilateral relations. ‘Brexit will never affect the people, because there is a respect and a love of each to the other,’ says Shirley Trisk. Married to a Greek, Trisk has operated a travel agency in Greece for three decades. Her living largely depends on flows of tourists and business travelers between the two countries. Yet she supports Brexit.

‘I did feel that over the years the sovereign rights of the people have been eaten up by the EU, and that one is no longer able to live by one’s own rules, but by the rules of the EU, which I don’t think is right,’ she says.

Trisk moved to Greece before it joined the European Union in 1981, and her experience of the EU has been through Greece. She admits that the austerity imposed on Greece colored her view of Europe. ‘I think the EU treated Greece very badly. I get the impression it was more to save them than to save Greece. I don’t think they were ever really interested in how the Greek people felt. They wanted to make sure that Greece would not leave the Eurozone or the EU.’

It is difficult to imagine a more genuine friendship within Europe than that between the Greeks and the British. Lord Byron, who gave his life and estate to support the Greek revolution against the Ottoman Empire, is a Greek national hero. It was a British cannonade at the Battle of Navarino that finally secured Greek independence in 1827, at a time when the revolution had all but collapsed.

When Britain stood alone against the Nazis in 1940, Greece scored the war’s first victory over the Axis by repelling Mussolini’s invasion. Britain commandeered the entire Greek merchant fleet to keep her armies supplied, and played a key role in ensuring that Greece did not end up behind the Iron Curtain in 1945.

This bond, forged in extremity, has proved durable. To this day, Greeks insure their oceangoing merchant fleet – the world’s largest – at Lloyd’s of London. Britain has educated scores of thousands of Greeks, and remains Greeks’ preferred destination for study abroad. Even after its economic depression, Greece finances 11,000 students in British universities – the highest per capita foreign contingent apart from Ireland’s.

Britain’s love affair with the Mediterranean returns the favor. Three million Britons visited Greece in 2017, spending $2.3 billion. Among European visitors to Greece, they are second only to 3.7 million German visitors that year, who spent $2.8bn. And Greece still exports 4.2 percent of its manufactured goods to the UK, although that number has almost halved over the past two decades.

As a safeguard against a disorderly Brexit, last month Greek Foreign Minister Yiorgos Katrougalos insisted that British residents in Greece will ‘fully enjoy similar, if not identical, rights as before withdrawal’. This week, Greece’s parliament legislated these protections for Britons.

Britain, too, is anxious to assure its 139,000 continental European students that their intra-EU tuition of about $12,000 will not more than double to the level paid by American and Chinese students. Katerina Feggarou of the British Council in Athens dismisses speculation of a fee rise: ‘It will never happen, because Britain would never sacrifice 30 per cent of its international student body in order to bring their fees up the those of third countries.’

Others disagree. Panayotis Ioakeimidis, professor of political science at Athens University, predicts that tuition will go up after a transitional period. He also predicts that Greece will be left weaker in the European Union: ‘As a result of Brexit, Germany will be even more powerful. The UK played a balancing role.’

Ultimately, though, Ioakeimidis believes Brexit would have come regardless of the EU’s policies. ‘The UK was never able to accept a limited role within the Union, as it continues to believe, on some level, that it is a global power,’ he says. ‘And if you believe you are a global power, you cannot submit to rules outside your political system and accept an authority that is above and beyond you… they still feel nostalgia for the empire.’

Then again, who doesn’t? There is hardly an EU member who hasn’t had one. Britain’s empire may have been larger, more powerful, and more recent, but the Greeks have had the most empires, with three since antiquity: the Athenian Empire of the 5th century BC, Alexander’s empire, and the Byzantine empire that fell as late as 1453. The Greeks and the Brits are two seafaring peoples on the edge of Europe. Perhaps they get on so well because they’re rebels and imperialists at the same time.

John Psaropoulos is an independent journalist who has covered Greece and southeast Europe since the fall of communism. He is editor of The New Athenian. This article was originally published on Spectator USA.