James Edward Miller: Greece and the EU Face Their Walt Kelly Moment

The United States and the Making of Modern Greece: History and Power, 1950-1974, by James Edward Miller We welcome a guest post today from James Edward Miller, author of The United States and the Making of Modern Greece: History and Power, 1950-1974. With Greece in financial turmoil that puts other countries in the European Union at risk as well, we asked Miller to give us some historical insight on the situation. This is his response.–ellen


Greece and the EU Face Their Walt Kelly Moment

“We have met the enemy and he is us.”—Walt Kelly (c. 1954)

Overreach and its consequences: Greece and Europe in the 19th and 20th Centuries

Among the peoples attracted into the orbit of Europe during the era of Enlightenment and industrialization, Greece proved a particularly quick study. Created in 1829-33, the Greek kingdom speedily acquired a European constitution, universal suffrage, and a set of national ideas that focused on territorial expansion at the expense of its Balkan and Ottoman neighbors. Economic expansion, efficient public administration, education reforms, infrastructural development, and even military professionalization played second fiddle to “redeeming Greek” lands and people. Greece ran up. However, Greek ambitions ran contrary to the calculations of the European great powers. “Europe” repeatedly intervened to throttle Greek designs. Greece grew fitfully through concessions made to the Greeks after the powers had arranged their own interests. Greece’s large, unpaid external debts to European banks led the powers to impose an oversight board to regulate its finances in 1893.

A legacy of military defeat and repeated European encroachment on Greek sovereignty were at the core of the 1909 Goudi military revolt. The military summoned Eleftherios Venizelos to initiate long overdue internal reforms and give the country an independent foreign policy. In the wake of World War I, seeking to create a nation of “two continents and five seas,” Greece conducted a war in Asia Minor against Turkish nationalists, throwing its army into an expanding conflict without clear military objectives. “Europe” turned on Greece. The Italians and French backed Turkey, and Britain withdrew its support for Athens.

In 1922, Greece lost its army and its war.  Victorious Turkey expelled over a million Asia Minor Greeks, retook Constantinople, and reasserted its territorial claims to Eastern Thrace.  Defeated, impoverished, divided, Greece plunged into an era of military coups, economic stagnation, the authoritarian dictatorship of John Metaxas, and a crushing German occupation. Civil war ensued from 1943 to 1949. The United States poured money and know-how into Greece, defeating a Communist-dominated insurrection and bringing Greece into Western institutions. In 1961, Greece applied to membership in the European Economic Community (EEC).

Changing the Mission

Still, the “great idea” weighed heavily on postwar Greek politics. After acquiring the Dodecanese islands in 1947, Greece focused on gaining Cyprus, supporting an armed insurrection on the island against a NATO ally. Frustrated by decades of great power actions blocking of Greece’s Cyprus ambitions, the military junta in Athens unleashed a July 1974 coup to annex the island. Turkey intervened, and ethnically cleansed and partitioned the island. The “great idea” perished in a display of Greek powerlessness.

The Cyprus disaster undermined military rule. Under the leadership of Konstantine Karamanlis, Greece built a solid representative system. Abandoning expansionist dreams, Karamanlis persuaded Greeks and the European Community that EC Membership and a role in European decision-making would provide stability and maturity to Greece. His successor, Andreas Papandreou, viewed the Community as a cash cow that he regularly milked for economic aid while Greece grew accustomed to flouting EC/EU rules. Even the markedly pro-European Costas Simitis government (1996-2004) was unable to resist a further gamble to achieve greater influence in decision-making and increase the flow of foreign money into Greece. In 2002 it became a member of the Euro currency bloc on the basis of blatantly false statistical reporting.

The Walt Kelly Moment

In the summer of 2004, Greece hosted the Summer Olympic Games. National pride hit new highs. Then the bills came due. When the U.S. banking crisis began in 2008, Greece finance was among its first casualties. As Greece began to hemorrhage cash and credibility, the EU states faced a moment of truth. Should the Union take responsibility for a member state that has broken its rules? The initial answer given by Europe’s economic powerhouse, Germany, was negative. Rather than rushing to Greece’s aid, Berlin seemed determined to punish an errant member whatever the costs to the EU. Eventually, the EU states rallied, grudgingly, to Athens. But the damage was done. Investor confidence was badly shaken by the slow European response.  Greece has again become a resentful ward of Europe. This time, however, its situation threatens to bring down many of the central structures of the EU. Europe and Greece share responsibility for the disaster and need to work together to repair the damage, but neither side seems capable of recognizing that “the enemy is us.”

James Edward Miller is adjunct professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and chair of Western European Studies at the Foreign Service Institute. He is author of The United States and the Making of Modern Greece: History and Power, 1950-1974.