Sunday’s Greek elections are being ignored – but the tragedy plays on

ON 6 May, Greece, like France, is voting. So what? This may be the reaction of many people. The Greek economy is under effective international control; the country does not need to try to go back to borrowing on international financial markets for over two years, and so on. That is the official script. And the big story now is Spain, where there may well be a worse outcome. After all, the Greek economy only makes up about 2 per cent of the European Union total.

Well, that is one way of looking at it and the situation with Spain and the Spanish banks in particular is certainly serious. But the problem is that the people pushing this line, most of them linked to Brussels, have been consistently wrong about every stage of the Greek crisis, and the banking crisis in Europe in general. They have very little knowledge of the history of Greece and the reasons for the disasters of the last three years. Like a serious illness, it is a good idea to get a doctor who knows what is wrong with you before trying to treat it. We were assured early on from Brussels that all the earlier bailouts starting in summer 2010 would work, that the Greek people would accept reforms and large sums of money would be raised from privatisation sales, and then in some undefined way, the numbers would add up. This is a fiction. As things stand, a future of endless insolvency beckons. And like any business, large or small, bankruptcy means you’re unable to pay the wages. That is a major problem for many enterprises, with as many as a third of Greek workers owed three months back pay or more.

With this year’s tourist bookings and cash numbers not looking very good, spiralling unemployment and dropping living standards are not a recipe for social stability. For the older generation among us who watched the downfall of Yugoslavia after about 1988, there are some disturbing echoes, particularly the increasing isolation of the Europe-controlled political elite from the great majority of the people. For the Markovic period in the last rotating presidency in the old Yugoslavia read the Venizelos leadership of PASOK in Athens. The Brussels elite seem to see their own role as modernisers and rationalisers as popular, welcome and essential; in reality nobody much is listening to them.

In these circumstances, the people see the nation in danger from international forces, and turn towards nationalism, as in late Yugoslavia. The big Greek communist parties have a distinctly nationalist tinge, particularly the powerful KKE which effectively controls the trade union movement. On the right, the hitherto tiny neo-fascist Golden Dawn party is gaining support, although from a very low base. I personally believe its support will remain limited, as memories of the Colonels’ dictatorship in the late 1960s and early 1970s are still very fresh with the over-50s. Given the calibre of some, or perhaps most, Europeans currently governing from Athens, it is not surprising nationalism is flourishing. They promise so much and deliver so little, drawing large salaries and becoming rather well acquainted with the nicer Greek islands at weekends. Again, there is an uncomfortable echo of the “hour of Europe”, when politicians from Brussels thought they would solve the problems of the old Yugoslavia in three months in 1990. After ten or more years of war, it didn’t seem quite like that.

So where does Greece go from here? Many Greeks have got used to what one friend of mine calls “a status quo of crises”. Every family in the lower economic strata is involved in a daily battle for economic survival and emigration is the main safety valve for the young. Intellectuals regard the nation as broken and as in the past, bad times for Greece mean a susceptibility to bad external influences, problems with Turkey and Cyprus and a host of the usual tensions that plague the eastern Mediterranean. The rich gas finds off the coast of Cyprus that have been made recently should, in a rational world, ease international tensions, but the reactions of the Turkish government in Ankara to the discoveries do not give a lot of reasons for optimism.

The Greek crisis is far from over.

James Pettifer is a member of the Oxford University History Faculty and St Cross College. His ebook, The Making of the Greek Crisis, published by Penguin Shorts is out now for £1.99.