Global Insight

June 13, 2012 4:41 pm

Greece’s western ties strained by crisis

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Sunday’s election is about geopolitics as much as economics

At one level, what is at stake in Sunday’s Greek election is the nation’s eurozone membership and the capacity of European policy makers to protect the area against market contagion from an unfavourable result. This explains the pre-emptive move by eurozone finance ministers last weekend to shore up Spanish banks with rescue funds of up to €100bn.

At another level, the stakes are geopolitical rather than financial. The deepening Greek crisis is realigning the nation’s political forces in such a way as to place a question mark over Greece’s desire and ability to remain a committed member of the Euro-Atlantic community.

The likely winner of the election will be the conservative New Democracy party or Syriza, an upstart leftist party with communist roots. In spite of profoundly different ideological backgrounds, both parties arouse concern in Greece’s EU and Nato allies with their interest in cultivating warmer ties with Russia and, to a lesser extent, China.

Greek politicians who firmly believe their nation’s place is in the western camp are worried, too. “Imagine if, on top of all our economic problems, we started flirting with Russia and China in a way that flies in the faces of our partners, including the Americans,” says a source close to Pasok, the former ruling socialist party.

This prospect is rendered plausible by Greece’s desperate economic condition, which may tempt the next government to seek assistance from beyond the EU and International Monetary Fund, its principal creditors. The disarray of Greece’s foreign ministry, generally pro-European in outlook, does not help. But there are deeper impulses of nationalism and leftwing radicalism in Greece’s foreign policy tradition that threaten to return to the surface.

Alexis Tsipras, leader of Syriza, visited Venezuela in 2009 and is an admirer of Hugo Chávez, the president whose anti-US world view chimes with the hatred of imperialism embraced by one generation after another of Greek leftists. Mr Chávez specialises in using Venezuela’s oil reserves as a tool of diplomacy, a factor that could come to the fore if Mr Tsipras were to take power in Greece, which is heavily dependent on energy imports.

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As for Antonis Samaras, leader of New Democracy, he travelled to Moscow in January on a trip that emphasised Greece’s cultural bonds with Russia, a fellow member of the Orthodox Christian world. Russia supplies the bulk of Greece’s gas imports and the Kremlin last year arranged a cheap €2.5bn loan for Cyprus, whose Greek Cypriot leaders are close to Athens because of their shared wariness of Turkey.

The difficulty for pro-western Greek politicians is that, thanks to the economic crisis, loyal membership of the EU and Nato is associated to some extent in the public mind with craven submission to the European and IMF overseers who have imposed strict conditions in return for financial aid. Although younger Greeks are proud of their modern European identity, half of them today are unemployed and fearful for their future. Older Greeks, meanwhile, remember Nato’s decision to stay on the sidelines when Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974 – as well as what they recall as US support for the 1967-74 Greek military junta.

The case for keeping Greece on a pro-western track is therefore harder to make than even three years ago, before the eruption of the national debt emergency. It rests, in the last resort, on the argument that Greece is safer inside the eurozone than outside – but some European policy makers now suggest that a stable eurozone may require the jettisoning of Greece.

Panagiotis Ioakimidis, a renowned EU affairs expert, got to the heart of the matter in 1999, two years before Greece was admitted to the eurozone. In a policy paper for the Greek foreign ministry, he wrote: “Being a full member of the single currency area means that Greece’s external security is greatly enhanced. A country that shares the same currency with the most powerful countries of Europe (Germany, France, Italy, Spain) cannot fall prey to a hostile foreign attack or even be threatened by external powers. Such actions would amount to a challenge to the entire eurozone.”

Whatever Sunday’s election result, a sense of national insecurity will only intensify in a Greece cut loose from its European moorings.

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