EU Leaders 'Occupy Greece' to Oversee Bailout

EU Leaders 'Occupy Greece' to Oversee Bailout

REUTERS/Yiorgos Karahalis

The Greek financial rescue package, apart from its obvious necessity as a bailout mechanism, has always been about holding eurozone together, and living up to the legacies left by the European visionaries who started the continent on its way to union half a century ago.

Now, after months of haggling in the agora over how the bailout will be structured, the deal is almost closed. Brussels may sign it as early as Monday. But the bickering and insults among European officials this past week made me wonder whether there is anything worth holding together. 

Even as Greek leaders and their European Union counterparts proceeded to work on the details of what must be among the most complex transactions on the E.U.’s record, the tone between Athens and its northern neighbors degenerated into something resembling a food fight. In Athens, mentions of “jackboots” and other not-so-veiled references to Germany’s occupation of Greece during the Second World War is a disgraceful use of history.

Greeks are Now European First, Greek Second

Some positive news emerged amid all this. At midweek, with some European officials impatiently asserting that the E.U. should simply allow a Greek default, two prominent Greek politicians met Europe’s demand that party leaders in Athens pledge in writing to observe the rescue package’s terms if they are elected in polls due this April. This was a key element in the deal Athens pushed through its parliament a week ago. 

A day later Greece accepted rigorous E.U. controls and monitoring as to how it spends bailout funds. The E.U.’s deal is expected to include an escrow account, for instance, which Athens will be required to maintain -- it is earmarked to cover Greece’s debts for nine to 12 months. If the account falls below the stipulated minimum, the missing money will come straight from the Greek government’s operating budget.

These measures are unprecedented in E.U. history, and are positive for the simple reason that they turn the Greek debt calamity into something approximating an I.O.U., albeit a painful one. With E.U. officials nosing around Greece’s budget books, Greeks will be the first ones in history who must say, in effect, “I am European before I am Greek.”

The E.U. has always been about shared identity. No one could have predicted that this moment would come about due to such shambolic circumstances, but the fact remains that the Greeks are crossing a line from which there will be no turning back.

Of course, the Greeks are not complying with this plan with shining eyes and welcoming smiles. Greek resentment toward Europe has been intensifying with every new negotiation for austerity measures. Rioters were on the streets of Athens again this past weekend, and the chaos is now spilling over into articulated venom.

EU leaders may be writing the prescriptions, but that does give them license to offend the ailing patient.

At midweek, Wolfgang Schäuble, Germany’s finance minister, suggested that Greeks delay their April elections and install an unelected government of technocrats instead. This was one of several condescending remarks made by Northern European members of the E.U. This is wrong and ill-advised. They may be writing the prescriptions, but that does give them license to offend the ailing patient.

“We are all obliged to work hard to get through this crisis,” Greek President Karolos Papoulias fired back. “But we cannot accept insults from Mr. Schäuble. Who is Mr. Schäuble to insult Greece? Who are these Dutchmen, who are these Finns? We have always defended not only the freedom of our own country, but the freedom of Europe.”

You get the idea. One can say with justification that Greeks are advancing the cause of Europe, but they are also swallowing hard. We Americans are masterful forgetters, and among the things we forget is that others do not forget so easily. It turns out that the German occupation of Greece from 1941 to 1944 still hits a raw nerve—even among Greeks too young to have any direct memory of it—and that the Nazis were partly responsible for an earlier devastation of the Greek economy. 

“There's a very strong collective memory,” Nikos Kostandaras, managing editor of Kathimerini, an Athens daily, said in an interesting interview with National Public Radio amid all the squabbling last week. “We live every triumph and every defeat from the past as if it matters to us right now.”

Invoking the Nazi era is not appropriate—it is tasteless and destructive and wholly beyond the point. But offending Greeks with suggestions that they are incapable of governing themselves—well, this is also tasteless and destructive, and high German officials should be above all that. Let’s get this deal signed and in motion, and leave the insults behind.