Those who support Brexit often see Greece as an example of the problems within the EU. Nigel Farage has encouraged Greeks to leave the union in order to “take back control and democracy”, in a European project that “is dying”.
It is true that Greeks have become very Eurosceptic as a result of the EU’s response to the country’s crisis. Often, this has put them in awkward company. In 2015, the leader of the French far-right Front National, Marine Le Pen, was the first to congratulate the leftist Syriza for winning elections in Greece. Yet, Athens’s relationship with the EU is more complex than some would like to believe.
No matter how frustrated the country may be with Brussels, a staggering 75% of Greeks are still in favour of being part of the EU. Unlike the UK, most Greeks are not frustrated with the EU in general but, rather, with the austerity measures that are seen as “imposed” by Brussels. Indeed, Syriza won on a platform of having a “different” relationship with the EU, rather than no relation at all. To understand this “reluctant Euroscepticism” is to understand Greece’s historic ties with the EU.
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Greece’s relationship with Brussels has always been linked to the country’s democratic coming-of-age. Like its neighbours Spain and Portugal, one of the main reasons that Greece joined the EU in the 1980s was to consolidate its democratic transition from a seven-year long dictatorship. Thirty-five years after Greece’s entry to the EU, little has changed. Greeks continue to view the union as a way to remain stable in what is often an insecure region, but also to bolster their strength in a globalised world and the challenges that come with that, such as migration.
In this way, Greece resembles the countries of central and eastern Europe, which joined the EU in order to become part of a club of peace and security. Most important, Greece reminds us of the very reason for the foundation of the union – then the European Economic Community – in the 1950s: to ensure security and stability through cooperation.
Of course, the UK’s story is a little different. It has been politically stable far longer than Greece. Nor did the UK experience the two world wars in the same way as many continental countries. This might, in part, explain why the UK was not one of the founding members of European cooperation – but it does not mean the security and opportunities that the EU offers should not be of equal importance to London.
There is no question that the EU’s biggest achievement was the creation and expansion of a security zone, which was achieved through cooperation and interdependence. It has made a European war unthinkable and allowed states to pool their power, creating more opportunities and enabling them to better face the challenges ahead.
The kind of world we have today makes this cooperation all the more important. The problems that European states face simply cannot be resolved alone. More than ever, issues have become global rather than national.
This has not happened because of the EU, despite what many Eurosceptics may claim. Climate change was not brought about by the EU, and neither was international terrorism. It is the irreversible process of globalisation that makes these issues transnational, and regional cooperation is the most effective way of tackling them. This means that staying in the EU strengthens Greece’s – and the UK’s – sovereignty in many respects.
Of course, leaving the EU does not prevent cooperation with the rest of the world – but it would make it harder to influence what the EU would look like and do. Take, for example, the argument that the UK should leave the EU because countries from the Balkans or Turkey are lining up to join. Brexit would not make these countries move from the map to a region that will be of no relevance. The UK will remain in Europe and with the same neighbours.
The only difference that Brexit would make is that it will be impossible for the UK to influence the very region it is part of – including a veto on which countries are admitted to the EU. Brexit would also mean abandoning a seat at the table of one of the main forums that shapes the world – be it on trade, environmental or other issues.
Of course, the EU is not free of problems – which political project is? It is hard to deny that there is a significant gap between European citizens and the EU, which should be of concern. Yet, if history teaches us anything, it is that the EU has developed through crises. Take for example, how, after 9/11, states moved towards greater cooperation on issues of terrorism, including the introduction of the European arrest warrant, which was recently used to extradite the Paris attacks suspect Salah Abdeslam to France and in the past has helped British authorities to extradite suspects to the UK.
Jean Monnet, the French diplomat and father of the EU, once said: “Europe will be forged in crises, and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises.” Being a European country, no matter how small or large, choosing to stay outside is a grave mistake. A mistake that, at the moment – and despite the difficulties they have encountered – seems far clearer to Greeks than to the British.
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