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Greece now stands on the brink. It has elected a left-wing Government which is demanding, and will expect to get, a major write off of its massive debt, or it will have no option but to leave the Euro. This may be the final chapter in a long and awkward journey, for Greece and Europe and for the growing but confused European Union.

Greece has always been apart. It was the first state admitted to the EU which wasn’t already the physical neighbour of an EU country. Its language had a different alphabet. But it was emerging from a military dictatorship in 1981 and the EU, and the West (including the EU) wanted the Hellenic country, home of the Classics, brought into the Brussels club to safeguard its democracy. The Socialist Pasok party had just come into power and EU money flowed into Greece.

But the foreign money did not go to where it should and corruption, always a Balkan feature, was increased and institutionalised by these new overseas transfers. Compounded with a huge amount of tax evasion, which has still not been addressed, this was a recipe for binge of reckless spending that others had to pay for.

I lived and worked in Greece in the early 1980s, as a backpacker, picking oranges in the Peloponnese region with often very traditional locals and enjoying the sort of experience that youngsters now have to travel to Asia and South America for. What struck me was how different it was: a perfect idyll in which to linger. It is an intriguing and attractive culture, but an often opaque one to outsiders, with its seriously held Orthodox Christianity, its conservative social rituals and its white washed buildings, olive trees, wines and ancient ruins.

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The question now is whether this simple, if often very modest way of life, which the Greeks have had for generations was then ruined by the forced modernisation of EU transfers and massive debts which got siphoned off by corruption and rampant tax evasion? Might they not have been better off as they were? And might they not be better off now going back to their shock absorbers of fishing and tourism, and leaving the Euro, and even the EU, so they can be in control of their own destiny – as they clearly wish they want to be anyway?

This is ultimately the major question facing Syrizia, although they are likely to try to have it both ways: stay in and be defiantly independent of EU fiscal responsibility. But other EU countries are highly unwilling to give the Greeks a debt write off that could unravel the whole EU arrangement. And in truth, other European countries have long run out of patience with Greece, which has now had two full bailouts and considerable debt re-structuring.

In fact, since the moment of its dubious entry into the EU, Greece has too often seemed like an ungrateful basket case and a constant awkward customer. When I was a diplomat in the 1990s, moving in EU and UN circles, the joke used to be: who was minding the door of the club when the Greeks got in? The feeling was that the Greek approach was always ‘what’s in it for Greece?’ as opposed to what was good for the EU too.

When Ireland got massive EU Structural Funds, we built roads and infrastructure, as opposed to wasting the money, or looting it, as happened too often in similarly underdeveloped Greece. But we also went along with EU policies, and did our bit for the team. This didn’t happen with a still fiercely independent and nationalist Greece, which prevented the EU, for example, from forming a coherent and forceful response to the Bosnia war.

The irony is that the Greeks have been the most vociferous opponents of keeping their old enemy Turkey out of the EU and yet there are aspects of modern Turkish society and its now robust economy which show up Greece as a sclerotic, over-unionised backwater, with massive debt and an ‘a la carte’ tax system.

The Greeks’ attitude to foreign policy used to be that the Turks were to blame for everything and they wasted no opportunity in raising their bilateral dispute, waving it around like a ‘sore thumb’. Such is the hot-headed attitude of the Greeks to their national issues that they almost went to war twice with Turkey in the last 20 years – a full scale war, among fellow NATO members. How would German taxpayers have felt about funding that?
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Of course, in the cynical world of diplomacy, this has some merit for the Irish. As one salty old ambassador put it, “my boy, as long as they are in the club, we will always look good!” The reality was that as soon as Greece joined the EU, it was clear that the country had structural and cultural problems quite different to the rest of the EU states.

Of course, this is also the case with some of the new Eastern European members now, but the difference is that they haven’t built up decades of debt, with no proper supervision. When I asked a former German Ambassador to Greece – and subsequently to Ireland – why nothing was done about this, he replied ‘we always felt we could carry Greece, and it would eventually reform.’ No such thing happened. Now, there is no hiding place, since we’re all tied together with the euro.

Over the decades, the Greeks have played ducks and drakes with any attempt to create a meaningful EU foreign policy. They cosied up to the Eastern Bloc countries when they were still communist and on the subject of Cyprus, a dispute so vexatious, it makes North Ireland looked like a garden party, the Greeks have wanted to have it both ways — supporting an independent Cyprus that would unite Greek and Turkish Cypriots, but also at supporting a ‘closer’ relationship with the island and even a political union.

However, the low point of Greek foreign policy was its unwillingness to recognise the former Yugoslav state of Macedonia, because it took the old name of one of their ancient regions. Worse still, this meant that the Greeks could also veto the EU’s recognition of the name and so still today the EU refers to Macedonia as the ‘Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’- or FYRM for short. When I protested to my diplomatic colleagues about why Ireland was going along with this, the salty ambassador responded that “it was in the bag for us if there was ever an attempt to rename Northern Ireland as Ulster”. But really, it was also about the bolshie behaviour of the Greeks making us look good.

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Our Finance Minister Michael Noonan once quipped about ‘when was the last time you put a Greek product in your basket – a bit of feta cheese maybe and that’s it.’ But he was right. The reality is that Greece is a country with which we have little kinship or knowledge, and our interaction with the Mediterranean country seems to not go much beyond some famous but simple foodstuffs and going there for sunshine holidays – and, of course, watching their EU related economic crisis from afar.

On the latter, we are of course sympathetic, especially as we see a proud people forced under EU-directed austerity from afar. We know the feeling on this on, even if we feel that the mess has been much of Greece’s own making. But few of us have any Greek friends to whom we can express this, and even fewer know anyone with a Greek partner or spouse.

But the Greeks know adversity. The country has had a volatile and divided history, mirrored by its political culture which divided between the extremes of left and right, again apparent today. After the Nazis were driven out, the country fell into a civil war and almost went Communist. In fact it would have done so, but Churchill and the Allies intervened and Stalin abandoned Greece so that he could ‘get’ Czechoslovakia and other States which didn’t want Communism! This is an important background to today’s events there and, when I picked oranges there, many locals young and old, were proud to salute the red flags flying over their farmhouses.

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The first act of the charismatic young Syriza leader, George Tsirpas was the laying of flowers at the site outside Athens where the Nazis brutally executed 200 Greek communist partisans. This is no mere photo opportunity. There is an integrity to the Greek left wing tradition, even if it was sullied before by Pasok corruption, and a great poignancy to the Greek situation. After all, as we know only too well in Ireland, the lender should also take some of the blame and the EU, and ECB, recklessly leant to Greece in a way that make their problems worse. A lack of oversight by Brussels ignored the escalating debt, corruption and rampant tax evasion. Shouldn’t the club chairman also take more of the hit?

The big question now is whether Syrizia will hold out for major write-off or whether it will settle for half a deal, or something which involves kicking the debt down the road. Is the radical but cautious Tsirpas prepared to go all the way, or is he just content for the far left to be finally in the driving seat and in a position to alleviate the suffering of Greeks ?

One suspects it’s the latter. After all, Pasok also heralded big revolutionary changes when they came in 1981, but they soon compromised and stayed firmly within the broader EU rules. However, if those rules work against Syrizia and allow them no room for manoeuvre and continued penury for the Greek people, then it is quite possible that Tsirpas will press the exit button on a club that the Greeks have never fully felt part of.

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