Photo Source: http://www.iefimerida.gr
One of the great pleasures of my year in Greece was pursuing an independent study with Pr. Thanos Veremis. Veremis has published countless essays, monographs, and books on Modern Greece and the Balkans. Alongside his historical research, he is one of Greece’s most gifted public intellectuals through his column in Ekathimerini. One cannot help admire his hope for Greece and fight to make its society, politics, and economy truly liberal, open, and dynamic. Pr. Veremis kindly took some of his time out for a chat and coffee together.
Greece has fortunately escaped the headlines since the memorandum showdown and prospect of “Grexit” last summer. Does this signal any progress?
The progress has been mediocre. At least since last summer, some of the most extreme members of the SYRIZA government like Konstantopoulou and Lafazanis have departed. This group of strange individuals is out. The government is a combination of those trying to find a centre-left route into politics and some past ideologues of the Left. My guess is that SYRIZA will eventually fill a left-of-centre slot in Greek politics, which would be an improvement. Unfortunately, they are not gifted administrators or leaders. Many are “out of commission” or never faced the real problems of governance. This growing experience will take time, though they will likely lose the next elections regardless.
How would you grade Alexis Tsipras’s government, particularly in promoting meaningful reforms?
The government is performing way below average. It is very hard to promote economic growth or investment because of their tax situation. In the field of education, SYRIZA is totally disastrous. Nikos Filis [the education minister] is bringing back the PASOK university “reforms” of 1982 that were extremely detrimental to secondary and university education. This is actually what I’m most concerned about.
They have absolutely no idea what they are doing. They are incapable of running the country.
In his 2014 book, Political Order and Political Decay, Francis Fukuyama looks at the clientalistic and patronage politics of Greece and Italy still undermining efforts to create a modern, effective civil service and public sector. He compares this to the United States and Great Britain, which had very similar problems in the 19th century but developed creative, liberal middle-class reform movements that pushed for more effective governance. What has stopped Greece, especially its middle class, from advancing these changes?
Yes, the Tammany Hall spirit is very much alive in Greece today. In a book called Conditions of Liberty, the anthropologist Ernest Gellner argues that there are pre-modern societies based on families and the loyalty of clients to small centres of authority. Society is fractured with many of these competing “pyramids” of power failing to cooperate. This makes the development of a healthy civil society very difficult. Such a “segmentated society” is indeed Greece’s main problem. Of course, Greece has plenty of talent, ambition, and skill. But it’s segmented, not coordinated. People are narrowly focused on one’s immediate self or family or career.
On the new wave of Greek emigration.
There is an extraordinary export of talent to the rest of Europe. In the past, Greece’s migration was mostly of unemployed farmers. Now, it’s unemployed and underemployed young people with a good education. This is a serious brain drain as Greeks move to more prosperous nations in Europe.
Whether these Greeks will return in the event of economic growth and maturation remains to be seen. I’m somewhat optimistic. Greece is a wonderful country – nice and sweet as you certainly know. The climate is temperate. It’s a very warm culture where you can form relationships easily. The family here is a strong solace amidst life’s hardships. All you really need in Greece is a decent state that leaves you alone and a stable salary and income.
On a related note, if I were a Northern European at my age, I would certainly move to Greece. Along with the quality of life, we have a decent health care, both with public and private hospitals. The housing is also affordable as well and it’s still quite safe with low crime. Our communication systems have improved. This movement of retirees from all over the EU very well might be Greece’s economic salvation.
What kind of leadership and policies would it take to overcome the gap between Northern and Southern Europe, “creditor” and “debtor” nations, countries leaning towards Keynesian or more conservative, neoliberal solutions?
Europe is faced with a severe identity crisis about its future. Will it move towards a more unitary system or where each nation-state has a more independent foreign and doemstic policy based on their interest? If the latter is the case, Europe will not have much of a future, whether for both “debtor” or “creditor” nations. We will all go down the “drain” – some countries more quickly than others. Without more unity, we will not be a substantial force that can compete with China, Japan, the United States, or new rising powers.
There seems to be a severe lack of trust. Germany and “Northern Europe” does not seem willing to invest substantial financial resources for development in Greece and the rest of Southern Europe. Conversely, it’s not obvious Greece, Italy, Spain, or other countries are willing or able to overcome many bad political and economic habits.
One brings the other. If the “South” brings its act together and reduces its debt, there will be more trust by wealthier, Northern states. They will start to say this is our South – in the same way the more wealthy, industrial American North said that about your South after decades of conflict and ultimately war. Even after the Civil War, it took an even longer time for the South to fully catch up economically.
Southern Europe’s climate and less expensive labor can attract businesses. None of these situations are fixed. Mediterranean Europe used to be the economic center, of course, during the Renaissance. Southern and Eastern Germany were once underdeveloped but are catching up to the rest of the country. Eastern Europe has made substantial progress since 1989. Things can changed rapidly in history.
Shifts in Greek political life.
There’s much confusion about what the left means today. SYRIZA has totally been discredited. They are incapable of generating economic growth. And they are reviving old practices of party politics with the attempts to turn public television and radio into political propaganda. This is old and familiar, and Greeks are rejecting it. There seems to actually be a rise in centrist politics. Kyriakso Mitsotakis [the head of the opposition party, centre-right New Democracy] is young, capable, well educated, and has good intentions. He very well might be Greece’s last hope.
Interesting you are describing a shift to the centre in Greece. The opposite is happening in the rest of Europe!
Greece is often behind the rest of Europe. Sometimes for good actually!