Greeks, clinging precariously to our European Union membership for the past few years, have watched with particular fascination while at the other end of Europe, Britons head for a referendum on June 23 to decide whether to leave the Union.
For around 200 years, Greece and Britain have been tied together. Britain, as a leading economic, political, military and technological power, has had inordinate influence on modern Greek history. At the height of its imperial power, Britain was decisive in helping the Greeks break free of the Ottoman Empire; in World War II and the Greek civil war that followed, Winston Churchill fought to keep Greece in the Western camp and succeeded. Now both nations, from very different positions, pose a serious threat to the European Union.
The two have been partners in NATO since 1952 and in what is now the European Union since 1981. Britain was and remains a great, mature democracy, a leading economy, a nuclear power, an educational superpower, a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. Greece, ever since having raised costly loans in London in 1824 and 1825 to fund its war of independence, has stumbled and soared, with bankruptcies, wars and dictatorship punctuating periods of territorial expansion, domestic reform and prosperity. The longest stretch of stability came with accession to the European Union, followed, since 2010, by an economic collapse longer and deeper than the Great Depression in the United States.
The latest great debt crisis has brought Greece to the brink of being forced out of the common currency, and a flood of refugees and immigrants has prompted other European Union members to propose Greece’s suspension from the passport-free zone known as the Schengen Area.
Most Greeks are afraid to leave the euro and the European Union. An economy that has shrunk by 25 percent, a large number of pensioners and unemployed, and a declining population suggest that the country would not survive outside of a larger economic unit. “Ever closer union” is the only way, goes the thinking, and reforms that our partners demand in exchange for support make us stronger.
In Britain, on the other hand, those in favor of exiting the European Union present this as a declaration of national sovereignty. As Michael Gove, the justice secretary and a leading Brexit campaigner, put it in a recent speech: “If we vote to stay, British taxpayers will inevitably be paying ever-higher bills for years to come as the E.U. uses its growing and unchecked power to transfer resources to subsidize failure. If we vote to stay, we are not settling for the status quo — we are voting to be a hostage, locked in the boot of a car driven by others to a place and at a pace that we have no control over. In stark contrast, if we vote to leave, we take back control.”
Greeks know about being powerless. Long periods of our history have resembled Mr. Gove’s nightmarish scenario, with foreign powers and military dictators controlling our fate.
European Union membership put an end to that — no matter how much we bridle at Brussels’ mismanagement and alleged “democratic deficit.” For us, European values helped entrench the rule of law and political institutions as never before (albeit without strengthening them to the point where we could have averted bankruptcy). Britain, on the other hand, already had a long and proud tradition of liberal democracy, economic dynamism, social stability and the rule of law, which attracts investors, students, academics and professionals from across the globe (many Greeks among them). European Union membership is in line with these values and it is not true that Britain is powerless to influence events.
At the heart of the British referendum is a fundamental paradox. Prime Minister David Cameron campaigned for reform in the European Union, and when he got most of what he wanted, backed the campaign to stay. If, however, his compatriots vote for leaving, the reforms will be irrelevant to Britain, which will suddenly be looking for a new modus vivendi with its former partners. Britain will not only lose its ability to influence developments but will also be a catalyst for further change in the bloc. Whether this will be toward further union or fragmentation, Britain will be powerless to act — like being in the trunk of Mr. Gove’s proverbial car.
The argument that Britain can do better on its own seems to be based on nostalgia for a time when it was a great power. In Greece, though, we remember how, at the height of our civil war in early 1947, an exhausted Britain handed the Greek problem to the United States — leading to the Truman Doctrine, confirming American dominance in the region. Within two decades, all but a couple of outposts of Britain’s empire had been abandoned.
President Barack Obama, visiting London on Friday, referred to the “special relationship” between his country and Britain, adding, however, that Britain would be stronger by remaining in the European Union.
The analysis by Mr. Cameron’s government says that annual economic output would be £4,300 (about $6,100) lower per household if Britain left the bloc. The governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, fears that Britain could lose its status as a pre-eminent financial center. Mr. Gove argued that Britons could hedge their bets — voting to leave but taking their time to do so. “We can set the pace,” he said. “After we establish full legal independence we can then decide which E.U.-inspired rules and regulations we want to keep … while we calmly take our time to change the law, one thing which won’t change is our ability to trade freely with Europe.”
Last summer, Greece’s government had a similar win-win idea: hold a referendum and campaign against a new bailout agreement with creditors, but stay in the eurozone. However, when creditors made it clear to Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras that he had no alternative but to lead his country into the wilderness, he signed on to the deal. Mr. Tsipras — like Brexit campaigners — had ignored the observation on Britain’s great gift to the world, attributed to Jean-Paul Sartre : “In football everything is complicated by the presence of the opposite team.”
Nikos Konstandaras is the managing editor and a columnist at the newspaper Kathimerini, and a contributing opinion writer.