I recently bumped into a cousin in Switzerland. I hadn’t known she even existed – she and I never moved in the same family circles when I visited relatives in Athens. But since the start of the crisis, Greeks abroad have become more aware of their family trees. My relative completed a degree in Germany 25 years ago and returned to Greece to get a job in the food industry. Two years ago she was made redundant. For 18 months she tried to find work, then gave up and begged her mother to call her contacts in Germany – such as my father, her cousin once removed, who helped her move to Germany, and from thereon to Switzerland.
Although the German parliament should on Friday pass a deal that eases the pressure on the Greek economy, many Greeks have gone back to doing what they have always been good at: they activating networks of relatives in the diaspora and moving abroad. Statistics released this month show that Greek migration to Germany has shot up almost 80% in the past few years. They are a different breed to the unqualified workers from rural areas who moved abroad in the 1960s, however: the new migrant comes from one of the crisis-hit cities and has a bagful of degrees and qualifications.
In this respect, the Greek disaster is a German boon: the brain drain from the Mediterranean is helping to plug Germany’s chronic lack of qualified workers. And yet Greeks who arrive are rarely welcomed with open arms at German borders. A large part of the population still insists that “we” will end up having to cough up for “their” welfare. Out come all the old cliches: haven’t “those Greeks” always been feckless layabouts? People empathise with the situation in Greece but often wouldn’t want to go as far as letting out their flat to a Greek family.
Accepting that migration is once again part of the Greek experience isn’t easy for Greeks, either. Expectations are higher than they used to be. In the 90s, Greece had managed to turn itself from an emigration into an immigration country (even if not a particularly welcoming one, as the rise of Golden Dawn shows). In 2004, when Athens hosted the Olympics and the Greek football team won the European Championship, it briefly looked like the country had finally arrived in Europe. That dream has now come to a sudden end: in the eyes of most Europeans, we’ve been pegged back to “oriental” levels.
I grew up in Germany with a Greek father and a German mother, and I find it relatively easy to look at the situation from both sides of the divide. But for Greeks in Greece to accept partial responsibility in their downfall isn’t easy. Greece experienced modernisation, but no real reforms. Mentally, it never kept up with economic progress. The EU and the euro arrived and living standards rose, but in politics the same old family structures remained intact, tourists were served the same old souvlakis and moussakas for notched-up prices, and the country continued to consume, “Balkans-style” – as if the whole dream could be over by tomorrow.
Analysing what really happened during the boom years is much harder than blaming the big bad Germans, those heartless, work-obsessed robots. Of course you can question Angela Merkel’s austerity politics. And there’s no question that some Germans – much like many Greeks – have simply failed to grasp where the European project is at: there’s a widespread and enormously inflexible fixation with savings, wage restraint and fighting inflation that is simply outdated.
But ultimately Germany and Greece are simply opposite poles at a new phase of European integration. If you look at the relationship between the two countries from a distance, the overwhelming impression is not of a culture clash but a historical enmeshing. You only have to remember that the blue-and-white Greek flag is based on the colours of the state of Bavaria – whose Prince Otto became the first king of independent Greece. These shared links and influences – all too quickly forgotten – should be the starting point for solving Europe’s problems.
Europeans are currently going through an astonishing learning curve: Greeks are coming to terms with the fact that the European Union isn’t just the friendly aunt from the distant west that sorts out our infrastructure but that it can make demands too. And Germany is slowly starting to grasp that the EU can’t just be an export market with a stable currency. A union also has to involve solidarity with people who don’t speak the same language as you.
In that respect, the crisis could be an opportunity to complete European integration. But that chance will come and go if we don’t get a glimpse of a light at the end of the tunnel. I am pleased that the Bundestag will, in all likelihood, pass a measure on Friday to cut Greek’s debt mountain by €40bn. For the short term such measures are important, but in the long run “rescue packages” are no recipe for a Europe in which Greece and Germany can coexist happily.
Translated by Philip Oltermann.
Mark Terkessidis is a journalist and expert on migration movements.