Edward McMillan-Scott: Chronicle of a debt foretold for poor old Greece

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THE euro crisis in Greece – possibly a catastrophe for the EU – has had one benign outcome so far: anyone commenting on the subject soon realises how much of our own language derives from Ancient Greek.

A lesser-known truth is the lack of connection between that extraordinary civilisation and the 11 million people who call themselves Greek today. It is a geographical rather than an ethnic or cultural term, but a potent source of nationalistic fervour, as we have seen on our television screens.

I can write with greater candour, even cynicism, today not only because I am no longer an MEP minding his Ps and Qs on my constituents’ behalf, but because I have a great affection for Greece and its people and some controversial views.

I was the only Briton at my hotel in Strasbourg, but it was a sort of club for Greek and Cypriot MEPs and their staff, possibly because it had a rather lax approach to smoking. As a former smoker myself, it was still shocking that the addiction seemed almost mandatory for Greeks, but they were great company, and the first to admit to their own weaknesses with a conspiratorial wink or a familiar shrug of the shoulders.

Continental Europeans accuse the UK of cynicism about its EU membership too, and suspect that David Cameron is privately enjoying the resounding Greek “No” as a means of levering greater concessions from Brussels as he renegotiates our membership terms.

It is worth reflecting on the many British connections with Greece, partly because of its maritime traditions and links through banking, insurance and the law but also emotional and historic ties. Greece’s noble aspirations in the last two centuries for freedom from external control and for the restoration of democracy strike chords with many.

Commenting for the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme from Athens on the result of Sunday’s referendum, John Humphrys’ melancholic tone was palpable. He has a home in Greece and a well-known affection for its people. Only last month he presented a tribute to another Hellenophile, war hero and travel writer Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor.

“Paddy”, as he was universally known – I met him several times and he remained as charming, erudite and witty until his death at 96 in 2011 – is renowned for capturing the German commandant in Crete in 1944. He made his post-war home in Greece and willed his beautiful villa and neo-classical reading room to the Benaki Museum in Athens as a refuge and inspiration to young writers. I visited it last year and found the reading room in desolation and a noisy young family in occupation of the villa.

Locals shrugged their shoulders when I challenged them about this misuse of Paddy’s legacy. In Humphrys’ least penetrating interview of his career, the deputy director of the Benaki Museum commented on the fate of Paddy’s property: “I think it’s in a good situation.”

For Germany, the main paymasters and strongest economy in the eurozone, and primary source of the €240bn owed by Athens, there are mixed feelings about Greece.

Bavarians take pride in cultural links and in having provided the Greek royal family, but the more hard-headed have long had reservations. My old friend, the late Otto von Habsburg, a sometime MEP who lived in Munich, insisted that Greece’s accession to the then European Community was absurd because of its fragile economy, but above all, he claimed, because today’s Greeks are “southern Slavs”.

This cynicism about modern Greece was fairly widespread in Brussels long before the current crisis. I was not alone in thinking that the division of Cyprus after the Turkish invasion of 1974 was a plot between the Athens junta and the crooked US vice-president Spiro Agnew. It was said that Greece had been allowed into the EC in 1981, again because of Washington’s security concerns; her membership was championed by then French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing.

Reminiscing with former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt for Der Spiegel in 2012, they agreed that it had been a mistake to admit Greece to the EC, but worse, to have allowed her into the euro in 2001.

Greece cheated to join the euro, said Otmar Issing, the European Central Bank’s former chief economist – a German. During that saga of faked figures and spiv accounting, Athens was assisted by bankers Goldman Sachs, but their joint perfidy became quickly known in Brussels.

The outgoing finance minister, Yannis Varoufakis, claimed to be an expert in Game Theory – or “who blinks first, loses”. While the UK stands to lose relatively little financially – and our tourists could gain from a depreciating euro – we are all diminished by the present situation.

Speaking personally, I am ashamed for having kept my reservations about Greece’s fitness to be in the EU, let alone the euro, to myself.

Edward McMillan-Scott is a former MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber.