As Britain weighs up the possibility of extracting itself from the European Union, across the continent Greece, after half a decade of stagnation and national humiliation, is facing the prospect of ejection from the single currency. It didn't have to be this way. A fanatical commitment to a political project has made it so, and the Greek public have paid an appalling price for it.
It sounds a bit trite to describe 11 million people as being warm and generous but so I have always found the Greek people to be. When I first visited the country in 2001 it was full of a tangible optimism. A quarter of a century after the military dictatorship was overthrown it appeared to be a flourishing democracy, with a strong and growing economy. 20 years of European Union largesse, trade and tourism had brought solid infrastructure and prosperity. Greece had been admitted to the Euro and was gearing up to host the 2004 Olympic games.
I remember well sitting in a taverna talking with a mixed group of Greek and foreign students, who were all enthusiastic supporters of European Union, and spoke with a genuine pride at their country's accession to the single currency. Not only would this bring greater prosperity and stability to the often inflation-plagued nation, this was a vindication and a tangible coming of age of the country's exercise in democracy, They couldn't understand British, or my, antipathy to the project of European Union and the Euro in particular, and they dismissed as hot air the basically standard economic theory which predicts just such a crisis as Greek has endured since 2009. The political will and financial wizardry of the EU will ensure the projects success, they sincerely believed.
Why am I boring you with my holiday memories from over a decade ago? Because not having visited the country in 6 years they serve as an interesting snapshot of how things actually seemed at the time without my current outlook clouding them. It is also more interesting, as any fool can see tell you the mood of the Greek people today. With unemployment hovering at 25%, debt now standing at an astonishing 175% of GDP, and the talk moving from "whether" to "when" and "how" Greece will exit the Euro, the Greek people are angry, disillusioned and deeply hurt. Their burgeoning democracy has become a basket case.
This anger manifested itself in the elections at the start of this year where the Greek people elected the radical left wing SYRIZA party led by Alex Tsipras, on what appears to be a cleverly cynical platform of on the one immediate and direct help for the financially stricken people such as using public buildings as soup kitchens, and on the other hand some unrealistic promises to renegotiate debt and alter the functioning of the European Union. Tsipras' knack for destructive populism showed itself again in March when he demanded war reparations from Germany. Whatever immediate bombastic support this may have won the Greek government the only sober view of this can be as a crass embarrassment to Greece. The nationalist and labelled by some as fascist Golden Dawn party coming the 3rd is perhaps an ever more alarming reflection of the dark mood of the Greek people.
How differently all this could have turned out if only the Greek government, in collusion with EU officials, had not pursued the insane policy of forming a currency union for reasons of political prestige. This disastrous policy pursued by Costas Simitis saw some very creative accounting used to secure Greece's place in the Euro, eagerly encouraged by EU officials keen for their project to be as large as possible. The Greek people are now paying a dreadful price for this vanity, and the endless delays and negotiations are merely prolonging what will have to inevitably happen. A Greek exit from the single currency, and either formally or through devaluation, a default on the massive debts accumulated by the Greek state.
What was a decade ago a symbol of progress, development and democracy has put these aspirations in greater peril than anything else since the collapse of the military junta in 1974, and 11 million people have had their hopes dashed by this conceited exercise, and their generous and optimistic nature stretched to breaking point.
If this sad and needless episode can serve any useful purpose at all it must surely be to highlight the staggering wrong-headedness of those behind the European Union project, and their dangerous determination implement their project regardless of the consequences.