18 October 2018

After Dinner Speech

Evangelos Venizelos


I thank you dearly for the introduction, for the invitation, for your hospitality and for the opportunity to participate in this Symposium of such importance.

Today's debates have turned our attention to some very crucial aspects of our bilateral relations; to points that are not always plainly obvious.

Besides, the conjuncture is particularly challenging.

We are at the final and extremely difficult stage of the course towards the divorce between the EU and the UK.

We hope that the developments around Brexit will remain under control and be harmless for both sides –for the UK, as well as for the EU of 27 members- both in the fields of the economy and of politics.

I wish Britain had remained a member of the EU so it could contribute to the formation of European interrelations and of the Union's prospects, nonetheless I totally respect the choice of the British people.

The fact is that we are already confronted with new circumstances. The EU of 27 members and the UK outside the EU are two new entities that have a duty to form a new relationship and safeguard the European component of the Western world.

Brexit is obviously an economic, legal and political challenge. First and foremost, though, it is a geopolitical and historical challenge for both sides. The fact that Brexit is a challenge affecting competitiveness, international trade, the financial sector, the existence and size of the European market is evident from the agenda of the EU-UK negotiations.

However, fundamental to the economy lie issues of European defence and security, both internal and external. History teaches that without Britain, the conditions for both the European and Euro-Atlantic security cannot be established.

In addition, we live in a time of a simplistic redefinition of the American identity and of the American conception of Europe and of Euro-Atlantic relations.

Whoever views the relationship between the US and the EU as simply one of commercial competition, ignores history. How much more historically ignorant is it to view the relationship between the EU and the UK as merely one of commercial and financial competition?

From this standpoint, Greece is at an advantage, on account of having deep historical ties and eclectic affinities with Britain. Our bilateral relations far exceed the volume of transactions and trade balance. Greece’s and the UK’s common denominator is the distinct relationship which both countries have with what is called “European identity”.

They may differ in size, however, the insular nature and relationship with the sea, at some distance from Brussels, is something they have in common.

Britain is an island, separated by the sea from continental Europe; at the same time, it retains the memories of the empire and the advantage of the commonwealth, compared to the institutional hybrid of the European Union.

Greece may be located at the periphery of the EU in terms of geography, however, it lies at the historical focal point of the European cultural identity. It is a country with many islands, with the strongest commercial shipping sector in Europe and one of the largest in the world. Fiscally it is a “prodigal” member of the Eurozone, still it has a cultural and historical magnitude without which the European narrative -that is, the legitimising basis of European integration- cannot be shaped.

The Anglican and Orthodox churches are two interesting versions of the relationship between national and religious identity in a Europe born from the womb of Westphalia.

Greece is preparing to celebrate in 2021 the anniversary of two hundred years since the Revolution for its Independence and its secession from the declining Ottoman Empire by constituting a national state, in the name of European modernity, liberalism and constitutionalism, as well as in the name of creating new spheres of influence.

Now that we are witnessing the late phase of the Eastern Question in Turkey itself, in the Middle East and in North Africa, it is possible to assess, in retrospect and in a fuller way, the significance of the Greek Revolution for Independence and the creation of an, initially small, new Greek state, even as a European protectorate, in the Balkan Peninsula.

Britain realised the significance and prospects of the Greek Revolution for Independence more quickly and fully than the other European powers of the time and supported it by connecting politics with the economy, i.e. by providing the notorious loans of Independence. Thanks to the British outlook on international politics and finance, sovereign Greek debt was generated before the sovereign Greek state and as a precondition thereof. The Greek state was thus founded, even if deeply in debt from the cradle.

And yet, Britain is the determining international factor in all phases of Greek national integration - from 1821 to the late 1940s.

The relationship between Eleftherios Venizelos and Lloyd George and the fluctuations in Winston Churchill's attitude towards Greek affairs between World War I and World War II, symbolise the close link between a new small state’s yearning for national integration and an empire’s strategic vision.

The thread of history runs through the Balkan Wars, the First World War, the Asia Minor Catastrophe and the exchange of populations between Greece and Kemal’s Turkey, the Second World War, the Greek Civil War as a first act of the Cold War, and so on.

The Cyprus affair put the preferential Greek-British relations to a severe test, but did not break them.

Since 1952, such relationships were put under NATO’s roof and, from the Truman doctrine onwards, they ran in parallel to the framework of Greek-American relations.

After 1981, the EU was the second bulwark of close Greek-British relations that kept intact all their privileged areas: the Greek shipping and the London lobby, tourism, higher education, financial and legal services, the media.

Greece's accession in 2001 to the Eurozone –out of which the UK stubbornly remained -, did not alter these facts. Only after the 2008-9 crisis and Greece’s entry into the well-known rescue programs of its economy, the notorious memoranda, were two things made practically clear:

First, had the UK been a member of the Eurozone in 2010, it would not have had the facilities of a national monetary policy which were crucial for tackling a crisis in a national economy of the size and extroversion of Britain. In 2010, the UK's fiscal deficit, as a percentage of the GDP, was not far from that of Greece.

Second, the UK was not a decisive factor in the Greek crisis. The UK did not participate in the Eurogroup, nor was it a lender in the first Greek loan facility in 2010; it did not participate in the EFSF and the ESM, nor in the funding of the second and third program or in the measures to alleviate the Greek public debt (PSI and OSI).

The British media, however, have been portraying the Greek crisis as part of the wider crisis of the Eurozone; on several occasions, they provided pessimistic forecasts. Financial markets, international banks, rating agencies, and investment funds have a strong British “colour”.

Now, officially speaking, the third program to support the Greek economy has been completed. Greece is out of the memorandum, meaning a loan from the ESM, although under strict supervision by the European institutions. It still remains outside the markets, though. The fundamental issue at stake is to cover the investment gap of the last nine years. London is the place of decisive meetings, presentations and discussions.

Two years ago, international talks compared Brexit, as a decision of the British people and the British Parliament in the context of its sovereignty, to Grexit, as a threat and risk; but Grexit was not the Greek people’s choice.

The British referendum about Brexit and the Greek referendum of July 2015 about rejecting European proposals for the third program are two radically opposed versions of direct democracy. Proposals to repeat the referendum are not accepted in the UK now; but in Greece, in July 2015, rejection by an overwhelming majority of the European proposals for the third program was turned into a complete agreement for such program within a few days.

The UK is now faced with the great challenge of exiting the EU. Greece is faced with the great challenge of returning to the normality of a member state of the EU and of the Eurozone.

The stable European outlook of the country constitutes a pillar of the Greek national narrative and a secure framework for foreign investments in Greece. The UK's autonomous course and the development of its international economic and trade relations without the EU's regulatory constraints, is the pillar of the British narrative.

Extroversion is the common denominator. British extroversion claims a cosmopolitanism that transcends the European framework. Greek extroversion lays a claim for a return to European regularity within an EU that is changing politically, socially, demographically, developmentally.

We are cognizant of the challenges, the risks, the priorities.

Both our nations have great resilience and an ability to adapt to new situations.

We have the will to promote, in all fields, the bilateral Greek-British relations that have a strong historical and geopolitical background and are always ladvantageous

We have the will and the duty to work together in order to shape new opportunities, starting from a new working relationship between the EU and the UK, based on the major common interests that unite us.

The single market, the free movement of persons, social benefits, fiscal and financial transactions are, undoubtedly, very important issues.

Nonetheless, what is more important is to maintain the common Western concept of democracy, the rule of law and human rights; to address the major challenges of the demographic crisis, the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the change in employment relations; the challenges of climate change and of the migration flows to Europe, without compromising the acquis of Western civilization.

Managing our fears in the Western societies must be done in such a way as to preserve our culture; this is our common wager on the future. 



Tags: Speeches