Greece looks east and west, stuck between history and progress

Greece Letter: Row over Thessaloniki metro development is a symptom of deep tensions

I recently posted three parcels at the local post office, one each to Ireland, Czech Republic and the Netherlands. "All at the Europe rate," I said. The post clerk looked at the Irish address, and phoned head office to ask "Is Ireland still in Europe?" There is a common perception among Greeks that Ireland is part of the UK and therefore has been part of Brexit.

The lack of awareness in Greece of Ireland's independent status continues despite two very successful visits by President Michael D Higgins (in 2018 and 2019) and a Department of Foreign Affairs initiative to increase the "footprint" of Irish diplomacy.

The fact that part of the island of Ireland is indeed in the UK complicates the overall idea of Ireland as an independent state. There is a very compelling parallel with the Greek province of “Macedonia” (with its capital, Thessaloniki, the second city of Greece) and, across the border, the old “FYROM”, now recognised, after decades of negotiations, as “Republic of North Macedonia”.

The status of the "Republic of North Macedonia" remains questionable: many Macedonians are unhappy with the name of their new state, and many Greeks regard their leaders' acquiescence as a betrayal. The current prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, was against the deal while in opposition, but now has to implement its conditions. The example of "Ulster", with all the devastation and rhetoric in the wake of partition, is salutary.


If Ireland, after a century of separation, is still perceived as part of the UK, Greece, now celebrating the bicentenary of its independence, is dealing with issues that seem to be different but reflect the same deep-seated problems, relating to separation, division and identity.

As one journalist recently observed, once the pandemic has been overcome, Greece remains confronted by systemic deficits in education, waste management, youth unemployment and Greek-Turkish tensions, to say nothing of bureaucratic sclerosis. The topics, according to Kathimerini journalist Angelos Stangos, are complex “because they require a radical change in the social mentality and culture”.

As President Higgins has reminded us, a decade of commemoration is a time not only for remembrance but also for taking stock of that “social mentality and culture”.

Obliterating history

Given that the current Greek government, now celebrating 40 years of EU membership, is driven by economic and developmental priorities, rather than social reform or environmental protection, it is little wonder that a project such as the Thessaloniki metro is in the headlines. Archaeologists have discovered unique features of the historic city that the metro will obliterate. To preserve them is regarded as “a luxury the state cannot afford”.

A raft of expert academics sent an open letter to Mitsotakis, urging retention in situ; it is unlikely that he read it, because it stands in the way of what he sees as “progress”.

Forty years ago, then premier Kostas Karamanlis laid down a challenge when he asserted "Greece belongs to the West". The Thessaloniki issue is symptomatic of the question of whether Greece must "belong" to the West or to continue to cherish its cultural heritage, much of which is eastern in character. Since the Macedonian issue was so hotly discussed for so many years, the situation in Thessaloniki (which has only been part of Greece since 1913) goes to the heart of the matter.

Another central argument is whether there is a place for the humanities in an educational system that is increasingly oriented towards science and technology. Greece sees technological development as essential to its survival in the capitalist world, especially as its geopolitical position points to ever-increasing investment by Russian and Chinese enterprises. Ancient monuments, however much they contribute to tourism, must take second place to “progress”. Mitsotakis himself has been outspoken in his support of development projects regardless of their environmental impact.

Looking both ways

Since its foundation, Greece has looked both ways: to the West for its sense of statehood and to the east (in particular the Levant and the Balkans, of which it is a central element) for its sense of identity. Today, many dissidents insist that there is a Greek, rather than a European, solution to Greek problems.

During the austerity crisis, the possibility of a "Grexit" was very real, and Greek concessions to the EU were not easily obtained. Back in 2008, shortly after Ireland voted "no" to the Lisbon treaty, another post office clerk told me "Ireland is no longer in the EU". This was far more serious than my recent post-Brexit experience, but suggested that some Greeks saw a "Grexit" as an alternative to their own situation vis-a-vis the EU.

Next year, the Durrell Library of Corfu will host a symposium, East, West, Greece, on precisely this topic: whether Greece "belongs" to east, or west or, as many speakers will argue, both.

Richard Pine’s The Eye of the Xenos, Letters about Greece, featuring selections from this column since 2009, is published this month by Cambridge Scholars