Greece shows how sovereignty is an illusion for most modern nations

Greece Letter: Country’s experience over 200 years has underlined it is not only monarchs who have uneasy heads, especially in a globalised world where capital is king

The recent death of ex-king Constantine of Greece aroused mixed responses among citizens, historians and politicians, not least because his deposition by a military junta in 1967-74 is still a matter for debate. As a young king he misjudged the competing claims of democracy and authoritarianism which have bedevilled Greek politics since the 1820s, and led to the abolition of the monarchy in a 1974 referendum which restored democracy.

In all the commentaries on Constantine’s career one statement struck me as very significant: journalist Pavlos Papadopoulos, in the course of two broadsheet pages in Kathimerini newspaper, suggested “Greece’s induction into the EEC [in 1981] was a strong enough anchor so that the Great Powers no longer needed to act as guarantor of the country’s Western orientation”.

This draws attention to two cardinal facts: first, that Greece came into existence in the 1820s at the behest of the “Great Powers” (in those days Britain, France and Russia); and, second, that Greece continues to be supervised in its adherence to the West. The 2010 financial collapse and the imposition of the International Monetary Fund’s austerity programme underlined the loss of whatever capacity for self-determination Greece had enjoyed up to then.

Greece would probably not have gained its independence from the Ottoman empire in the 1820s if it had not been for the military, financial and diplomatic involvement of the “Great Powers”. Originally conceived as a republic, the assassination of its president in 1831 led to the imposition of a foreign monarchy (King Otto, a callow youth, was a minor Bavarian prince) and the importation of a Bavarian army and administration. Thirty years later, when Otto refused to grant a constitution, he was deposed and replaced by another foreign monarch, George, this time a Dane, the great-grandfather of the late Constantine, thus creating dynastic links with many European monarchies.


The Greek state had been a house divided, even before its inception, with competing vested interests and visons of what statehood could achieve. Imposition of a monarchy did not provide cohesion, despite the 50-year reign of George I (1863-1913). The disastrous 1920-22 invasion of Turkey (in which Greece was encouraged, but not supported, by both Britain and France) precipitated a long period of schism, when Greece was constantly in danger of the civil war which eventually came in the wake of the second World War. Royalists and republicans, who, with British military support, had formed the effective resistance to Nazi invasion, now fought each other for the future direction of their country.

Winston Churchill had bargained with Stalin to keep Greece under Western control and out of the post-war communist Balkans, and was personally determined to restore the monarchy, while US military intervention ensured that the republican forces were defeated.

Throughout this period Greece was also on the brink of bankruptcy. In debt since the war of independence, which was financed by British loans, it had been bankrupt in 1843, and subject to international supervision since 1856, which was formalised in 1897, with an International financial commission to control Greek finances, which remained in place until 1936.

All these factors underline that Greece has always been subject to force majeure in the form of political, financial and, where necessary, military interference and control. Neither the monarchy nor, it seems, the republic has been able to take Greek fortunes into its own hands.

A further irritant to the idea of Greece being able to control its own affairs has been the ongoing refugee crisis. Greece itself has received more than 1.3 million refugees from the Middle East. It is the sharp point of the continent. Yet, ironically, it has sought, but not received, appropriate aid from the EU. So force majeure has its downside. Somehow Greece is at fault for having a porous coastline of nearly 14,000km.

Constantine was related to many royal families of Europe, including King Charles III of Britain – he was godfather to the now heir to the British throne Prince William. His funeral, on January 16th, was attended by many of his royal relatives, including the kings of Spain and Sweden, the queen of Denmark, Princess Anne of Britain, representatives of the royal families of Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Norway, and the former royal families of Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia. These isolated figures at the funeral seemed like a last throw of the dice for their part in history.

No modern state – except, perhaps, China and the US – can claim complete sovereignty, but Greece’s experience in the past 200 years has underlined that it is not only monarchs who have uneasy heads, especially in a globalised world where capital is king.