“Most things in Greece are controversial” – and it was a
Greek who said it, Pausanias,
writing in the Second Century.
Little has changed. The long-predicted implosion of the Greeks’ economy –
and the prospect of the same happening in Spain and Italy, among other places –
has left their more prudent European Union partners angry and frustrated at
having to pick up the bill.
Hard-working Germans, previously staunch defenders of
European unity, are beginning to complain about writing blank cheques to pay
for the inefficiencies of the Mediterranean states. The Greeks, for their part,
could have been far more diplomatic in response: instead of a humble admission
of error and expression of gratitude for German support, the suggestion has
been made that the Germans still owe them for Word War Two!
Such differences in national attitudes were always the
underlying weakness of the European project, but it took the pressure of a recession
to make the cracks visible.
Yet recent events should not be taken as confirming the old
cliché that feckless Mediterranean people lack the work ethic of Northern
Europeans. On the contrary, Greek, Spanish, and Italian entrepreneurs have
travelled all over the world, succeeding in business precisely because they
were willing to work harder than most locals.
Northerners are perhaps misled when they visit the
Mediterranean and see people dozing in the afternoon. That is in fact only
common sense given the heat of the sun around midday. The same people often work
long into the night.
The Mediterranean offers a lot of opportunities for
entrepreneurs. True, over-valuation and over-expansion was always going to lead
to a property crash, but the potential for longer term development remains.
Demand for a place in the sun with all the amenities of modern life is not going
to decrease in the years ahead.
It just has to be accepted that doing business in the Med
means playing by different rules – or ignoring the rules altogether because
they have become so unworkable that it is almost accepted that they no longer
apply. Restrictive labour practices, featherbedded state sectors, and
over-regulation around the Mediterranean may be shocking even by the standards
of Germany and the UK, but they cannot last forever.
Indeed, they have endured only because of the way the EU and
the euro are structured give no incentive to change. Knowing that German blank
cheque was there for them, it was only to be expected the Greeks would cash it.
Pausanias again: “When a man has his eye on money, his own advantage comes
before the gods’” – or before the EU.