The Birthright of the Beggars and a free Turkish Delight
By Alfred B. Mittington
Je ne veux point de ses secours, ils sont trop chers...
[I want none of his relief; it's too expensive…]
Diderot: 'Jacques le Fataliste'
Some 20 years ago, while touring the Greek island of Lesbos, I was staying in a charming no-star boarding-house in Mytilini town.
Here I befriended a Greek fellow guest. He was perfectly pleasant. A medical student, he spoke fluent English and respectable German. He’d read and travelled widely, understood the human psyche, was outgoing and hospitable. In short: the kind of native person you simply love to meet on any of your travels. But then one afternoon, as we were drinking beer on the hotel terrace, I peeped into the newspaper he was reading and my eye caught a cartoon in which a huge crocodile emerging from Western Turkey was opening its fangs to devour a chunk of Greece. I don’t remember what I said exactly, but it was along the lines of: ‘Ay, those newspaper boys really do all they can to keep the enmity alive, don’t they?’
You never saw a chameleon change skin-colour so quickly. In a matter of moments, friendly Dr. Jakalios had turned into Mr Hidios. The Eye of the Basilisk was upon me… The voice chilled, the brow knitted, and he asked in a tone of unconcealed hostile reproach: had I not heard of the hundreds of years of abuse and oppression which the Turks had visited upon the poor Greek people? Of the ongoing torture and massacres in Cyprus? Did I not know Turkey had an army eight times as large as the Greek one on the Ionian coast alone? And that they divided their quality time equally between preparing for invasion and performing provocations?
It was frankly a little scary. And it was only then that I grasped how deep the hatred between Greece and Turkey really goes.
Had I not seen the metamorphosis of my Mytilini friend, I wouldn’t have understood another scene I witnessed a few years later. At the time I’d been hired to sit in and say wise things at a European Union congress of cultural youth discount cards (Yes, dear reader, the shameless whoring a fellow does to keep body and soul together!) It all went splendidly well: the cocktails, the lavish dinners, the luxury shopping and expense accounts, the interminable discussion about design and common colour of the various national cards, the extramarital hanky-panky in corridors and bedrooms after hours… There was only one little incident… When the mammoth team got to speak of possible extensions of membership (a favourite theme among Beurocrats as we know), the Greek representative jumped up to demand that the Youth Discount Card of the Turkish Cypriots be excluded from membership of the forum (even before they had ever applied for it), because of the ongoing torture and massacres, the hundreds of years of abuse and oppression, the outsized Turkish army, the preparations and the provocations, in short: because Turkey had broken Human Rights. It didn’t occur to anyone present to point out that if torture and past sins against Human Rights were really a measure for membership, the next meeting of this fine forum would consist of Luxemburg alone. For the fact was that England had an ugly slate in Belfast, France in Algeria, Holland in New Guinea, Spain in the Basque Country, Italy in Ethiopia, Belgium in the Congo and Germany… Oh well, Germany… (Note Bene: the wisest man on the horse-shoe table wisely held his mouth shut, because he liked those expense accounts and had been promised special favours from a particularly striking young Dutch cultural manager at the next meeting in Helsinki, when her present side-kick would not attend… )
Instead the request was granted out of hand and without discussion, full of understanding for the legitimate Greek position. The Turkish-Cypriot Youth Culture Discount Card was barred from joining a priori and in perpetuity. Never mind the fact that these idealistic, cultural forums might well function as ping-pong diplomacy in the quest to built bridges and understanding between the nations etc, etc, etc…
This was the late 1980s. And the question is whether a similar thing would happen again today. Well, I doubt it not a little. As I predicted some weeks ago: the Germans and Dutch and a few more soft-spoken European partners recently baulked at the prospect of bailing out fraudulent, overspending, inefficient Greece, and Mrs Merkel has unexpectedly emerged from the chrysalis of Angelic Europhilia as a bumble bee version of the Iron Lady. Good show Mrs Merkel! Pity it comes 10 years too late, but still, it counts!
Naturally, the Greeks, and the Spaniards, and the Italians, and the Portuguese President of the Commission, in short: all of the Club Med Bigwigs banking on the Brussels’ Manger are shouting scandal now. They are furious and indignant that no further alms are forthcoming without strings attached. How can such a cruel, mean and senseless thing be?
Quote: ‘Many forces forget the political importance of the euro and overlook the essence of the political vision of the European project, which is a joint effort to develop our economy with a calm and stable climate. This could end up destabilizing the EU and leading us in the opposite direction to that of those who inspired and created a united Europe and its common currency.’ So Mr Papandreou, Prime Minister of Greece in recent weeks.
Oh, but what tremendous sense of responsibility all of a sudden! What statesmanship! What vision! What probity! What conscientious Europeans we suddenly turn out to be…! Of course, we heard nothing of such idealism, sacrifice for the common dream, and unshakeable responsibility when it came to cooking the books, lying to your partners, wasting golden opportunities and overspending to your heart’s delight; that Greek misbehaviour which took us into the financial danger zone in the first place. That, the northern taxpayer must understand, is the Birthright of the Beggars. This outbreak of indignation is really no different from a burglar complaining that a child has put a padlock on his piggy-bank! How dare you deprive an honest thief of his daily bread! Don’t you know that I have children to feed, you little brat?
Compared with this, Italian PM Berlusconi, always good for a sturdy dose of truth-telling, was at least more straightforward. He told reporters that if ‘within the European Union there is no willingness to help a country which has the euro currency and is in the middle of a crisis, then the European Union has no reason to exist.’ As I predicted some weeks ago: the southern mendicants regard the sharing of northern wealth as a natural right within the continental family.
Of course, reality being what it is, the Club Med need not worry unduly. Greece will be bailed out, one way or another, before it goes bust or after the markets declare it bankrupt. Europe simply cannot afford such a debacle. It would bleed itself white if it did. That is the good news for Greece and the other pining Mediterraneans.
But there is bad news too. Mrs Merkel’s tough, uncompromising stand has shown that northern patience is over; and that Greece has lost clout. Not just a little, but a towering heap of it. Where Protestant nations might still have forgiven the Greeks their innate inefficiency, they will never forgive inefficiency combined with deliberate fraud. For many, many, many years to come, the Greek will get cold shoulders. They will be held in contempt. Their demands, their wishes, their opinion will be gleefully ignored. As good old Jacques remarked: charity always comes at a very high price…
And that is where we get back to Turkey, and its bid for entry into the European Union. As the above Cultural Anecdote shows: Greek repugnance of Turkey previously found many a willing ear in the European community. If it didn’t amount to an outright veto, Greece’s opposition to anything Turkish got pretty close to it. But it won’t any more. Ever. Which opens a sweet little window of opportunities for Mr Erdogan, wilful, cunning, and extremely able Prime Minister of Turkey. In the past, Mr Erdogan had to battle on various fronts to secure the entry of his country into the EU. There were financial worries over the cost of Solidarity Funds to such a vast and underdeveloped land as Turkey. There were frowns about Turkey’s military traditions and about extending the EU borders deep into the hotbed of the Middle East. There were the growing worries over Islamisation within Europe, voiced particularly by President Sarkozy. And there was the ever-present hostility of Greece to any such entry.
Today, two of those battles have been quietly fought and won. The Greek fury no longer sails the European skies, dropping its bile onto Turkish pates. Mr Sarkozy himself has just suffered quite a defeat over a possible EMF, biting the dust in the battle of wills with Die Eiserne Angela… And that bit about Turkey’s trigger-happy military traditions? Ow, look how smart Mr Erdogan is! Only yesterday, March 28, a restless and still rustless Iron Angela went on a state visit to Ankara. And what does she hear first thing on arrival?
She hears Egemen Bagis, Turkey’s chief negotiator with the EU, saying that Germany and France should stop pressing the Greek government to buy weaponry from them, because Greece cannot afford it, and because that would not be in the interest of peace. ‘Mr. Bagis said that to help Greece escape its “economic disaster” and reduce regional tensions, Ankara would reciprocate if the Greeks froze or cut defence procurement.’ He added: ‘Greece doesn’t need new tanks or missiles or submarines or fighter planes. Neither does Turkey. It’s time to cut military expenditure throughout the world, but especially between Turkey and Greece.’ [Stephen Castle, Turkey faults France and Germany on arms sales to Greece, NYT and digital IHT, 29 March 2010]
Oh, ain’t she a beauty!!! With Greece against the ropes, if not breathless on the mat, ready to be kicked senseless, Ankara expresses, not triumphant glee, but… its profound desire for Peace! Who can resist this? Who can say no to such an exemplary nation!? Certainly not Mrs Merkel, who for all her misgivings over Turkish-language schools on German soil, still has to keep in mind that huge Turkish electorate back home. Nor Mr Zapatero of course, who – labouring under the infallible certitude that Muslims love him as much as he loves Muslims - is a staunch friend of the Turks and the Alliance of Civilisations. The Dutch perhaps? Why, shit, them muddymen don’t matter! The English then? The English know the Middle East too well to overlook that sturdy Turkey, land of immense weight and potential, poised on the very fault line of three cultural blocks, if kept out of the EU, will have no choice but throw its weight in with Russia or with the Arab world. Both of which are extremely unappetising alternatives in today’s geo-politics. And yes, even fight-the-headscarves Mr Sarkozy will surely remember what the Emperor Napoleon said when the Russian Tsar hinted he might occupy the Dardanelles: ‘Give you Constantinople? Never! It is the Key to the World!’
The Turkish Crocodile, in short, may soon be turned into soft, patent leather slippers in which the European Union strolls confidently into the rosy future…
We are living in Interesting Times, dear reader… Bring out, I say, the Waterpipe of Peace, for it will soon grow Brussels Sprouts!
Alfred B Mittington
Author of ‘The Gall of Gallipoli’ (Norwich, 1953)