Mission & Name
US Foreign Policy (Dr. El-Najjar's Articles)
Lessons Learned from the Greek Financial Tragedy
By Uri Avnery
Al-Jazeerah, CCUN, June
To be Greek
EVERYBODY HAS already
voiced his (or her) opinion on the Greek crisis, whether he (or she) has
an opinion or not. So I feel obliged to do the same.
The crisis is
immensely complicated. However, it looks to me quite simple.
Greeks spent more than they earned. The creditors, in their incredible
impertinence, want their money back. The Greeks have no money, and anyhow,
their pride does not allow them to pay.
So what to do? Every
commentator, from Nobel prize-winning economists to my taxi driver in Tel
Aviv, has a solution. Unfortunately, no one listens to them.
Angela Merkel and Alexis Tsipras go on fighting World War II. But the
relations between the two nations played a role in my family long before
AS A boy, my father was a pupil in a German "humanist" high
school. In these schools, pupils learned Latin and ancient Greek instead
of English and French. So I heard Latin and Greek sayings before I went to
school and learned Latin myself – for half a year before we fortunately
left Germany for Palestine in 1933.
Educated Germans admired the
Romans. The Romans were straight-minded people who made laws and obeyed
them, almost like the Germans themselves.
Germans loved the
ancient Greeks and despised them. As their most important poet, Wolfgang
von Goethe, said: "Das Griechenvolk, es taugte nie recht viel" – the Greek
people never amounted to very much.
The Greeks invented freedom,
something the ancient Hebrews did not even dream of. The Greeks invented
democracy. In Athens, everybody (except slaves, women, barbarians and
other inferior folk) took part in public discussions and decision-making.
This did not leave them much time to work.
That was the way my
father looked at them, and this is the way decent Germans look at them
now. Nice people to have around on vacation, but not serious people to do
business with. Too lazy. Too life-loving.
I suspect that these
ingrained attitudes influence the opinions of German leaders and voters
now. They certainly influence the attitudes of Greek leaders and voters
towards Germany. To hell with them and their obsession with law and order.
I HAVE stayed several times in Greece, and always liked the
My wife, Rachel, loved the island of Hydra and took me
there. To find a ship to go there from Piraeus was quite an ordeal. That
was of course before the internet. Every shipping agency had a timetable
for its boats, but there did not exist a general timetable. That would
have been too orderly, too German. (If Piraeus had been Haifa, there would
have been an all-inclusive timetable in every shop window.)
invited to several international conferences in Athens. One was presided
over by the wonderful Melina Mercouri, so intelligent and so beautiful,
who served at the time as a cabinet minister. It concerned Mediterranean
culture, and was mixed with a lot of good food and folk dances. I once
helped to host Mikis Theodorakis in Tel Aviv.
So I have no
prejudices against the Greeks. On the contrary. Before the last Greek
elections I received an e-mail message from a person I did not know,
asking me to sign an international statement of support for the Syriza
party. After reading the material, I did. I sympathize with their heroic
I am reminded of
the "Sailors' Revolt" in Israel in the early 1950s. It was an uprising
against the governing bureaucracy. I supported it with all my heart and
was even arrested for a few hours. When it all ended in a glorious defeat,
I met a famous leftist general and expected to be lauded. He said: "Only
fools start a struggle they cannot win!"
It boils down to this:
the Greeks owe a lot of money. A huge lot of money. It is now immaterial
how this huge debt came about, and who is to blame. Europe (the very name
is Greek) has no chance of getting the billions back. But they'll be
damned if they will pour more money into this bottomless pit. How can
Greece survive without more money?
I don't know. I strongly
suspect that no one else does, either. Including the Nobel Prize
FOR ME, the most important aspect of the disaster is
the future of the two great experiments: the European Union and the Euro
When the European idea gained ground on the continent
after the fratricidal World War II, there was a great debate about its
future contours. Some proposed something like the United States of Europe,
a federal union on the lines of the USA. Charles de Gaulle, a very
influential voice at the time, objected strenuously and proposed l'Europe
des Nations, a much more loose confederation.
Much the same debate
took place in America before the final decision to create the United
States, and again at the time of the civil war. In the end, the
federalists won, and the confederate flags are being burned even now.
In Europe, de Gaulle's idea won. There was no strong will to
create a united European state. National governments were ready, after
some years, to create a union of independent states, which grudgingly
transferred some sovereign powers to the super-government in Brussels.
(Why Brussels? Because Belgium is a small country. Neither Germany
nor France was ready to allow the union's capital to be located in either
of them. It reminds one of the Biblical King David, who moved his capital
to Jerusalem, which belonged to no tribe, so as to avoid the jealousy
between the powerful tribes of Judah and Ephraim.)
bureaucracy seems to be heartily hated by all, but its power is inexorably
growing. Modern reality favors larger and larger units. No future for
This brings us to the Euro. The European idea led
to the formation of a huge bloc, in which a common currency could flow
freely. To a layman like me, it seemed like a wonderful idea. I don't
remember a single prominent economist warning against it.
is easy to say that the Euro bloc was flawed from the beginning. Even I
understand that you cannot have a single currency when each member state
shapes its national budget according to its own whims and political
That is the fundamental difference between a
federation and a confederation. How would the USA operate if each of its
50 member states ran its own economy independently of the other 49?
As the economists teach us now, something like the Euro crisis cannot
happen in the US. If the state of Alabama is in bad financial shape, all
the other states step in automatically. The central bank (or Federal
Reserve) simply shuffles money around. No problem.
crisis arises from the fact that the Euro is not based on such a
federation. The Greek economic breakdown would have been stopped by the
European central bank long before it had reached the present point. Money
would have flowed from Brussels to Athens without anybody even noticing.
Tsipras could have embraced Merkel in her chancellery and happily
announced "Ich bin ein Berliner!" (I can't really imagine Merkel going to
Athens and proclaiming "Ich bin eine Griechin!")
lesson of the crisis is that the creation of a currency union presupposes
a readiness of all member states to give up their economic independence. A
country that is not prepared to do so cannot join such a union. Each
country can keep its precious football team, and even its sacred flag, but
its national budget must be subject to the joint economic
Today that is quite clear. Unfortunately, it was
not clear to the founders of the Euro bloc.
In this respect, a
giant nation like China has a huge advantage. It is not even a federation,
but in practice a unitary state, with a unitary currency.
states, like Israel, lack the economic security of belonging to a large
union, but enjoy the advantage of being able to maneuver freely, and to
fix our currency, the Shekel, according to our interests. If export prices
are too high, you just devalue. As long as your credit rating is high
enough, you can do what you want.
Fortunately, nobody invited us
to join the Euro bloc. The temptation would have been too strong.
THIS BEING so, we can follow the Greek crisis with some equanimity.
But for those of us who believe that after achieving peace with the
Palestinian people and the entire Arab world, Israel must become a part of
some kind of a regional confederation, this is an instructive lesson.
I wrote about this even before the State of Israel was born, calling for a
"Semitic Union". It probably won't happen while I am still around, but I
am fairly sure that it will come about before the end of this century.
It cannot happen while the economic gap between Israel and the Arab
countries is as immense as it is now – with per capita income 25 times
higher in Israel than in Palestine and many Arab countries. But once the
Arab world overcomes its present turmoil, they can hope for rapid
progress, as is happening in Turkey and Muslim countries in East Asia.
Sometime in the not too remote future, in historical terms, the world
will consist of large economic units striving to create a working economic
world order, with a joint currency.
It may seem silly to think
about this in the present situation. But it's never too early to think.
Always remembering what Socrates said: "The only true wisdom is in
knowing that you know nothing."
Share this article with your facebook friends