ATHENS — After almost a decade in Greece, David Horner, president of the American College of Greece, has seen it all: fury at Americans under George W. Bush, near reverence under Barack Obama, and outright dismay now that Donald Trump is president.
“We’ve gone in short order from the outhouse, to the penthouse, to the loony bin,” he told me.
If being an American in Athens has been a rollercoaster in recent years, try being Greek. The economy has shrunk by a quarter. Youth unemployment has devastated a generation. Life for many has become an exercise in survival. Without the cushions of sun, family, remittances and a deep civilization, there would have been violent mayhem. This has been a drawn-out Great Depression.
My sense now is that if Greece hasn’t precisely turned a corner, the worst is over. There have been two consecutive quarters of growth — at 0.5 percent, but still. A bond offering in July, the first in several years, found a responsive market. Tourism has boomed, thanks in part to troubles in Turkey and Egypt. The third international bailout is set to expire in mid-2018. Greece’s humiliating tutelage, the source of anti-German outbursts, may soon end.
But the real clues are not the numbers. Tension, once palpable in the streets, has eased. People are inured. They’ve seen everything — a far-right storm, shuttered banks, a referendum vote to reject creditor-imposed austerity that was promptly ignored, governments of every political hue — and survived.
The latest twist has seen the leftist government of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, the Marxist anti-austerity firebrand of yore, lurch toward the center, call unabashedly for the foreign investment Greece needs, and embrace the United States.
Tsipras, I hear, has taken to calling America his “strategic partner.” He’s angling for a visit with Trump (who may not like the fact that the young Greek leader and Obama bonded). He’s trying to steal the thunder of Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the charismatic, Harvard-educated leader of the opposition New Democracy party, by discovering the merits of private enterprise.
That’s not an easy sell for Tsipras, who, at 43, is a formidable political maneuverer. The public sector remains bloated; old Greek habits of cronyism and nepotism are too encrusted to extirpate. The civil servants’ union is up in arms over the outrageous notion that public employees should be subjected to a performance evaluation. That’s deemed “divisive.” I guess it could be.
An enduring symbol of Greek bureaucratic inertia is the vast Elliniko area in southern Athens once occupied by the airport. Its fate has been discussed for more than a decade. This could be one of Europe’s biggest real estate projects but every time agreement is reached on private investment, another obstacle arises, most recently objections from the Central Archaeological Council and Piraeus forestry authority. There are, one weary observer suggested, some very tall weeds.
In the north, a $3 billion investment — by the Canadian mining company Eldorado Gold — is also in danger of unraveling because of an impasse over permits. Some 2,400 jobs are in play.
If post-populist Tsipras is serious about investment and growth — and they’re the only way forward for Greece — he needs to show he can break the logjam. But his coalition is still paralyzed somewhere between ideology and pragmatism.
Still, in a turbulent neighborhood, through a disaster rarely seen outside wartime, with more than one million refugees transiting the country in recent years (and tens of thousands still there), Greece has held — and held with generosity. That is remarkable. I salute Greece.
There’s more behind the stability than the sun, family, remittances and civilization I mentioned. Geoffrey Pyatt, the American ambassador, told me he went to the island of Rhodes last month and met with Giorgos Hadjimarkos, the South Aegean Regional Governor. A United States troop ship with 300 Marines on board was docked. As discussion turned to the challenges in the area, Hadjimarkos walked to the window, opened the drapes, and, pointing to the ship, said: “Ambassador, the best way to assure Greece’s strategic direction sits right there in the harbor.”
Greek anti-Americanism, once virulent, has gone out of vogue. Old institutions, set up after World War II, have been mocked by Trump. But they have come through during the Greek crisis. Without NATO, without the European Union, the possibility of a catastrophic Greek lurch into chaos would have been much higher. Trump should stick a sign above his bed: “The European Union is a peace magnet.”
Of course, Greek participation in the euro, a currency improbably shared with Germany, was behind the crisis; and the European Union was one of the institutions imposing the austerity that wreaked havoc. But in the end, Greeks were reassured by their European Union passports and by the knowledge that they live now in a wider framework of peace and stability.
A powerful lesson of the crisis is Europe’s resilience. The commitment of countries like Greece and France to the European Union is strong — more so since the British decision to leave. Romance, not reason, lay behind Greece’s miguided inclusion in the euro, but the romance had a kernel of truth: Greece is central to the European idea.