Welcome to Greece (but Not to Europe)

Europe’s efforts to exclude Athens aren’t about migration or debt. They’re about the continent’s deep-seated racism toward its southern frontier state.


Last month, Greece found itself once again facing expulsion from the club. Not, this time, from the single-currency eurozone and not (for the moment) from the European Union. This time it was from the club of Schengen countries, the nation states that once agreed to dissolve the internal boundaries that impeded mobility among them and at the same time constitute themselves as a gated community, built to exclude migrants and vagrants from distant lands. Even if, as it now seems likely, the move does not go through, the fact that it was even suggested shows the fragility of Greece’s hold on its European credentials: The country’s status as the spiritual ancestor of Europe has not protected it from accusations that it’s really just a misplaced remnant of “the orient.”

Schengen once seemed like a hermetic system: sealed, internally fluid, and unbreakable. But that was before the Syrian conflict sent a veritable flood of migrants in search of a haven into Europe. For many of the new arrivals, Greece was the first point of entry. For the second time in its history — the first was after the disastrous war Greece fought with Turkey between 1920 and 1922 — Greece faces a refugee flood that threatens to overwhelm its already strained resources. The previous wave, however, consisted of people who were considered ethnically Greek. True, some of them spoke not a word of Greek; under the terms of the Treaty of Lausanne, they were classified as Greek because they were Orthodox Christians. But they could all claim a legal and sentimental affinity with a land that welcomed them, albeit conditionally, as suffering brethren.

This time, circumstances are different. Greece, already dangerously at odds with its EU partners over the seemingly intractable debt crisis, is bearing the brunt of an influx of people with no such affective or ethnic claims to Europe. To the north, panic-stricken (and panic-inflaming) rightists are demanding walls — walls on the Greek border with Macedonia, walls on the border separating Hungary from Croatia, walls and guards wherever the porous European frontiers appear to be leaking. The EU, for its part, seems content to countenance Middle Eastern asylum-seekers’ presence in Greece, but only if they travel no further.

There is more than mere crisis management at work here. The present crisis has exposed the exclusionary logic at the heart of not just the Schengen system, but also the European Union. It has also exposed Greece’s tenuous cultural membership in that project.

Schengen’s eradication of Europe’s internal borders was premised on the idea of shared external boundaries, the geographic location of which might be subject to change, but the cultural definition of which was not. Bosnia and Turkey — two predominantly Muslim states whose aspirations to join the EU have been met with vociferous opposition from many member states — have always sat entirely outside these boundaries. Greece — often treated as a not-quite-European remnant of the Ottoman Empire, its Orthodox Christianity regarded as something exotic and vaguely out of touch with the European mainstream — has always sat within them, but uncomfortably. From Lord Byron’s famous gibe (“fair Greece! sad relic of departed worth!”) and 19th-century travelers’ accounts, which dwell on the exotic character of the country and the ignorance and “superstition” of the local priests, to more recent attempts, such as Samuel Huntington’s influential The Clash of Civilizations, to show that Orthodox Christianity is somehow different from and incompatible with Western values, Greece has always appeared stretched between two mutually contradictory poles: Europe’s venerated ancestor and the continent’s unpredictable and exotic southern boundary.

(As it happens, this image of Greece as an ancient wellspring of European civilization was largely written by German and other western and northern European scholars; however, when Martin Bernal, the late British scholar, challenged that image in his monumental Black Athena, he encountered a storm of criticism both from Western classicists confronted with a radical re-reading of the past and from middle-class Greeks for whom the purity of Greekness had seemed their one secure lien on a European heritage.)

Greeks use the word “Europe” in ways that, according to context, either include or exclude themselves. When it is being used to exclude them, their usage conveys a long-standing sense of deep hurt. Dependent on the goodwill of Western nations that have repeatedly humiliated them by supporting corrupt or repressive governments, they experience their current difficulties with the EU and Schengen as a continuation of their second-class status in world and regional affairs.

At the same time, the wave of asylum-seekers has prompted a revival in Greece of the exclusionary politics of blood. Ultra-rightist elements in Greece, for instance, such as the neo-fascist Golden Dawn party, draw on this ancient imagery of blood to argue that only those of “Greek blood” should receive the benefits of citizenship. This argument of blood is a very old idea in Europe. Even the Nazis’ use of it was not new; they reached, as anthropologists have shown, into a long-lost Indo-European past, in which the symbol of blood was widely treated as the basis of an identity based on common descent. In Greece, the same symbolism has tremendous resonance. Those who share common blood are expected to feel deep affection for each other; “the blood boils,” and, as a result, quarrels flare up.

But the countries that would like to consider themselves more rational and scientific, Germany prominent among them, are no more immune to the appeal of this rhetoric. Germany, no less than Greece, has entertained policies of a right to “return” for their German-speaking brethren from quite distant places, notably Russia. And so, behind the bureaucratic rationality invoked to justify treaty agreements like Schengen have always lurked these same assumptions, which are now being brought to the fore.

In the current panic about refugees, Greece’s exclusion from Schengen could be expediently justified by the EU’s “core” countries as a way of keeping out the riff-raff. Even if the country is not excluded from Schengen on paper, measures to harden the border could be taken that effectively kick it out in practice. Particularly if a physical wall goes up along Greece’s northern border, like the one currently under construction, Greece could then be told: “It’s your problem, not ours.”

But the word “ours” would reinforce the ambiguity that the term “Europe” has for Greeks. They would then have to take sole responsibility for preventing the deaths that occur in the difficult sea passage across the Mediterranean Sea. Excluding Greece would also have powerful symbolic implications: It would cast the Greeks back into their erstwhile role as slightly less-than-white and less-than-European outsiders, a buffer zone between the West and the Rest. Such implications are not trivial. Racist stereotypes of scruffy, dark-complexioned ruffians, images that occasionally surface in cartoons in the Western press, provide an implicit justification for the further economic isolation of Greece, with dire consequences for its already precarious workforce.

Those in Europe contemplating the exclusion of Greece would no doubt prefer to forget that many of its present problems can be traced to its decades-long client-like dependence on the West. As the reward for their Cold War support of Western interests, Greek politicians were allowed to continue their electorally advantageous patronage of the poor, excluding those of leftist leanings and ensuring a largely docile rightist patriotism, even — or especially — among the fierce mountain dwellers of western Crete. (It is no coincidence that many of the most adept managers of patron-client ties came from that part of the country.) And many of the bribes that are now held up as proof of Greece’s endemic corruption came from German corporate and even government sources, resuscitating a Western-protected cultural dependence on Germany that goes back to the Anglo-British installation of the German King Othon (Otto) on the Greek throne in 1832. Past history reveals much about current patterns of power and prejudice.

If Greece remains solidly within EU structures, it can more easily probe that history. It can ask disturbing questions, such as why Germany refuses to pay reparations for the appalling damage done to Greece during the occupation in World War II, or why Greece’s elected government can be treated as a legitimate target for the machinations of unelected bankers and bureaucrats whose countries are directly implicated in the very corruption scandals of which they accuse Greece. Inside Schengen, moreover, Greece can directly answer charges that it is not doing enough to stem the refugee tide, rather than be treated as a lost cause.

Booting Greece out would change all that. And the prejudice that Greece is itself un-European will be reinforced. We can be sure that those European leaders who want to see Greece outside Schengen would fervently deny racist intent. Perhaps, for some of them individually, such protestations would be sincere. But the effect would be abundantly clear: The alleged birthplace of democracy will be treated as an anomaly, a foreign growth on the European body politic.

And Europe itself will quickly discover that such collective self-mutilation does not advance democratic causes. Instead, by rejecting the right of Greeks to call themselves true Europeans and reproducing humiliations already experienced many times in the past, it opens the doors to the fascism represented by Golden Dawn: a fascism bred in resentment, born of a perceived racism in Europe’s treatment of Greece, an ideology of hate and exclusion brought suddenly, terrifyingly, back from the grave to offer a far greater menace to Greece — but also to Europe as a whole — than the most swollen migrant tide could possibly create.

Photo credit: Milos Bicanski/Getty Images

Michael Herzfeld is the Ernest E. Monrad professor of the social sciences in the Department of Anthropology at Harvard University.

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