For Greece’s Economy, Geography Was Destiny
By ROBERT D. KAPLAN
Published: April 24, 2010
THE debt crisis that caused Greece to ask for an international bailout on Friday has been attributed to many things, all economic: Greece’s budget deficits, its lack of transparency and its over-the-top corruption, symbolized by the words “fakelaki,” for envelopes containing bribes, and “rousfeti,” political favors. But there is a deeper cause for the Greek crisis that no one dares mention because it implies an acceptance of fate: geography. Greece is where the historically underdeveloped worlds of the Mediterranean and the Balkans overlap, and this has huge implications for its politics and economy. For northern Europe to include a country like Greece in its currency union is a demonstration of how truly ambitious the European project has been all along. Too ambitious, perhaps, many Germans and other Northern Europeans are now thinking. That Europe’s problem economies — Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal — are all in the south is no accident. Mediterranean societies, despite their innovations in politics (Athenian democracy and the Roman Republic) were, in the words of the 20th-century French historian Fernand Braudel, defined by “traditionalism and rigidity.” The relatively poor quality of Mediterranean soils favored large holdings that were, perforce, under the control of the wealthy. This contributed to an inflexible social order, in which middle classes developed much later than in northern Europe, and which led to economic and political pathologies like statism and autocracy. It’s no surprise that for the last half-century Greek politics have been dominated by two families, the Karamanlises and the Papandreous. It is also no accident that the budding European super-state of our era is concentrated in Europe’s medieval core, with Charlemagne’s capital city, Aix-la-Chapelle (now Aachen, Germany), still at its geographic center — close by the European...
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