Greece crisis: The eurozone can never match China in unity or stability

Alas for the Greeks, their hopes for salvation ran up against neo-Ottoman realities of fudge, fix and muddle

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On Apostle Paul Street in Thessaloniki, a little bit of Turkey shelters behind a tall metal fence. It does so both literally, since the Turkish consulate does business from this plot in Greece’s second city, and spiritually.

In a restored Ottoman mansion, now a museum, Zübeyde, wife of a lowly clerk called Ali Riza, gave birth to a son in 1881. Hagiolatry – a good Greek word: the worship of saints – more or less sums up the way this shrine portrays the boy’s life.

Mustafa Kemal, later Atatürk, would grow up to join the revolutionary Young Turks and to humble Churchill at Gallipoli. From the debris of the Ottoman Empire, he built modern Turkey. The multi-cultural hub of Salonica, meanwhile, fell to the Greek army in the Balkan Wars of 1912. It lost its Muslims in a population-transfer treaty and – under German occupation – 45,000 Jews to Auschwitz. Thessaloniki still doesn’t know quite what to do with the handsome mosques and hamams scattered across its urban sprawl.

A century later, we still live in an age of fragile empires that struggle to make their restive provinces obey. Forget the once-mighty US – even though Washington has just woken from its stupor and banged European heads together in order to secure a third Greek deal. After five years of post-crash drift and lurch, the eurozone itself must now stage the climax of its epoch-defining drama. Over the next few years, the outcomes of this weekend’s summit may brand it for posterity either as some benign reincarnation of Augustan Rome – or else as a shambolic heir to the Balkan mish-mash that Sultan Abdul Hamid II failed to rule until, in 1909, Atatürk and his comrades ousted him.

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The neo-imperial woes of the early 21st century do not start and end in Greece. At the eastern end of the Eurasian land-mass, China has seen more than $3trillion wiped off share values in a stock-market meltdown that puts the savings of 90 million small investors at risk. Always more zealous for central control than post-Roman Europe, its government quickly forbade all larger shareholders to sell their assets. Without emergency legislation, no Western state could have flung down such a fiat. A brisk rally has already made up ground.

China’s Communist Party commands a virtual empire more than twice as populous as the EU. From Tibetans and Uighurs to Koreans, it hosts just as many free-spirited minorities around its borders. Fans of Deng Xiaoping’s “socialist market economy” will take this week’s drastic intervention as proof that, now as in the days of the Qing and Ming dynasties, China knows better than the West how to keep a fissiparous super-state together. Yet, even if reversed, the three-week crash has given the authorities a salutary scare. In early July 2015, the emperors of Brussels and Beijing both looked almost naked.

In China, this embarrassment may prove a temporary glitch. Lacking any equivalent of the “Mandate of Heaven” – the Chinese ideal of popular legitimacy – the eurozone will stand exposed for a good deal longer. And its plight stems as much from long-term history as from short-term finance. Even the number-blind will have absorbed some of the scary statistics of Greece’s indebtedness and slump. Less straightforward than a $320bn debt mountain or a 25 per cent drop in GDP are the echoes of the past that still resound through its fractious dialogue with creditors. Until the 1900s, large chunks of Greek territory – from Thrace to Rhodes – came under the sway of one moribund empire. Now it frets on the margins of another imperium.

Naturally the Greeks, who inhabit the ancient crucible of European democracy, resent and resist diktats handed down from Brussels. Ottomans apart, they have – so the national story runs – suffered to throw off Nazis, Italians and Colonels, then to re-join the Europe they invented. As the fascist junta fell in 1974, protestors chanted a lyric by poet-diplomat George Seferis (“Denial”) about the sacrifices that freedom demands: “With what spirit, what heart, what desire and passion, we lived our life. A mistake! So we changed our life.”

The new life meant Europe. Alas for the Greeks, their hopes for salvation through re-integration ran up against the neo-Ottoman realities of fudge, fix and muddle in Athens and Brussels alike. Like some lazy and indulgent pasha, the EU connived at Greece joining the eurozone on the back of fiddled figures, and with a standard of public administration that Atatürk’s generation of reformers would have found medieval. In his hair-raisingly perceptive book about the Greek crisis and its origins, The Thirteenth Labour of Hercules, Yannis Palaiologos writes that “if Kafka had been Greek, his masterpiece would probably have been entitled The Tax Office”.

Until 2010, the effendis of the EU turned a blind eye for the greater good. Then – again following the Ottoman model of laxity punctuated by crackdown – it sent in the fiscal janissaries, in the shape of the Troika, to bully, squeeze and terrorise this delinquent outpost. In the long view of history, the bitter dosage of austerity that salvaged French and German banks at the cost of Greek penury and despair may not look so different to the punitive levies that saw Rumelian peasants pay for palaces beside the Bosphorus. Hence the inevitable Syriza uprising, the referendum’s thumping  Oxi vote, the latest bout of pointless grandstanding by Alexis Tsipras, and finally the tame submission that alone will prevent – or anyway delay – Grexit.

Greece once more chafes against an imperial system from its ragged edges. What has changed since the days of the sultans is that, since 1999, no one at the centre has properly modelled the political upshot of a single currency. No democratic mechanism yet justifies the transfer union required to smooth out the glaring disparities that, even in boom times, will separate Chania from Hamburg. The euro needed its Atatürk. Instead it got Jean-Claude Juncker, who as Luxembourg’s PM had presided over a squalid tax-dodge racket that bloated the profits of Amazon, Starbucks and other US giants.

With Greece forced to bow for a third time, the eurozone now acts like an empire that dare not speak its name. Advocates of “more Europe” dream that the Greek convulsions will kick-start progress towards a full-dress political union from Donegal to Limassol. But to make it work without a junta of Frankfurt bankers at the helm, it would need some separate eurozone assembly fully empowered by voters in 19 nations to relieve Westmeath at the expense of Westphalia. To say the least: Keine Chance! Lacking in legitimacy, shaken by rebellion, managed by an often self-serving clique, the eurozone now seems a decadent empire – without ever having passed through a phase of maturity.

The euro itself – never forget – enjoyed a sort of post-imperial genesis. A common account suggests that a murky deal in Strasbourg saw France force the euro on Germany – and so kill off the sacred deutschmark – as the price for re-unification. Cartoon history or not (serious analysts dispute it), this scenario at least captures the visceral anxiety across Europe of a Central Power so muscle-bound that it might one day lumber again down the path of 1914 or 1939. Myths reflect genuine fears. Without that dread of a post-1990 German Empire, however unfounded, the eurozone might never have come to pass. Now, under the semi-reluctant hegemony of Berlin, it has stumbled into its own kind of clumsy, late-imperial paternalism.

In China, a Party tabloid reassured readers that the “national team” is on the case to save their nest-eggs. On Thursday and Friday, after much behind-the-scenes arm-twisting, stocks rose by more than 10 per cent – the strongest surge since 2008. However unequal the billion-strong state it oversees, that national team can still rely on the Mandate of Heaven. In Europe, a graveyard of still-twitching empires, no one can yet agree on who should run the team, or where its popular mandate originates. So this weekend’s fix will seal the rule of the metropolis over the periphery in a manner that Europe’s emperors – from Constantine the Great to Abdul Hamid II – would find familiar.

Will it be the last time? Almost certainly not, even though the omens hint at a fresh bail-out and a debt-extension package. In Thessaloniki, a short walk from the Atatürk birthplace, lies the Rotunda. Planned as a mausoleum for the Roman co-emperor Galerius, it morphed into a pagan temple, then a church, then a mosque, then a church again. For 1,700 years, the masterplans of rival empires and creeds have succeeded one another here. What have they left behind? The interior’s quite bare, with the circular walls held up by some frail-seeming scaffolding. Yet – just about – it stands.

Once more, Greece has to wait patiently while its fate is decided in the capital of another ramshackle imperial project. At least it has experience of that. At the close of his poem “Mythistorema”, George Seferis has the dead souls in the underworld observe the living. “We who had nothing,” they promise, “will school them in serenity.”