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Will Geography Kill Greece and Europe?

April 25, 2010

Robert Kaplan, in his usual provocative fashion, claims that the historical and geographic divides between northern and southern Europe could tear the EU apart:

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 Union power nexus of Brussels, The Hague, Maastricht in Holland and Strasbourg, France. This stretch of land, the spinal column of Old World civilization, is Europe’s richest sea and land interface.

One nit worth picking here is that Kaplan’s “spinal column” of economic power arguably stretches down into Italy, where north-south disparity divides the country itself. Padania is wealthier and less corrupt than the Italian south, and northern movements for autonomy and secession have lately been on the rise. Nevertheless, Kaplan continues, beginning to add cultural and political factors, and thus some more depth to his argument:

To see just how much geography and old empires shape today’s Europe, look at how former Communist Eastern Europe has turned out: the countries in the north, heirs to Prussian and Hapsburg traditions — Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary — have performed much better economically than the heirs to Byzantium and Ottoman Turkey: Romania, Bulgaria, Albania and Greece. And the parts of the former Yugoslavia that were under Hapsburg influence, Slovenia and Croatia, have surged ahead of their more Turkish neighbors, Serbia, Kosovo and Macedonia. The breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991, at least initially, mirrored the divisions between Rome and Byzantium…

Central Europe, cleft from the West during the cold war, is the continent’s universal joint: a fact that puts the responsibility for surmounting the politics of historical division squarely on the shoulders of a united Germany.

Germans should realize that Greece, with only 11 million people, nevertheless remains the ultimate register of Europe’s health. It is the only part of the Balkans accessible on several seaboards to the Mediterranean, is roughly equidistant from Brussels and Moscow, and is as close to Russia culturally as to Europe by virtue of its Eastern Orthodox Christianity. In a century that will likely see a resurgent Russia put pressure on Europe, especially on the former Soviet satellite states in the east, the state of politics in Athens will say much about the success or failure of the European project.

The good news is that northern Europeans know this, and will not let Greece fail. Indeed, to let Greece drift politically eastward would forfeit any hope of a big and inclusive Europe — geographically, politically and culturally — in favor of a small and petty one, Charlemagne’s empire pretending to be Rome.

So by way of geographic determinism, we get to today’s situation – where Germany must lead an economic effort to bail out Greece and restore confidence to the European project. Kaplan has a rosier view of the world by the end of the piece, but overall its line of logic makes me more skeptical of Greece’s ability to recover. Greece, like the other south-eastern polities Kaplan mentions, is also prone to foreign meddling and faction – it only earned its independence recently in grand-historical terms, and since then it remained a zone of contention between the great powers and ideologies of Western Europe (the UK and then the US) and those of the East (Russia and then the USSR) until the end of the military junta. Since Italy, Spain, and Portugal all suffered through higher levels of internal strife and longer periods of authoritarian rule than most of Europe, Kaplan might be on to something here. But these histories of internal political division and foreign meddling, particularly in Greece, might make a Berlin-imposed solution unpopular. Harsh measures imposed in the name of “Europe” might erode the legitimacy of these governments and the European Union. Kaplan seems optimistic Germany will prevent this, but support will not come easy and it is hard to say if Germany would be willing to endure this again if another one of the PIGS were to face a crisis.

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