I have come to Greece in search of sanity over Brexit. Ostensibly it is a symposium to discuss relations between Britain and Greece. But it is also an excuse to step away from the minutiae of the negotiations to think about the future of Europe. It was from Greece, of course, that our continent derived its name — from the mythological Europa who was ravished by Zeus and bore a future king of Crete. One contributor notes dryly that Greece is also not a bad place to think about the rise and fall of empires, the follies of politicians, the failings of institutions and what happens to elites when they become obsessed by Byzantine theological detail. The EU has no monopoly on schism.
This gathering of great and good, organised by the British embassy and Greek businesses, is taking place in Nafplio, a beautiful town on a small peninsula tucked up on the east coast of the Peloponnese. It was here that the Greeks chose to locate their first capital city once they had wrested their independence from the Ottomans in 1830. As I sit in the converted mosque where Greece’s first parliament sat, I am reminded not only that this modern nation state was forged long before the likes of Germany or Italy, but also that there was a time when nationalism gave identity and political expression to millions of people and was not always an excuse for authoritarian barbarity.
Chatham House is the rule of the day, so no names, no pack drill. But common themes emerge. One is the need for more honesty all round. The British government, several people say, needs to be more honest with itself and the 27 member states about what it really wants from Brexit and the trade-offs that this will involve. The rest of the EU should be more honest about the inflexibility of its institutions and its complacent failure to ask searching questions about why its second largest economy has chosen to leave. ‘Without penance it is hard to be forgiven,’ says one distinguished speaker. ‘Without honesty it is hard to move on.’ Other themes: there is a lingering, misguided fantasy in some European elites — even now — that one day the British are going to wake up and reverse their decision to leave; the EU is not very good at reading British politics and underestimates the constraints under which Theresa May works; there is not enough popular support for the integrationist reforms being promoted by President Macron; if such closer union were attempted, Greek politicians are hoping they will not be excluded from the fast-track.
This is an extract from James Landale’s Greece Notebook, which appears in this week’s Spectator