Rebecca Lowe Coulson was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.
Eighteen-degree sunshine, no need to queue for the museums, and hardly a fluorescent Santa Claus in sight. You should be in Athens right now. I say that thinking not only of your benefit, however – surely it’s true in a bigger sense, too.
The main reason I voted for Brexit was awareness of the EU’s effects on Europe. It’s an understatement to say that Southern Europe hasn’t flourished under the euro; there’s no time here to repeat, yet again, why an economic union between an array of economically disparate and non-politically-aligned partners was always doomed to failure. Normally, I’d go into details at this point – the latest stats, unemployment rates; maybe I’d even make a few graphs. Instead, because it’s almost Christmas and I’m here in Greece on holiday, here’s an attempt at some objective quick-take observations about the current state of affairs.
The attitude in Athens feels a little like this year’s Labour Party conference: people of varying views banding together, showing pleasant surprise that things might (only) be getting better. There’s even a sightseeing enterprise called the ‘Happy Train’. To continue the Labour analogy, however, we could also consider the anger emanating from those continuing to struggle towards those sitting easy at the top…
And the ‘Happy Train’ also represents the way in which the city remains clearly dependent on tourism and the wider service industry — with all the knock-on problems that brings. Then, there are the shuttered shops, the aged cars, more graffiti than expected even for a protest nation, and endless people performing various forms of low-level street art for money (a lady in an ornate dress made of plastic bags; another singing two-note refrains while hitting a metal pot). Sure, there are growing signs of construction work (most emblematic is the crane on top of the Acropolis, though that marks the continuation of renovations that have been ongoing for much of the past century), but strikes remain common. And Mark Twain would certainly have written something neat about the number of stray cats.
In general, however, the central historic section, at least, is putting on an excellent face for the tourists on whom it depends. It has to, of course — but that alone is a great reason for you to visit, and to support the local economy by doing so.
But if you believe in Brexit, there’s a stronger case to be made to you for supporting Greece. Sure, remoaners may think we’ve abdicated all responsibility and opportunity to improve the way the EU treats its members. Sure, they may think we now have, for instance, less beef to band with Thomas Piketty in calling for the EU to mutualise debt. But that’s missing my point.
Which country aside from Britain had the economic and political power to take the potential short-term hit of leaving the EU, in order to send a powerful message that its actions must face repercussions? The very fact that leaving is proving so complicated shows the union’s deep flaws. As does the way in which people are willing to put up with so much (how can the non-Corbynite old left even pretend to bear Juncker et al trampling on democracy?), because they see how hard it is to disentangle.
Sure, it’s not just about disentanglement. Many continue to believe in the EU because they believe in European cooperation — because they think we should support our neighbours. But that should be our choice, not the forced result of supranational coercion. Surely, the primary aim of the directed European cooperation that flourished following the Second World War was to prevent such conflicts in future: to protect the individuated nature of nations.
Lately, the EU has stood against that aim. But Brexit Britain should not. For many, Brexit was a vote about exactly that — about who should determine the future of a country, and why that is something much more important than short-term concerns such as immediate net costs and benefits. As I’ve written here before, it’s hard to see a better unit for democratic decision-making than the nation state — and the failures of the EU prop that position up well.
As we leave the EU, we must remember that we can now choose to support our neighbours in the best ways we can. And to support people in places further afield — whether that’s by lowering tariffs to offer much-needed trade opportunities to those in developing nations, or by offering military strength through our continuing alliances, such as NATO.
There’s something else we could do now, however. It’s something more specific and powerfully symbolic, which being here in Athens has brought to my mind. One of the reasons this place has stayed strong through the past difficult decades is its proud history. Every nation has that — in different ways – whether it’s thanks to Shakespeare or Aristotle, crabapples or olives, a big navy or famed military tactics. And that, of course, is part of why we might want to support the individuated nature of nations.
Athens’ history can be seen everywhere here, from the little shops selling Greek philosopher calendars, to the bespoke jewellers making cufflinks based on ancient coins. And at the heart of it is the Acropolis – towering up, at the centre of the city, surrounded by bone-coloured buildings, as far as the mountains. Its Parthenon stands strong, having beaten off attacks, looting, and conversions by the Romans, the Ottomans, the Venetians, and more – and having had a swastika raised from it during the German occupation, against the heroic attempts of Manolis Glezos, among others (while Greece stood with Britain against the Nazi regime). The Acropolis places Athens at the heart of human accomplishment, not least as the mother of democracy.
But something is still missing. Just over two hundred years on, the Parthenon marbles remain in Russell Square, the result of Lord Elgin’s looting at the start of the nineteenth century. The wonderful new Acropolis Museum was clearly built to prove that Athens is the best place for the marbles in terms of their upkeep. But, standing as it does at the very foot of the hill, it is also their rightful home. Rising above legal difficulties and practical considerations, Brexit Britain should prove its commitment to democracy and the individuated nature of nations by promising now to return the marbles. That would make for an ideal Christmas offering — and much more besides.