The fall 2015 issue of The Ambassadors Review runs an article titled “Greece and the European Project: Canary in the Coal Mine?” by Daniel V. Speckhard, United States Ambassador to Greece from 2007 to 2010. The main point made by Speckhard is that Greece is not, as many would to have it, an exception to the European rule, but “has much more in common with many countries in the Eurozone than many in Europe would want to admit”.

As the debt crisis unfolded, a “crumbling economic foundation built on a corrupt, oligarchic, and debt-addicted system” was exposed. Luckily, as Speckhard argues, EU leaders worked an agreement that provided a good solution -for the short run. However, Greece was left with an unsustainable debt burden of nearly twice its GDP, whilst the easy money flowing in for many years ran out, breaking down in the process the social contract, exposing the huge inequity between rich and poor, and squeezing the middle class.

The harsh reality of an austerity budget with higher taxes and painful cuts in public spending for salaries, pensions, health care, social services and education hurt unsurprisingly most the poorest and those in need, whilst tensions and pressure on the entire population sent the political system into convulsions.

While Greece may lie at one end of the spectrum in terms of financial mismanagement and past reliance on external financing, Speckhard notes that it shares with many other Eurozone countries characteristics, such as: supporting social programs that will be unsustainable as their overall population age; a growing disparity between rich and poor, with opportunities and success for only some; political instability and flight to the extremes. 

The EU might function quite well in good times of economic growth, “but when times get tough, the spirit of compromise and consensus-building comes under strain. From issues of open borders and the free flow of people, labor, and goods, to developing a unified foreign and security policy, the European Union is struggling to maintain the ground it has already gained”. For all these reasons, Speckhard argues, Greece is not so much an outlier in Europe, but rather a canary in a coal mine.