British Prime Minister David Cameron is a worried man these days. He has every right to be. An opinion poll earlier this month gave the Labour Party a 14-point lead over the Conservatives, the largest for Cameron’s rivals since 2002. The strains in his coalition with the Liberal Democrats are showing as the public questions his government’s austerity policies, welfare cuts and vapid initiatives, such as the Big Society. The UK economy is in its second recession in four years, the country’s longest slump since the 1930s. And, one of the UK’s largest banks, Barclays, has just been fined for trying to manipulate the Libor rate for inter-bank lending.
On Tuesday, Cameron set aside these worries and discussed with a House of Commons committee a completely different set of concerns, the most significant of which was what Britain would do if Greece were to exit the eurozone. “I would be prepared to do whatever it takes to keep our country safe, to keep our banking system strong, to keep our economy robust. At the end of the day, as prime minister, that is your first and foremost duty,” he told MPs from all parties.
When probed further to clarify his meaningless remarks, Cameron became much more blunt: he would be prepared to rip up the European Union treaties signed by his country and prevent people from another member of the 27-nation bloc, in this case Greece, entering his country.
“I hope it wouldn’t come to that but, as I understand it, the legal powers are available if there are particular stresses and strains,” he said. “You have to plan, you have to have contingencies, you have to be ready for anything – there is so much uncertainty in our world.”
Leaders under pressure often clutch at straws of populism to stop them from sinking further into the mire. Cameron and his Chancellor George Osborne have jumped at every chance to blame the UK’s economic problems on the eurozone. However, there were warnings this week that Britain’s AAA rating could be at risk due to failures to get government spending under control and to grow the economy – hardly all the fault of the eurozone. Perhaps concerned about the rise of the euroskeptic UK Independence Party, which labels Cameron a “Europhile”, and demands from dozens of his MPs for a referendum on EU membership, the British prime minister feels he has to appear to be bold on European issues. Cameron’s House of Commons statement is a shame. Rarely could such cowardly words have been uttered by the leader of such an upstanding nation as the UK.
He suggests that keeping Greeks out of the UK in the event of a euro exit would be part of a strategy to keep his country “safe.” Safe from what, though? What does he expect a possible influx of Greeks escaping an economic collapse would lead to? Would these newcomers to his country suddenly start stabbing schoolchildren in the streets, leave teenage girls pregnant, spend their time binge drinking, look for jobs while having no skills, engage in terrorism, infiltrate British banks and invest in risky derivatives to collapse the financial system or simply attempt to fix the Libor rate to maximize their gains at the expense of UK taxpayers? How, exactly, would they put Britain’s safety at risk?
Fears were also cultivated about hordes of Poles swarming to Britain when their country entered the EU. In reality, the only risk was that some bad plumbing would be fixed. If Cameron had bothered to check his facts, he would see that Greeks are among the least likely in the EU to leave their home towns, let alone their country. Expected mass emigration from Greece as a result of the crisis has simply not materialised. More than a million Greeks did leave the country as a result of the dire economic conditions in the 1950s and 60s. They went to countries like Germany, USA, Canada and Australia. Their largely impressive record there speaks for itself.
What does it say about Cameron’s Britain that his government would be willing to turn its back on people from a country with which it has built a relationship over many decades? A country that supplied – albeit against its will – the artefacts that form the centrepiece of what makes the British Museum the greatest in the world; a country whose people fought the fascists at one end of Europe while the British fought them at the other end; a country whose shipowners chose London as one of their bases, boosting trade and helping build a maritime infrastructure including insurance companies; a country whose students pay British university fees at a per capita rate virtually unrivalled by those from any other part of the world, a country whose rich have boosted UK stamp duty revenues by buying up luxury properties; a country that is home to some 30,000 British retirees; a country whose hotel and restaurant workers serve and clean up after wayward British youths each year; and a country that provided London with the flame that will burn in its Olympic Stadium this summer.
Sticking with people through thick and thin is what being in a union is about. When you stand by them in times of difficulty, you are eventually rewarded. My father was welcomed by Britain in the 1970s when he sought to escape a political, rather than economic, crisis in his country. There was no future for him in a Greece ruled by the junta but the UK offered him a chance to finish his university education and find a job. In the decades since then, he’s employed dozens of English people in the company he founded, he’s helped the UK’s trade balance and credit account by exporting his firm’s products all over the world and he’s contributed more than his fair share to Her Majesty’s Revenues and Customs.
Because of gutless politics and a fear of a non-existent threat, Cameron would deny other Greeks the same opportunity my father had. Perhaps such small-mindedness and opportunism is to be expected given the Conservative leader’s track record. Following a junket to Skopje in 2003 to watch the England soccer team play the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, the then MP wrote a newspaper column in which he presented himself as an expert on Balkan issues and declared that to help FYROM’s cause he would refer to Greece as The Former Ottoman Possession of Greece, or FOPOG, as he put it.
Mr Cameron, I have a British passport but my wife’s is Greek. If the unthinkable happens here, you needn’t worry about her threatening your safety. You see, a Britain that only stands by partners with which it can trade or from which it can profit is not a Britain I recognize. It’s not a Britain that gave my father a home and the chance to prosper. It’s not a Britain that gave me a wonderful start to life. It’s not a Britain I would want to be part of. I am sure there are many decent people in your country who feel exactly the same.