How Nato can help the Greeks

Nato should assist Greece in reducing its military expenditure by guaranteeing its security.

Fifty years ago, the United States and United Kingdom, were so worried about economic and political stability in the eastern Mediterranean they gave massive loans to both Greece and Turkey to strengthen the capital base in both nations. In 1963, America withdrew its anti-Soviet missiles in Turkey and the fledgling European Economic Community offered a future accession partnership to the Turks to anchor the nation firmly within the orbit of western democracy.

In 2012, Europe needs to offer financial help to the Greeks but Washington and Nato can play a part in reducing the Greeks’ paraonoia – oh no not another Greek word! – about their national security. In addition to the well-reported problems of corruption, clientalism and tax cheating Greece faces other difficulties which no other EU member state shares.

The single biggest part of the Greek economy is the shipping industry – representing about seven per cent of the Greek economy. In Britain, the minuscule shipping industry pays 780 million pounds in tax to HMRC. Greek shipping oligarchs pay no tax. The British authorities could help by sending details of Greek oligarchs who have recently purchased Mayfair mansions to get their Euros out of Greece, to the Athens tax authorities.

The biggest land and property owner in Greece is the Orthodox church. It pays no tax and its priests and monks also live tax-free. It is time for the Greek religious community to render unto Ceasar that which is Caesar’s and pay their dime in tax dues.

The other barely known aspect of Greek public spending is the disproportionate amount spent on importing arms from Germany, France and the US. Greece spend 50 per cent more, as a share of its GDP, on arms than Britain, France or Turkey. The reason is the fear that one day there will be conflict with Turkey. Greeks remember, with cause, the Turkish intervention in Cyprus in 1974 when an initial arrival of Turkish soldiers to prevent Greek-Cypriot fascist sympathisants from initiating anti-Turk Srebrenicas turned into a full-scale invasion and annexation of the northern third of the island.

Turkish airplanes regularly over-fly Greek islands and with the lure of under-sea energy sources there is tension enough in the region to justify, in Greek eyes, a very high level of military expenditure. So Washington and Nato should now give Greece an unqualified security guarantee that any assault of Greek territorial integrity will be met with full Nato defence capability.

Paris and Berlin should tell their arms merchants to roll over payment for Greek defence orders. It is not fully understood that most of the EU money going to Greece arrives in Athens and leaves five minutes later for French and German banks to pay off debt. Only about six billion euros has stayed in Greece. Athens should not be required to send billions to northern European arms manufacturers untll the economic story there has calmed down.

Greece also can help with its own regional security. When the Turkish Cypriots voted to accept the UN brokered deal for a settlement for the divided island, Greek Cypriots under the benevolent eye of Athens were whipped up to vote it down. An historic opportunity was lost. Greece could not press for a new settlement on Cyprus based on the Annan plan.

Greece could also help stabilize its northern neighbours in the western Balkans by easing its Swiftian rejection of the right of Macedonia to call itself Macedonia and by rejecting the Moscow led campaign to deny recognition to Kosovo. Nearly 100 nations, including all the major democracies now have diplomatic and trade relations with Kosovo and the fiction that the nation will one day revert to rule by Serbia is just that – a myth that Athens should not encourage.

The reporting on Greece has almost entirely focused on economic, fiscal and Eurozone aspects of the crisis. But security and diplomatic tools can also be used to help bring stability to Greece and the region. For British Europhobes who have invested all their belief in willing the collapse of the single currency, saving Greece is now to be devoutly not wished for.  But wider regional, European and even Atlantic considerations should not want Greece to collapse into the kind of chaos that led to the 1967 military intervention or worse.

Helping the Greeks by saying they can reduce arms spending to Turkish or British level while at the same time getting oligarchs and the orthodox church to pay taxes would be part of the process of helping Greece back onto its feet.

US President Barack Obama meets with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. Photograph: Getty Images.
Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and was a minister at Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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