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Elgin Debt Relief - A modest proposal to help Greece (Politico Jul.10, 2015)

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Britain should help the Greeks out with the IMF; in return, Greece should relinquish the Marbles.

Visitors look at the Parthenon Marbles, also known as the Elgin Marbles, at the British Museum in London | EPA

There is  so much resentment and anger on both sides in the Greek debt crisis that you wish someone could do something to help, something that might bring out the best rather than worst in everyone involved.

It turns out that the U.K. could do just that.

 Right now, Greece owes €1.6 billion in interest to the IMF, which was due at the end of June. That is approximately £1 billion. The U.K. could pay that £1billion — which is not a great deal given her enormous and growing economy — on Greece’s behalf as a gesture of solidarity.

The U.K. is of course fortunate not to be one of Greece’s furious creditors in the eurozone. But Britain and Greece have a profound historical connection that goes back centuries. The gift would honor that historical connection in Greece’s hour of need, and act as a powerful expression of sympathy for the profound distress of the Greek people.

As a return gesture of gratitude and fellow-feeling, Greece would agree to stop claiming the Elgin Marbles as its own.

Obviously the U.K. would never, even implicitly, concede that the Greek government had any legal or moral right to own the marbles. If Britain paid the €1.6 billion debt, it would simply be a gift with no formal or explicit expectation of anything in return. A gesture of friendship and compassion.

As for Greece, its commitment to stop agitating for the removal of the marbles from London to Athens would not be a contractual obligation but an open-hearted act of appreciation and friendship.

It’s worth remembering that both countries have much to appreciate in one another. And that Britain has come to Greece’s aid before.

History lessons

In 1821 Britain was the primary enabler of Greece’s independence from the Ottoman Turks (who had ruled the country for almost four centuries, ever since the fall of the Byzantine Empire). One of Britain’s greatest poets, Lord Byron, died in that independence struggle.

It was because the British ruling class was so steeped in all things Hellenic that British archeologists played (and continue to play) such a key role in discovering and restoring Greece’s antiquities.

When Greece was invaded by fascist Italy and Nazi Germany in World War II, London sent the RAF and 62,000 British Empire troops to defend her, although doing so undermined the effort in North Africa. More than 4,000 of them were lost fighting for Greece in a campaign (mostly familiar today from the film “The Guns of Navarone”) that some allied leaders believed was inspired more by sentimental Philhellenism than strategic wisdom. It was British troops that finally liberated Athens in 1944 and subsequently ended the ensuing civil war.

And it goes almost without saying that ancient Greek history and literature profoundly influenced British culture for centuries. Philhellenism — a love for both classical and modern Greece — has been a more powerful force in Britain than in any other country. It was because the British ruling class was so steeped in all things Hellenic that British archeologists played (and continue to play) such a key role in discovering and restoring Greece’s antiquities.

Greece has been a home and an inspiration for some of our greatest writers and cultural figures, starting with Byron of course, but also including the likes of Robert Graves, Laurence Durrell, Patrick Leigh Femor, and John Fowles. And of course Greece has welcomed generations of British holidaymakers, and there is a long tradition of Greek immigrants who have enriched U.K. society.

Simultaneous gestures of goodwill would be in the interests of both countries.

If Britain paid off even this small part of Greece’s debt, it would assure a traumatized Greek population that their suffering has not gone unnoticed. Greece would see that Putin’s Russia is not its only ally. As the potential Labour leader Liz Kendall has pointed out, it’s not in the U.K.’s interest for Greece to become a Russian outpost in the Mediterranean.

Contributing that £1 billion is a chance for the U.K. to demonstrate itself as a “good European,” regardless of whether the U.K. is to stay in the EU.

As for the Greeks, they would send a signal to the rest of Europe that they are not merely compulsive debtors or consumers of wealth created by harder-working countries. Far from the spoiled adolescent portrayed in German editorials, Greece would show that it is a society that has retained a capacity for gracefulness, generosity and elegance despite the most difficult circumstances.

Aid for the Greeks

Many might think it unfair to impose an additional burden on the British taxpayer. Why subsidize a country in which tax fraud is endemic?

The money for Greece could and should come out of the U.K.’s £12 billion aid budget. Britain’s Department for International Development is infamously swamped by the excessive amount of money it’s been handed by the Cameron governments and has been unable to administer and spend it efficiently. By paying off Greece’s £1 billion debt to the IMF, Britons could at least be sure that it was doing genuine good, rather than enriching African kleptocrats or subsidizing India’s space program.

It is true that £1 billion is only a fraction of what Greece owes. But it’s money that Athens could spend on feeding its population in the traumatic scenario of a Grexit and return to the drachma, or in the case of a bailout involving more reform and austerity.

Ideally, Britain’s generous example would inspire — or shame — some of Greece’s creditors to be less harsh and more compassionate.

And who knows, becoming the recipients of such a gift might prompt Greeks who’ve been unwilling to admit any responsibility whatsoever for the country’s parlous state to be less resentful and more reasonable.

Sadly, this is a long shot. But Britons have the chance to do something genuinely constructive. And perhaps when the Greeks can once again afford to travel, the British Museum could arrange special exclusive viewing times in its classical galleries.

Elgin debt relief