The decision for Greece to join the European Community is mainly attributed to the vision and determination of its Prime Minister at the time Mr Konstantinos Karamanlis. It reflected the country's wish to bring stability into its fragile democracy, which suffered severely after a 7 year-long dictatorship, and at the same time to modernize the Greek economy. In 1981 Greece became the 10th full member of the European Community. It engaged itself in a course of European integration, which continues up to the present day. This decision is hailed today by the large majority of the Greek population as the most important of its modern history.
There is no doubt that Greece gained a lot from its membership in the EU. The benefits were tangible. Based on the principle of solidarity that underpins the Community system, the financial contributions that Greece received through the various funding programmes have always been substantial. Greece was seriously lagging behind in growth, while its economy badly needed restructuring. For that reason it became a full beneficiary of the Structural Funds and the Cohesion Fund of the EU since their establishment in 1989 and in 1993 respectively. The biggest part of this community contribution was earmarked for improvement of infrastructure, mainly road construction. In addition, Greek agriculture was also substantially supported by the Common Agricultural Policy.
The country made considerable progress as a result. At the same time, however, it is fair to admit that the Greek governments and administration have not always made an optimal use of these funds. Consequently, Greece has not managed even to come near to the level of progress and growth rate reached by Ireland, another beneficiary of the structural funds. This all becomes more relevant now that the next financial package will certainly not be as generous. All in all, even if Greece has not exploited all the advantages that the EU has offered, the main element to retain is that the country could not have made it as far and as good without the EU.
I don't mean to imply that the relationship with the EU is valued only in financial terms. In political terms as well, Greece has the EU to thank -among others- for the security it has promoted in the region and the role it played during incidents of confrontation with neighbouring countries. As a result, it is not surprising that the public opinion -somehow reticent about the EU in the beginning of this course- is now a fervent supporter of its cause. Likewise, the leaders of most political parties are truly committed to the cause of European integration. The participation of Greece as a full member in the single currency further consolidates this position.
Today, Greece is placed among the largely pro-integrationist countries of the EU. It supports the gradual adoption of a "federal" model, the broadening of community competences in new policy fields, the strengthening of the European institutions notably the Parliament and the Commission, and the development of a true common foreign and security policy. By the same token, the ratification of the European Constitution should not be a problem for Greece, which also views favourably the prospect of a "defence Eurozone". In other words, Greece aspires to become a front-runner in the EU. For that, it first needs to achieve true convergence for itself and its people. In the years to come, I believe this to be the true major challenge for Greece.
Now more than ever, Europe needs to further advance in its integration course. Following its recent enlargement, it is crucial that it fully commits again in a process of "deepening". I am certain that Europe will move forward, to make a reality of the European vision and create a genuine Union of peoples. And Greece will be present in every step of the way.