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Selling off islands has a long history

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As Greece sank into the mother of all debt crises in 2010, the German tabloid Bild ran a story under the headline: “Sell your islands, you bankrupt Greeks! And sell the Acropolis, too!”

One former Greek government minister never forgot the newspaper’s impertinent advice. Like a reincarnation of Nemesis, the ancient Greek goddess, Panagiotis Lafazanis last week recommended — in an interview with Bild, no less — that Germany should consider selling an island or two to overcome a budgetary emergency of its own.

This crisis erupted on November 15, when Germany’s constitutional court ruled that Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s government had broken the law by trying to use €60bn of unspent pandemic funds for fighting climate change and modernising industry. As a result of the court’s decision, Germany’s budget plans for this year and 2024 are in chaos.

Lafazanis, who was a member of Greece’s Stalinist communist party before he joined the radical leftist Syriza movement, served as energy minister in the Syriza-led government that came to power in 2015. He used his interview with Bild to pour salt on Germany’s wounds like olive oil on a Greek salad.

Scholz’s government could address its troubles by imposing emergency taxes on businesses and individuals, but that might cause an uproar, he observed. So perhaps it would make sense for Germany to sell off some public assets, including islands, “in order to bring in a large amount quickly”, he suggested.

Referring to the austerity measures demanded of Greece in return for three international bailouts between 2010 and 2018, Lafazanis added: “Life takes revenge. Germany will now experience what it imposed on Greece.”

He didn’t specify which islands Germany ought to sell, but he may have had in mind Rügen, a popular Baltic Sea tourist spot. This formed part of former chancellor Angela Merkel’s Bundestag constituency when she was in power and helped to organise the Greek bailouts whose terms Lafazanis denounced.

Either way, the German media were unimpressed. One Munich newspaper called the proposal of Lafazanis “a perfidious sideswipe” at Germany. In the end, Greece didn’t sell any islands, let alone the Acropolis, to get out of its debt hole. It likewise stretches the imagination to expect that Germany will sell Rügen or any other territory.

If anything, when it comes to European islands, history suggests that Germany has tended to be on the other side of the equation. In 1890, it acquired the North Sea island of Heligoland from the UK in exchange for recognising British claims in east Africa, including the islands that make up Zanzibar.

That wasn’t a sale, or a deal made under duress, but there are several 19th century examples of states buying and selling land from each other. In the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, the US bought vast tracts of territory west of the Mississippi from France, then ruled by Napoleon Bonaparte. Sixty-four years later, the US bought Alaska from the Russian empire.

Donald Trump attracted a mixture of ridicule and outrage when, as president, he suggested in 2019 that Denmark should sell Greenland — an island — to the US. He even called Mette Frederiksen, the then Danish prime minister, “nasty” for rejecting what he saw as the sort of real estate deal he specialised in.

However, Trump’s proposal was less outlandish than it seemed. The US had first become interested in Greenland around the time it acquired Alaska in the 1860s, and the idea of buying it resurfaced in 1946 because of its strategic value at the onset of the cold war.

Nothing came of it, possibly because public enthusiasm for buying Greenland was almost as cold as the Danish territory itself. As a Gallup poll at the time revealed, only 45 per cent of Americans correctly identified where Greenland was, and only 10 per cent knew how many people lived there.

tony.barber@ft.com

 



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