Last week, the Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras managed to cobble together enough support in parliament to pass a second round of reforms demanded by his country’s creditors. It must have left a bitter taste in the mouth.
Despite the Greeks voting in Tsipras’s Syriza, an explicitly anti-austerity party, and despite them rejecting a proposed new set of reforms in a national referendum only a few weeks ago – Europe’s most desperate nation will, after all, have to stomach a new round of reforms and austerity for years to come.
But aside from the EU’s alarming willingness to ignore the desires of the majority of the Greek populace, there was something else at stake here. While financial commentators around the world pored over the fine print to work out just how quickly Greece’s pension system would be overhauled, there was a smaller detail in the reform package that was largely missed.
That was the introduction of Sunday trading hours. Something about the call to eradicate the laws that prevent shops from opening on Sundays struck me as highly problematic. Indeed, the fact that the EU is interfering in something that feels so deeply cultural should trouble us all.
For us in northern Europe, the charm of Mediterranean countries such as Greece is that they are different – travelling there actually feels like going to a foreign country, in a way that flying to Germany or France doesn’t quite. Part of this is down to the slower pace of life and the healthy work-life balance people seem to be able to maintain. One aspect of this is that Sunday is often still treated as a day of rest. While I can’t presume to speak for Greeks themselves, my guess is they’d rather like to keep it that way.
Now I’m not saying that all the creditors’ reforms are unnecessary – some seem quite fair, in fact – and I’m not saying that they can all be dismissed as culturally insensitive. But along with being a trading bloc, the European Union was always supposed to be about celebrating difference and understanding other cultures. The danger with a reform package like Greece’s is that we’ll end up making all of Europe look like its northern half. And that was never the plan.
Matt Alagiah is Monocle’s Associate Editor.