Tag Archives: EU

How Greece inadvertently ducked under the rollover bullet

Ilustration by Manos Symeonakis

When French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced two weeks ago that French banks had agreed to participate in a rollover of Greek debt, it seemed a rare moment of relief in the country’s strained efforts to tackle its fiscal crisis. “The idea is that we won’t let down Greece and that we’ll defend the euro, which is in the interest of us all,” said Sarkozy, reflecting a sense of purpose and unity that the European Union has often lacked over the last 18 months.

However, the French proposal — which we will come to — soared briefly on the wings of hope before crashing into the immovable obstacle of reality. Two days of talks between bankers and insurers last week led to the Paris blueprint largely being discarded. However, the rejection of the French scheme appears to have helped Greece dodge a debt bullet. The more experts scrutinized the French plan, the more they realized it was a seriously flawed proposal that would worsen Greece’s debt problems.

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Memorandum II: The sequel – Dude, where’s my state?

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

As Greece draws breath after voting for a new package of austerity measures likely to pave the way for another loan agreement with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, this might be an opportune moment to identify one of the key faults with the first memorandum signed last year. Because, like a Hollywood sequel which follows a dire original, Memorandum II is likely to make us want to look away in horror.

There is plenty in the medium-term fiscal plan, or MTFP as it’s known in sequel speak, about reducing public spending. Greece plans to save more than 14 billion euros by 2015. This means, among other things, that the public sector wage bill will be cut by 770 million euros this year, 600 millon in 2012, 448 million in 2013, 300 million in 2014 and 71 million in 2015.

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Desperately seeking a vote of confidence

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Picture the scene: It’s two weeks after you’ve led your party to a disappointing election defeat against a faltering government. A high-profile member of your party is mounting a leadership challenge that will require the party faithful to make a choice. What do you do? Recognize where you and your party have gone wrong and explain how you plan to put it right? No. Instead, you call for a vote of confidence from your MPs, which threatens to tear your party apart.

Fast-forward almost four years and you are now prime minister. Your country is standing on the precipice of economic collapse and your foreign partners — who are for the time being preventing this collapse — are losing faith in you. What do you do? Set out clearly what you want to achieve and how you will achieve it? Convince your own party that there is a clear path toward salvation? No. Instead, you make a bungled attempt to form a government of national unity with an opposition that has no appetite for it, reshuffle your Cabinet to appease wavering deputies and then you call for a vote of confidence.

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How Greece could go from solidarity to division

Solidarity is probably a word that you would not associate with Greece following the events of the past few days. Love and understanding were in short supply on the streets around Parliament, where protesters and police clashed this week, as well as within the walls of the prominent sand-colored building, where Greece’s politicians failed to strike a deal to form a government of national unity to oversee the latest austerity measures the country has to adopt to qualify for more loans from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.

However, solidarity is a very relevant word in terms of Greece’s plight 13 months after the EU and the IMF agreed to bail it out with 110 billion euros ($157 billion) in loans. Firstly, it’s a word that’s on people’s minds because the government said it is introducing a “solidarity tax” that will lead to crisis-fatigued Greeks having between 1 percent and 4 percent of their incomes kept aside to help pay benefits for the rapidly growing number of unemployed.

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Paying the cost of the crisis

The news earlier this month that Greeks, acting on fears the country might exit the euro, transferred 30 billion euros to foreign banks, many of them in Switzerland, would have left most people in the debt-ridden country perplexed. It is a year since Greece signed a deal with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund to receive a 110-billion-euro bailout to prevent bankruptcy. That agreement came with strict terms and over the last 12 months the government in Athens has imposed the kind of austerity measures that make it difficult for Greeks to imagine that some of their countrymen might have enough spare cash to deposit in Swiss bank accounts.

One of the key features of the loan agreement has been repeated tax increases. Value added tax (VAT) has gone up several times since last year, income tax has been adjusted, duties on alcohol, fuel and tobacco products have been hiked and the tax on pensions has been increased. As a result, Greece now has the third-highest VAT rate in the EU, the second-highest duty on petrol and the third-highest social security contributions in the 27-nation bloc.

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The paradox of the ‘Indignant’

Photo by Stratos Safioleas

Thousands of protesters packed Syntagma Square in Athens for a third consecutive day on Friday. Those giving up another evening to vent their anger at Greece’s plight continued to display great enthusiasm and persistence. There was something dramatic about their protest, which took place as ominous clouds rolled across the Attica sky and boneshaking thunder boomed throughout the capital. It felt like someone had splashed out on the special effects in preparation for the ultimate battle: the people vs. the political system. The unstoppable force meets the immovable object.

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Hey Merkel, leave the Greeks alone

Illustration by Manos Symeonakos

A year ago, a month ago, perhaps even a week ago, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s comments about Greeks needing to work more would have gone down as badly in Athens as a joke about room service in the Strauss-Kahn household. They would have sparked another exchange of barbed comments between Athens and Berlin and further histrionics from the more rabid elements of the media in the two countries. This time, Merkel’s words landed quietly on a pile of other comments made about Greece over the last few days.

Greeks have been hit this week by a barrage of opinions on debt restructuring, new loan agreements and even political consensus. And at the end of it, they are none the wiser. Restructure now, say some economists and European officials. It is too early, others say. Only soft restructuring should be discussed, argue some experts. Substantial haircuts are required if Greece is to survive, say others. Greece will need new loans to stay afloat, say the whispers in the corridors of power in Brussels and Washington. We are not applying for any more emergency funding, say those who hold power in Athens. Get your political parties to agree, says a European commissioner. It is our democratic right to disagree, says the leader of the Greek opposition.

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