Tag Archives: Greece economic crisis

The wrong battle

Illustration in linocut by Manos Symeonakis

“There is no Greek-German war,” government spokesman Giorgos Petalotis said last week. “Greece and Germany are not on collision course,” said Foreign Minister Dimitris Droutsas. All these statements can only mean one thing: Greece and Germany are very much at loggerheads. But their dispute is not just a bilateral squabble; at its heart it’s about divergent views on how to respond to the crisis threatening the euro and, beyond that, on the very purpose of the European Union.

The frantic attempts by the government to play down any rift between Athens and Berlin came after Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou decided on November 15 to dust himself off, stand on the ruins of the Greek economy and hit back at German Chancellor Angela Merkel with a rebellious passion. Speaking in Paris, Papandreou accused Merkel of driving up bond yields for weaker eurozone members by insisting that private investors should foot part of the bill for a permanent mechanism to support countries with failing economies, like Greece’s. “This could create a self-fulfilling prophecy,” said Papandreou. “This could break backs, this could force some economies into bankruptcy.”

On the face of it, there seems little wrong with Merkel’s insistence that private bondholders should accept losses, or a “haircut,” on their investment as part of a debt crisis mechanism to be adopted by 2013. Most Europeans would accept that this would create a fairer system although, clearly, German taxpayers would benefit the most as they’re the ones who would be called on more often to bail out failing eurozone members. But the self-serving element to Merkel’s position is not what should be of most concern to Europeans. Instead, it’s the way Berlin has tried to steamroller other EU countries into accepting the inclusion of the “haircut” clause ahead of a decisive EU leaders summit in Brussels next month. It’s this lack of consultation and the absence of consideration for struggling eurozone members that is undermining the Union.

Papandreou argued that making such a big fuss about investors having to pay their share simply gave jumpy bondholders a seriously aggravated case of the jitters, pushing up the yields on government bonds for Ireland, Portugal and Spain to dangerous levels. Few EU leaders backed Papandreou openly but there is great concern about Germany’s stubbornness. “When the history of the eurozone is written, last month’s German-driven EU summit agreement to devise a crisis resolution mechanism for countries to service their debts may well be cited as the event that pushed Ireland over a cliff,” Bloxham, Ireland’s oldest stocbrockers, said last week, a few days before Dublin turned to the EU and the International Monetary Fund for emergency loans.

In Germany, though, there is a different view. “If Merkel were to abandon her plans, then it would be paradise for investors and weak governments,” wrote the Suddeutsche Zeitung newspaper last week. “The speculators could charge higher interests on Irish or Greek bonds without any risk of losses. And the Greeks could continue with their record indebtedness because they would have no more pressure from the financial markets and in an emergency would be rescued by their euro partners.” However, this ignores that when Greece tries to go back to the international bond markets in 2013, its borrowing costs will be pushed up anyway, as investors will be wary of having to take a haircut should Athens have to revert to the permanent EU mechanism for further loans.

The Greco-German dispute is symptomatic of the differing views emerging within the EU about how to combat the debt crisis. There is a tendency for the EU to speak with two voices and to pull in two different directions. “The euro, which was supposed to make European integration irreversible, could become its undertaker,” wrote the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung daily last week. Every day the debt crisis gnaws away at the EU’s confidence, making the Union seem an exhausted shadow of its former sprightly self. This dissipation of energy and will is leading to division and, whether through bad luck or design, Merkel is at the forefront of creating ever-deeper rifts.

Speaking at a rally of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in Karlsruhe on November 15, the same day that Papandreou challenged her scheme for private investors, Merkel said her predecessor as chancellor, Social Democrat Gerhard Schroeder and his Finance Minister Hans Eichel had blundered when they allowed Greece to join the eurozone. “In 2000, Schroeder and Eichel couldn’t let Greece join the euro fast enough and they ignored all the warnings,” she said. “It was a political decision… political decisions are important but those which ignore the facts are irresponsible.”

It’s now obvious that Greece was not ready in 2000 to stick to the single currency’s fiscal guidelines, as prescribed by Germany. It’s also clear that allowing Greece into the eurozone was a political decision — one aimed at giving the nascent single currency numerical, if not necessarily economic strength, but also the opportunity to encourage economic reform and German-style efficiency in a sluggish European state. A decade ago, it was a convenient political decision for Germany — Greece, after all, became another market in the eurozone for its exports — but now it’s a terrible inconvenience for Berlin. But that’s the thing about political decisions: You take a risk. Sometimes you ignore the facts because you have a conviction that something greater is at stake, even if the numbers don’t back you up.

Merkel might consider, for instance, that the Marshall Plan, which ensured Germany’s post-war reconstruction and helped it become the economic powerhouse it is today, was a political decision. The United States, which led the effort, could have decided that paying to help rebuild Germany did not make economic sense but Washington chose to look at the bigger picture — the opportunity to fight “hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos” as US Secretary of State George C. Marshall said when he unveiled his plan in June 1947. Using words that are eerily relevant to today’s Europe, Marshall said: “The United States should do whatever it is able to do to assist in the return of normal economic health in the world, without which there can be no political stability and no assured peace.” Peace in Europe is not under threat in 2010 but the EU’s faltering economic health is putting its unity at risk.

While leaders argue over bond yields, haircuts, bailouts, deficit and debt, one very important factor is being overlooked. As was the case in the Europe of 1947 before the Marshall Plan, it’s the people that are suffering. They are the ones that pay the cost of failed economic policies and soaring bond yields — people who have fulfilled the wishes of politicians and bankers by mortgaging their futures to buy houses and cars and who believed the euro would bring the permanent stability they were promised. This is why unity must be restored.

Somewhere between Papandreou’s rebelliousness and Merkel’s intransigence, we’ve forgotten that the EU and its institutions were created to improve people’s lives. Many of these people are now losing their jobs, homes and hope. That’s why, even though Greece and Germany may not be at war, their dispute is confirmation that Europe is fighting battle, but the wrong one.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on November 26, 2010.

Advertisements

Out of the darkness

Illustration in linocut by Manos Symeonakis

There’s a short audio clip played almost on a daily basis on Skai radio’s political satire program, Ellinofrenia. It’s of Prime Minister George Papandreou saying: “Viva Chile, viva Grecia.” Presumably, it was recorded when Papandreou, then head of the opposition, visited Vina del Mar in Chile last March for a meeting of Socialist leaders. The clip is played randomly during the irreverent show. Its effect is to make Papandreou seem a dreamy globetrotter with an appetite to pursue international contacts rather than solve Greece’s problems. But since the rescue of the 33 miners from the San Jose gold and copper mine last week, those four words have taken on a new life and their abstractness has been replaced by an urgent relevance.

Watching Luis Urzua, the last miner to be winched to safety, sing the Chilean anthem as he stood next to President Sebastian Pinera and the team of rescuers in the early hours of Thursday morning, the parallels between Chile and Greece seemed as crisp and clear as the night air in the Atacama Desert. The Chilean anthem has a line, which seems prescient in the case of the miners who spent 70 days in an underground shelter fearing for their lives: “Either the tomb will be of the free / Or the refuge against oppression.” In this respect, it is very similar to Greece’s national anthem, Dionysios Solomos’s “Hymn to Liberty,” which is also dedicated to the ideal of freedom and contains the lines: “From the graves of our slain / Shall thy valor prevail.”

Freedom is such a highly valued concept in Greece and Chile because they wear the scars of oppression — from outside forces but also from within: Both countries have experienced damaging military dictatorships in their recent histories. But even in 2010, there are still struggles for freedom in Chile and Greece. In the Latin American country, despite the economic prosperity and political stability it has enjoyed over the past two decades, some of its people still feel the tug of history’s shackles. Despite the fact that Chile produces more than a quarter of the world’s copper and that prices for the metal are at a two-year high, bringing the country almost 4 billion euros a month in export revenues, some miners are still not truly free from the exploitation of firms taking deadly risks for profits.

In Greece, freedom has been compromised in different ways. As a result of its irresponsibility in the past, Greece’s economic sovereignty is largely in the hands of the European Union and the International Monetary Fund rather than the country’s elected government. While the foreign overseers plot a course for economic recovery, Greece is trying to free itself of the stale ideologies, practices and hangups of the past that held it captive.

It’s in this effort to save itself that the rescue of the Chilean miners provides Greece with food for thought. Speaking of the mesmerizing effort to pull the miners to safety, Chilean writer Isabel Allende said it had been an “odyssey of solidarity,” just as Prime Minister George Papandreou had said Greece was embarking on a “new odyssey” when he announced in April that Athens was turning to its eurozone partners and the IMF for financial assistance. Solidarity, however, has been in short supply in Greece, as opposition parties, unions and even aloof members of government continue to play the same tired roles to which the Greek people have become accustomed over the last three decade. Even at this most crucial hour, there is only the flimsiest of consensus on the gravity of the situation and what needs to be done. For instance, the country’s two main parties, New Democracy and PASOK, have been able to agree on few strands of economic policy, such as the opening of closed professions and the overhaul of the Hellenic Railways Organization (OSE), which is losing 1 billion euros a year. It is hardly as if they have become brothers in arms.

One of the greatest lessons of the San Jose rescue is that when suspicion and anger — as the miners were justified in feeling after being sent into a patently unsafe mine — and scepticism and doubt — as Chile’s government and the rescuers would have felt in launching a seemingly futile rescue mission — are set aside, wonderful things can happen. “It is proof that when men unite in favor of life, when they offer their knowledge and effort to the service of life, life responds with more life,” wrote Chilean novelist Hernan Rivera Letelier in Spanish daily El Pais. But for life, or at least a life worth living, to have a chance of existing, people have to put their faith in each other. “You just have to speak the truth and believe in democracy,” said shift foreman Urzua in his first post-rescue interview.

In Greece, the truth is a rare commodity at the moment. From deficit figures that keep changing to the cagey talk of ministers and the unfeasible promises of opposition politicians, nobody speaks honestly. The failure of our democracy was evident last week right in front of its greatest symbol, the Acropolis. Culture Ministry contract workers protested the non-renewal of their contracts in the hope that this government, like others before it, would cave in and ignore the law limiting such agreements to two years. The government, on the other hand, dodged a face-to-face meeting with the protesters because it had not paid some of them for 20 months.

The rescue is also evidence that for society to function, all its agents need to work together. State mining company, Codelco, led the effort to save the 33 miners, who had been working for a private firm, but it relied on help from other countries and private-sector funding. It was on the basis of this sound structure that the emotional support network for the miners, made up of families, friends, doctors and psychologists was built. “What we have recovered here… is our self-confidence as a nation, and sense of community, of Roman ‘communitas,’ of some well-being which depends on others: our neighbors, our friends, our most efficient [political] representatives,” explained Chilean writer Jaime Collyer. In Greece, the individualism that came with the economic prosperity of recent decades stands as one of the biggest obstacles to progress. Those who for so many years have evaded tax, landed themselves comfortable public sector jobs, enjoyed the privileges of closed professions, lived off state subsidies or simply disregarded the laws of their state are not going to trade this bliss of isolation for the give-and-take of a functioning community very easily. The decision this week of many bar and restaurant owners to flout the recent ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces because they feel it harms their business is evidence of how deeply mired Greece is in the “me first, me only” way of thinking.

The successful rescue of the miners, though, is a reminder of the reward of overcoming fear, selfishness and lack of vision. “We aren’t the same as we were before the collapse on August 5,” said Pinera. “Today, Chile is a country much more unified, stronger and much more respected and loved in the entire world.” Unlike the burst of media interest in the Chilean miners’ plight, Greece has been the subject of prolonged media exposure this year. There were roughly 60 journalists for each miner at the San Jose mine and at times Athens has felt a bit like that with the international media probing every aspect of Greece’s misfortune. It has been uncomfortable but, as Chile has shown, there is no bigger news in the world than a catastrophe being turned into a triumph. “For the moment, Chile has received a reputational windfall,” wrote Mary Dejevsky in UK newspaper The Independent. “It has a chance to join countries such as Canada and Finland that genuinely do punch above their weight internationally by virtue of the benevolent impression they create on visitors, their quiet diplomacy and the competence with which they seem to run themselves.” A trickle of positive comments about Greece’s economic reforms has already begun but it can’t compare to the cathartic effect that a deluge of praise would have if the country completes the metamorphosis from pariah to shining example.

Chile experienced a moment of salvation when the miners were lifted safely from the depths of the Atacama Desert. “It started as a tragedy but ended as a blessing,” said Pinera. As a result, the South American country can now look to the future with more hope and its spirits lifted: Viva Chile. For Greece, redemption still seems to be at the end of a long, dark tunnel. It’s now clear that grabbing a lifeline will not be enough — the country needs togetherness and belief to haul itself into the light. Only then will it be in a position to turn to the world and shout: “Viva Grecia.”

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on October 22, 2010.

Painting by numbers

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

 

Thessaloniki – Legend has it that Thessaloniki’s White Tower got its name after a prisoner held within its walls whitewashed the 27-meter tall structure so he could receive his ticket to freedom. For Prime Minister George Papandreou, who failed to impress in the northern city last weekend with a flat economic policy speech and an unconvincing display at a marathon news conference, there was no such hope of liberation from the shackles that bind his government.

On Sunday, whether it was the locals lounging in the cafes at Aristotelous Square, the protesting firefighters marching toward the Thessaloniki International Fair, or the police officers –as ever looking like bored guests at a relative’s wedding – guarding the Makedonia Palace Hotel where the Cabinet had decamped to for the weekend, nobody seemed particularly bothered by what Papandreou had to say.

His appearance simply confirmed what Greeks already knew: tough situation, tough choices, and tough times ahead. But almost a year after PASOK came to power and some six months after it agreed with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund on a strict plan to tackle its debt crisis, people were entitled to hear something more substantial about where the country will go from here, something to give them hope that a course has been plotted through this economic maelstrom.

Papandreou’s only real note of optimism was in a section of his speech dedicated to Greek entrepreneurs and businesses excelling internationally – proof, the prime minister suggested, that the desire and ability to succeed is strong. Yet, even this attempt to lift the mood rang slightly hollow: one of the companies Papandreou mentioned was a start-up that created iSteam, an iPhone application downloaded by more than 3 million users, but on Tuesday a young entrepreneur involved in the project revealed the firm had been founded in the UK because of the excessive red tape in Greece.

The fact these creative minds were put off by the business environment here says more about Greek reality than the thousands of words in Papandreou’s speech. In fact, there was no indication in what the prime minister said that his government has plans to create a more conducive atmosphere for business, nor an acknowledgment that the terms of the EU-IMF agreement are stifling economic activity. If structural reform, civil service pay cuts, pension reductions, higher taxes and the slashing of public spending are all ingredients of the nasty, but necessary, medicine that Greece has to take, then there has been no move by the government to concoct a potion to combat the ugly side-effects such as negative growth, unemployment, dwindling consumer spending, poor business sentiment and inflation.

All that Papandreou proposed in Thessaloniki was a reduction in tax on reinvested profits and the fast-tracking of foreign investment programs. Both are welcome moves but collectively they fall short of what’s required. It’s hardly the formula to dislodge Greece from 83rd place on the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index, which was published last week. Ranked last in the EU and nestled uncomfortably between El Salvador and Trinidad and Tobago, it will take more than a few common sense measures to thrust Greece onward and upward.

There has been no convincing attempt by PASOK to discover the missing link between structural reforms and the measures needed to stimulate the economy. Instead, Greece faces the prospect of slipping into a vicious circle where a lack of growth would prompt a steady stream of fresh austerity measures to make up for revenue shortfalls. In this scenario, Greece’s fiscal position would steadily worsen and, like a dog chasing its tail, the government would be sniffing out funds just to service its debt and for nothing else. Ultimately, Greece’s credibility on the international financial markets would disintegrate and the whole purpose of entering the EU-IMF fiscal agreement would be defeated.

Trying to get the balance right between fiscal adjustment and growth is an unenviable task and the only saving grace for Papandreou and his government is that they’re not the only ones who don’t have convincing solutions. The opposition parties, for instance, have been heavy on the criticism of the belt-tightening but light on counter-proposals. Foreign experts, meanwhile, are offering suggestions that Greece cannot contemplate politically, such as debt restructuring, default or exit from the eurozone.

The UK is facing a watered-down version of Greece’s problem and critics there have begun challenging the Coalition Government’s drastic deficit reduction strategy. Recently, Ed Balls, a longtime economic advisor to former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown, warned in a speech at the Bloomberg financial news service that Osborne’s hefty spending cuts would send Britain into double-dip recession and cause long-term damage. He singled out Greece as an example not to follow, arguing that the spending cuts are undeliverable and that a lack of growth will eventually lead to the markets losing confidence.

“The Greek crisis may have started with concerns over the government’s ability to service its debt but it is now a more fundamental question about whether its economy can grow and its society can remain stable,” said Balls. However he has few useful proposals for Greece. Balls suggests less stringent cuts, spread out over a longer period of time – a luxury not available to Papandreou’s government – and support for a series of programs aimed at boosting employment.

It’s hardly a groundbreaking idea but some kind of apprentice scheme for high school graduates, whereby firms are given financial incentives to take on teenagers would at least be a place for PASOK to start. Papandreou had once been in favor of allowing firms to be excused from paying social security contributions for young hires for a certain period. He might want to reconsider this idea, even though it would be anathema to the left wing of his party, as it would put spending money in the pockets of thousands of teenagers while helping emerging businesses limit their costs. But bolder ideas will be needed. Perhaps the government needs to put the billions spent on feeding, training, housing and transporting Greek youths who have no interest in doing their military service to better use. Why not offer them the opportunity to do community work and spend a fraction of the money on paying them a small wage instead?

However, all this is minor tinkering when major interventions are needed; interventions that will help drive Greek companies forward, that will boost the tourism sector, that will support innovation and that will strip away the bureaucracy which limits entrepreneurship. Greece has been a global economic test case this year and if it manages to find a way to balance drastic fiscal adjustment with economic revival new ground will be broken. Making this happen within the current constraints is an order of massive proportions but that’s what the prisoner must have felt like when, bucket and paintbrush in hand, he stared up at the White Tower. Nevertheless, the job got done and the chains were broken. Maybe there is a positive message to take from Thessaloniki after all.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on September 17, 2010.

Life, but not as we know it

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

It’s a scene that is becoming very familiar to people across Europe: A newly elected leader addresses his nation and blames the previous government for its “total irresponsibility” which has left a “terrible legacy” of seriously compromised public finances, which are in an “even worse state than we thought” and which will require “painful” but absolutely necessary cuts. Earlier this year, it was George Papandreou delivering this stark message — British Prime Minister David Cameron reprised the role this week.

A few days earlier, the scene had been repeated in Hungary, which, like Greece, has borrowed money from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. The claims by government officials in Budapest that the previous administration had disguised the poor state of the local economy and that the public deficit would be bigger than expected, sent the type of shockwaves across the continent and international financial markets that only Athens had been capable of until recently, as concerns about a Hungarian default stoked another round of fear about the future of the euro and the EU.

Apart from Greece, Britain and Hungary, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, France and Italy have all had to take steps – albeit less austere than the Greek ones – to rescue their public finances. Even Germany, Europe’s economic powerhouse and the metronome for stability within the Union, announced this week that it’s seeking to make more than 80 billion euros in cuts over the next few years. Until now, there has been unease about European countries being too disparate in economic terms but, ironically, the current debt crisis has suddenly given them common points of reference. It’s causing people across the continent to ask two key questions: “Why are we in this position?” and “How do we get out of it?”

There are two aspects to why so many European countries find themselves in a mess: the economic and the political. In terms of the economic failings, the EU simply found itself unprepared for the consequences of the financial crisis that began in the United States two years ago. A failure to reduce debt when European economies were booming meant that the onset of recession — which also coincided with the use of public money to prop up the private sector, especially banks — has saddled many countries with unprecedented debt and exposed an Achilles’ heel that speculators can exploit.

“The banking crisis has mutated into a sovereign debt crisis; the weakest members of the eurozone are targeted because the euro is a comparatively new currency lacking sufficiently strong institutional foundations, and because markets doubt the ability of the weaker countries to manage their debt problems,” the editorial director or the European Council on Foreign Relations, Thomas Klau, told Athens Plus.

This implies that the real roots of the crisis lie in the political arena. Just as governments across Europe have tried to mask the real size of the problem, often leaving it for the next administration to deal with, so for a number of years, the politicians of various ideological persuasions that held power found it easier to go with the flow rather than develop a long-term plan. Instead of making hay while the sun shone, they simply sat back and soaked up the rays. What happened in Greece, more than anywhere else, has driven this point home. “Greece stands as a warning of what happens to countries that lose their credibility or whose governments pretend that difficult decisions can somehow be avoided,” Cameron said this week.

There are few who would argue with him. “I think that the political inadequacies are most pronounced in the Greek case and to a lesser extent in Portugal,” Professor Iain Begg of the European Institute at the London School of Economics told Athens Plus. “In the other cases, it is more that – as with banks like Northern Rock or Lehman Brothers – the business model is no longer as viable as it used to be and that has fueled market scepticism. Let’s not forget that Spain actually scored pretty well in relation to the fiscal rules, even if, with hindsight, we can now say that it ought to have been running a budget surplus.”

These inadequacies, which an unnamed German official described to the International Herald Tribune’s John Vinocur as “a decade wasted through a lack of frankness and realism,” have left many European countries, the single currency and millions of people at the mercy of markets, which have now become the sole judges of economic policy. The response to this situation, therefore, must be one that is deeply political and carries serious conviction. “Because EU members were caught misrepresenting their finances with the passive acceptance of France and Germany for a decade, no response or solution that is based on a statement of intention rather than a legally binding undertaking is likely to lead the markets away from their hair-trigger surveillance of the euro and Europe’s solidity,” wrote Vinocur in the IHT this week.

The political solution to this problem must first come at an individual state level. “In the UK, the problem, I suspect will prove to be reasonably easy to manage but in Greece, the whole approach to the public sector needs radical change,” says Begg. “In Spain and Italy, labor market and welfare reforms will require political courage and leadership.”

This decisiveness then has to be replicated on a collective level as well. The IMF said as much in its report on the European debt crisis this week. “Crisis management is not an alternative to corrective policy actions and fundamental reforms needed to reinforce the foundation of the European Monetary Union,” the Washington-based fund said in the wake of European finance ministers agreeing to commit 440 billion euros to a rescue fund for debt-ridden EU members, which the IMF will also participate in.

In practical terms, it means that common policies and instruments must be devised along with checks that it is in everyone’s interest to adhere to. “What this crisis has shown is that the euro countries must accept a much stronger degree of shared sovereignty over their public finances and economic policy to ensure the long-term survival of their currency,” says Klau. “A monetary union needs a political union, as the Bundesbank wrote 20 years ago.”

Instilling this level of togetherness is going to be a massive challenge. If controling their debt in the midst of a recession appears an elusive goal for EU countries, then getting them to work in harmony toward this will seem like trying to pin down a greased greyhound during a torrential rainstorm. Already this week, Britain has rejected the notion of presenting its national budget to Brussels before submitting it to its own Parliament. The newness of the debt crisis means that political leadership and consensus will take some time to emerge but recent history indicates our futures depend on it eventually shining through.

“The decisions we make will affect every single person in our country, and the effects of these decisions will stay with us for years and decades to come,” Cameron told his audience this week as his government began reviewing its planned spending cuts. “How we deal with these things will affect our economy, our society, indeed our whole way of life,” he added. The Conservative Party leader will probably never utter more accurate words during his premiership. In fact, our way of life is already being transformed. What it changes into will depend on the political decisions taken over the next few months.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and appeared in Athens Plus on June 11.

No sleep till Athens

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

There isn’t much to laugh about in Greece at the moment. So, it was with great pleasure that I read an e-mail last week from one of our readers in the USA in which he suggested how Greece could overcome its economic problems. One of his ideas was that Greeks should stop taking lunchtime siestas because they lose valuable working time. It was the first time I laughed out loud for weeks. I don’t know any Greeks under the age of 65 that take a nap at lunchtime, apart perhaps from my son. But he’s only 20 months old, so perhaps he can be forgiven for not using these hours to contribute to the country’s gross domestic product.

Although the e-mail from America provided a moment of light relief, it left a bittersweet taste because it also underlined how the crisis has created a negative stereotype of Greeks. It is patently obvious that many Europeans, especially Germans, are convinced Greece is full of freeloading slackers. The reality, though, is different. For instance, Eurostat’s figures for the average working hours in Europe for 2009 indicate that Greeks work an average of 42 hours a week. The EU average was 40.3 hours and in Germany it was 40.8. In fact, the Greek figure is the highest in all of the 27 EU countries.

So, if the Greeks work so hard why is their country in such a mess? Well, one answer is that working long hours does not necessarily mean you are productive. In fact, in Greece you often end up working longer because of the inefficiencies of the system. The time you could be using productively may be spent queuing at a public service to get paperwork stamped or writing out invoices by hand because there is no computerized accounting system.

Of course, there are very clear economic and financial reasons for Greece’s collapse but the causes of the illness go much deeper. One of the most serious underlying problems is a bloated and decaying public sector which neglects to punish inefficiency and indifference. Until 2007, according to World Bank data, it took 38 days to set up a business in Greece. In Djibouti it was 37 days. Of course, what statistics cannot measure is the frustration that causes so many people to lose the will to fight the system and eventually play by its warped rules, even if this involves corrupt practices. And what sustains this vicious circle? Political expediency. Governments created this monster and were afraid to tackle it because their support base, and therefore their destinies, were tied not just to the public sector but to the array of professions that are interlinked with it, such as doctors, civil engineers, lawyers, notaries and farmers.

Whatever you do in Greece, you cannot avoid dealing with the state and coming up against its inertia. According to Eurostat, roughly one in 10 Greek adults is a civil servant, which is the highest proportion anywhere in the EU. This is a legacy of the 1980s, when the governments of Andreas Papandreou’s socialist PASOK sought to balance years of right-wing rule and dictatorship by finding jobs for the party faithful. Since then, each government has treated the civil service as just another party apparatus, hiring more people even when the country couldn’t afford it.

But, again, the story of the Greek public sector is a symptom of the problem rather than the root cause, which lies in the country’s political system. Since the 1970s, Greece has been ruled by two parties that helped themselves rather than the country. They awarded their friends jobs or state contracts and as soon as any social group or sections of the media resisted an attempt to change the status quo, they would cave in and abandon the offending policy. So, it’s no surprise that an opinion poll by GPO for Mega TV this week indicated that 54.3 percent of Greeks believe all the recent governments, rather than a specific one, are responsible for the current crisis.

The previous New Democracy government of Costas Karamanlis is blamed by 20 percent of those questioned. Karamanlis and his ministers have a lot to answer for. At a crucial time for the global economy and despite having a comfortable majority in his first term, Karamanlis dodged any attempt at structural reform. Instead, he handed over questionable statistics, a spiraling deficit and no new ideas.

But the current PASOK government is not without blame. As assured as Prime Minister George Papandreou may look on the international stage now, he had no idea how to be a constructive opposition leader for the previous five years. In fact, the period from 2004 to 2009 will go down as a barren time in Greek politics, when no party could come up with a vision for Greece. The leftist parties — the Communists (KKE) and the SYRIZA coalition — were content to simply battle for control of the unions. This fight is continuing and, as the crisis puts the unions in the spotlight, it is clear they have failed to overcome their esoteric attitude. Even now, they have not been able to refine their tactics beyond that of blackmail — if the government does something they don’t like, they block ministry entrances or central Athens.

So, when people ask “Why did Greece end up in this mess?” perhaps the best answer is that it would have been a miracle if it hadn’t done so. It’s only now that Greeks are beginning to realize the damage that has been done to the country over the last decades and that, as voters, they actively encouraged it. They were happy to turn a blind eye as PASOK exploited the public sector in the 1980s; they were equally oblivious to the failures of socialist and conservative governments in the 1990s, when money from the EU began to flow into Greece; and during the last decade, when entry into the euro secured cheap loans and a comfortable way of life, nobody wanted to ask any difficult questions.

The realization is a painful one for Greeks — it’s like thinking you have entertained a friend by taking him out for a few drinks only to find out that you actually fed his alcoholism.

The recovery from this crisis will not just depend on the emergency loans from the IMF, Germany and the other eurozone countries. It will not depend just on growth rates and bond spreads. It will, to a great extent, depend on whether Greeks are now prepared to take the extra step to demand better of their public sector, push for the private sector to be allowed to flourish and, above all, be ruthless with incompetent and cowardly politicians. To do all this when your salary is shrinking, your taxes are increasing and your livelihood is at risk is not an easy task. For all these reasons, Americans, Germans and everybody else should know that Greeks will not be sleeping well at night for many years to come, let alone taking lunchtime siestas.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and appeared in Athens Plus on May 7.

That sinking feeling

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

A few weeks ago, when the economic crisis was still a novelty, Finance Minister Giorgos Papconstantinou inadvertently filled us with fear when he likened the Greek economy to the Titanic. But there was an attempt last Friday to dispel those terrifying mental images of our good ship being swallowed up by a sea of debt and its passengers hurtling towards financial destruction, when Prime Minister George Papandreou chose his visit to the far-flung Dodecanese island of Kastelorizo as the right moment to announce that Greece was formally requesting outside help.

As Papandreou spoke, the sun shone in the background, the sea glimmered and the white island houses beamed brilliantly. This was an ingenious way to dress up bad news. The message was clear: Greece’s economy is not at all like the Titanic, steaming toward a deadly iceberg. In fact, it is like the Love Boat, destined to float around quaint destinations aimlessly, and if it ever runs into any trouble, a friendly tugboat will soon come along to help it to safety.

Everything about the setting radiated calm, which is in short supply in Greece at the moment. Nevertheless, it puzzled many Greeks that a speech of such national importance, which would normally have been made in Athens, was being delivered almost 600 kilometers from the capital. For foreign observers, the subliminal message being broadcast from across the Aegean Sea was obvious.

“No wonder George Papandreou picked the exquisite Aegean island of Kastelorizo for his live broadcast last Friday, when he finally called on the world for emergency help,” wrote Bronwen Maddox in The Times daily. “The backdrop was the best advertisement that the prime minister could have found for Greece’s assets. It’s also a long way from the protests and strikes against austerity measures that are rocking Athens and other cities.”

The Financial Times’s Kerin Hope reported on how two ministers had apparently convinced Papandreou to deliver his speech “outside, in a stunning setting that would partly offset his gloomy message.”

If one of the purposes of Papandreou’s mis-en-scene was to assure foreigners that Greece was still open for desperately needed business, then it seems to have worked. The images of a sun-baked island coupled with talk of an economic crisis sent the writers at Britain’s conservative Daily Mail into a spin. “Holiday prices set to fall in Greece as country battles financial meltdown,” the newspaper informed its readers with glee.

For Greeks, though, the message implied in the dreamy backdrop was not as clear. Responses ranged from those that felt it was a sneaky political stunt designed to avoid a public backlash in Athens, to others who interpreted it as a symbolic gesture aimed at showing the diversity and richness of Greece — resources that will have to be tapped into if the country is going to survive the crisis.

The mixed domestic response perhaps reflects the underlying confusion in the way the message was conveyed. Papandreou spoke of “a new Odyssey” for Greece but did so from an island whose best years lie in the past — more than 100 years in the past — when it hosted the country’s most significant shipping fleets. Now, Kastelorizo is home to a dwindling population of some 400 people, who rely on nearby Turkey for many of their supplies. The message seemed to be that Greece was embarking on this “new Odyssey” without any new ideas or impetus.

“We are on a difficult course but we have charted the waters and we will reach Ithaca safely,” said Papandreou in reference to Odysseus’s legendary journey from Troy to his homeland. As was pointed out soon afterwards, Odysseus took 10 years to reach Ithaca and by the time he got there all his traveling companions had died. Dipping into Greece’s ancient past, Papandreou failed to come up with an inspiring message for the country’s future.

The mixed messages in his speech were symptomatic of a leader, a government, a country that is in a state of confusion. Papandreou talks about ignoring the bond spreads when it’s those very figures that are driving Greece into the arms of the IMF. His finance minister is negotiating salary cuts with the fund’s representatives, even in the private sector, at the same time as the labor minister is stating publicly that PASOK would never accept such a thing.

This bewilderment is reflected in the actions of common Greeks as well. “Hire more people, don’t cut wages,” demands one group, as another damages tourism, one of Greece’s economic pillars, by blocking a cruiseliner at Piraeus port. Then, the same day the Cabinet discussed an overhaul of local government that would save 1.8 billion euros of public money every year, crossing guards — people who are employed for a couple of hours every day — staged a protest to demand permanent jobs in the public sector.

The sun may have shone when Papandreou delivered his speech but many Greeks remain in the dark, confused about where the country is going. Hearing about a “new Odyssey” only compounds this because the journey Greece has embarked on is not a new one at all: pension reform, trimming the public sector, liberalizing closed professions and clamping down on tax dodgers — these were all things that were meant to have been done over the last three decades. We have set out on this Odyssey many times before, only to return before we had even left port.

It is only now that bleary-eyed Greeks, woken from years of sleepwalking, are beginning to realize that these issues remain untouched, and that as voters they must accept a huge share of the responsibility for this. Now, these reforms, and others, will have to be carried out under the watchful eye of outsiders. And in this sense, Kastelorizo was a good choice — at various times it has been occupied by the Crusaders, the Neapolitans, the Ottomans, the Venetians, the Italians, the French and the British.

The IMF with the backing of the European Commission is the one that will chart Greece’s course for the next few years, not Papandreou or his government. During that time, Greeks will have to emerge from their state of confusion and brace for the treacherous waves ahead — perhaps they will consider Papandreou’s words, not those spoken in Kastelorizo but a slogan he came up with during last year’s election campaign, which seems so prophetic now: “Either we change or we sink.”

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and appeared in Athens Plus on April 30.

No more Mr Nice Guy

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

In times of crisis, when the issues that our leaders have to deal with become infinitely more complex, our expectations of them become very simple. As the pressure is ratcheted up, we like our decision-makers to fall into one of two broad categories: either Mr Nice Guy or Mr Tough Guy. Greece embarked on its current treacherous journey with a prime minister that appeared more nice than tough, but George Papandreou increasingly looks like he’s steeled for the struggle.

If this metamorphosis is successful, apart from leading Greece out of the economic wilderness, Papandreou will also cause a reordering in the minds of most Greeks, whose default position during testing times is to pine for a tough guy, a man who will stand up for the country and put the others in their place, someone who will be unswerving in his attempt to reach a specific goal.

So, it was no surprise that a couple of weeks ago, Deputy Prime Minister Theodoros Pangalos, speaking to the BBC’s Malcolm Brabant, took a meaty swipe at the caliber of European Union leaders. He reminisced about a time when Europe was led by political heavyweights, such as Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterrand, not technocratic lightweights. “This is another level of leadership which we don’t have today. The quality of leadership today in the Union is very, very poor indeed,” he said.

There is no doubt that Thatcher, Kohl and Mitterrand provided era-defining leadership but they did so in completely different circumstances. They were political giants who roamed lands whose destiny could still be shaped, where national interest could still come first and in which they could rely on the unflinching support of a section of society. None of these conditions exist today: In an increasingly competitive world, there is little room or time to reshape a country; in an expanding European Union, collective interest often prevails; and in the age of “undecideds” or middle-ground voters, politicians have an ever-shrinking base of support to call on.

The sweeping transformation of Europe’s political and economic landscape since the 1980s to one where right and left, capitalism and socialism, have all been damaged, means that although the lessons learned from their time in power will always be relevant, longing for another Thatcher, Kohl or Mitterrand to make the ground shake is like wishing the dinosaurs would roam the earth again. Pangalos, an intelligent, outspoken politician who gives no quarter to the opposition and couldn’t give two hoots about what others think of his views, is a man of this bygone generation. But while Pangalosaurus Rex may miss running with the other political beasts, today’s leaders have to contend with a whole different set of challenges.

That’s not to say Papandreou and his peers cannot learn from what those who went before them got right and what they did wrong. But while Pangalos invokes the spirit of the loud, the proud, the dominant, perhaps the Greek prime minister should instead examine the achievements as well as the failings of a more quiet and unassuming political character: Michael Foot.

Foot, the leader of Britain’s Labour Party from 1980 to 1983, died last week at the age of 96. For someone who led the party to one of its heaviest ever election defeats, Foot was remembered with surprising passion. The fondness that many within, and beyond, the Labour Party have for him is kindled by the rare qualities he brought to politics: high principles, independent thinking and exquisite oratory skills that drew heavily on his love of literature.

It was Foot’s insistence on existing above politics, rather than sinking into its mire, that meant he stuck by ideas he felt to be morally correct rather than politically expedient. He kept to these principles when compiling Labour’s manifesto for the 1983 election, prompting one of his aides to call the program “the longest suicide note in history.” The Conservatives blew Foot’s party out of the water, Thatcher swept to 10 Downing Street and Britain’s, and perhaps the world’s, course shifted in a new direction.

Foot actually produced the most eloquent put-down of Thatcher ever uttered by a rival politician: “She has no imagination and that means no compassion.” Foot had plenty of both and although his manifesto in 1983 proved to be a disaster, looking back on it now, he appears much more imaginative and less of an idealistic dreamer than once thought. In fact, some of his policy proposals – increased public spending to ease an economic recession, greater control over the financial system, energy conservation and corporate regulation — are actually being implemented now by governments in Britain and elsewhere. Interestingly, the manifesto called for the return of exchange controls to “counter currency speculation” – the 1980s equivalent of Credit Default Swaps (CDS), which Papandreou has been touring the world trying to prevent. As he does so, Greece’s premier might want to consider that one of Foot’s greatest failings was that despite his unique grasp of the English language, he was unable to communicate his ideas convincingly.

Another of Foot’s failures was his inability to keep his party united – a problem that is already starting to rear its head at PASOK, as the party’s old, socialist guard attempts to resist Papandreou’s austerity measures. Foot found himself unable to bridge the gap between Labour’s left, which was still committed to the socialist policies that were torn apart when the International Monetary Fund imposed drastic spending cuts on Britain in the late 1970s (sound familiar?), and the more centrist wing, which eventually broke away to form a new party, the SDP. Foot was never able to get in step with the party’s base, tap into society’s sources of power or develop a strategy that would broaden Labour’s appeal. That’s why Foot was essentially a wonderful caretaker rather than a true leader. These are all aspects for Greece’s prime minister to ponder as he tries to balance harmony within his own party with the arduous changes being demanded of the country.

But if Papandreou is to take just one thing from Foot’s legacy, then it should be the words that he spoke in his final speech as Labour’s chief. Quoting from Joseph Conrad’s “Typhoon,” a story of a steamer encountering treacherous conditions in the South China Sea, he told his audience: “The sea never changes and its works, for all the talk of men, are wrapped in mystery… the heaviest seas run with the wind. Facing it – always facing it – that’s the way to get through.” Forget nice guys and tough guys, that’s what leadership is all about.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on March 12, 2010.