Illustration in linocut by Manos Symeonakis
Is Greece corrupt? If it’s possible to quantify such things, as the graft watchdog Transparency International does regularly, then the answer is yes. Does that make all Greeks corrupt? Emphatically, no. Does it mean that Greece is forever destined to walk Europe’s corridors of power feeling like an inbred among lots of thoroughbreds? Again, absolutely not. It’s really as simple as that. But over the past few days, much of the media and political world — no strangers to the odd corrupt moment themselves — decided it would be more fun to muddy the waters. At a time when thousands of people’s jobs are on the line and the country’s immediate future still hangs in the balance, they chose to play a childish game of pinning blame for the corrupt image that haunts Greece.
At the sidelines of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank meeting in Washington last Friday, the head of the Eurogroup, Jean-Claude Juncker, held a news conference. During this session, which was not attended by any Greek journalists, Juncker referred to a Greek prime minister openly admitting that his country was corrupt. When his comments were later reported second- and third-hand, it sparked faux moral anguish from scores of politicians and journalists. Suddenly, there was a hunt on to uncover this dastardly Greek premier, who so heartlessly sold his country down the river to snobbish European bureaucrats. It was a game that PASOK and New Democracy played with glee.
Forgotten for the past few months in the fusty attic that politics reserves for retired leaders, Costas Simitis sprang into life like a well-oiled jack-in-the-box to vehemently deny he’d ever claimed Greece was corrupt — even though this was the same Simitis who, as prime minister, in a frank assessment of his nation’s deep-rooted incompetence following the sinking of the Samina Express passenger ferry in September 2000 had said: “That’s Greece.” Another ex-premier, Costas Karamanlis, the talking bear whose pull string no longer works, also let it be known via his friends that he would never bring such shame on the country he served for five and a half years — even though this was the same Karamanlis who six months after coming to power in 2004 had told a select group of MPs over souvlaki and beer that he was determined to confront corruption by taking on the “five pimps” (industrialists and publishers) that controlled the country.
As it turned out, Juncker had not recounted a private conversation with either of these premiers. The head of the group of 16 countries that use the euro currency had simply referred to one of several public comments over the last 12 months by current Prime Minister George Papandreou about his country’s unsuccessful battle against graft. This appeared to settle the dispute but, aided by compliant members of the media, ND and PASOK tried to squeeze a little more playtime out of the affair, launching claims and counterclaims at each other. Oblivious to the hypocrisy of it all, ND even demanded an apology from PASOK on behalf of Karamanlis for implicating the ex-prime minister. Meanwhile, nobody spared a thought for the Greek people, who were the ones really deserving of an apology.
All this flapping over trivialities meant that an added, more important dimension to Juncker’s comments went largely unnoticed in Greece. The Luxembourg prime minister said he’d known for some time that the Greek economy would hit a brick wall but he “could not go public with the knowledge.” The crisis could have been avoided, in Juncker’s opinion, if Greece had adopted different policies in the past. “It was clear that this problem would occur,” he said, according to the Irish Times, which was actually at his news conference. “We knew it would, because we were discussing it among the Germans, the French and myself.”
How gratifying it is to know that Greece’s failed policies, for which the same Greek taxpayers have been paying for so many years, provided a hot topic for conversation between our continental partners — partners who, for reasons that Juncker did not clarify, decided to remain silent about these catastrophic shortcomings. Could it be that as long as Greece was useful to Germany and France as an importer of goods and purchaser of weapons, nobody wanted to rock the boat? Or, was it that they feared the impact on the single currency if widespread corruption and mismanagement was uncovered in one of the eurozone’s member states? Maybe Juncker will eventually reveal what prevented Europe’s big players from enforcing the strict terms of monetary union and forcing Greece to put its house in order, allowing instead one of the members of what was once known as a “community” and now as a “union” to dig an ever deeper hole for itself as they looked on in silence.
Of course, Juncker and other European leaders would argue that they cajoled their Greek counterparts in a way that avoided publicity so as to minimize the damage to the country’s credibility. Presumably, they would also argue that, ultimately, it was Greece’s responsibility to implement the changes its eurozone peers had recommended. Both arguments are valid. After all, it would be a serious dereliction of duty if a country’s leader consistently ignored warnings that disaster would strike unless specific measures were taken, wouldn’t it?
It was illuminating, therefore, to read Tony Barber’s account in the Financial Times last week about how European leaders arrived in April and May at the decision to provide, with the assistance of the IMF, 110 billion euros of emergency loans to Greece and then set up a 750-billion-euro “stabilization mechanism” for the other eurozone countries. Barber describes how on May 7 in Brussels, Jean-Claude Trichet, the president of the European Central Bank, spoke bluntly to the leaders of eurozone countries about the dangers to the single currency. “Mr Trichet told the leaders that the crisis was partly their own fault because they had too often turned a deaf ear to ECB appeals for fiscal discipline after the euro’s launch,” writes Barber. “The ECB, he said, had repeatedly warned of the need for strict control of public borrowing and spending.”
Well, what do you know? Could it be that at the same time Greek leaders were unwilling to heed advice because it involved taking non-politically expedient measures, their European counterparts were doing exactly the same thing?
The furor over Juncker’s comments should not disguise that Greece has a serious corruption problem, which is clear to all regardless of whether our leaders admit it publicly or not. But the dust that’s been kicked up this week by politicians and journalists should also not cloud the fact that although hypocrisy is a Greek word, it’s not an exclusively Greek trait.
This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on October 15, 2010.