I started writing on this site when I felt Ireland was in danger of being bullied out of the Euro. My objective was to find out what the options were for ordinary people to prepare for this. Ireland took the medicine doled out by the Troika, and now has a growing economy again, albeit one with an enormous proportion of our GDP due to the pharmaceutical industry. Is this where the story ends? The level of vitriol displayed during the water charges protest does not indicate a happy electorate, and the heavy handed manner of the recent water protest arrests is reminiscint of garda actions when the nude cartoon of Brian Cowen was slipped onto the wall of the national gallery in a move that rightly sparked accusations of autocracy. The prospect of a major change in government is a reality – it remains to be seen how much of the vote Sinn Fein will garner in the next election.
Meanwhile, the European crisis rumbles on. Greece also took its medicine, slashing public service jobs, wages, and in doing so precipitated a Depression-Era level contraction of their economy and a stagnation that goes on and on. And finally, we stand at a crossroads, with the election of a political party in Greece that (at least for now) says enough is enough.
I am a fan of any country where people can ride motorcycles helmets. So I was very happy to arrive in Syntagma square in central Athens and see lots of bikers tipping around helmetless and fancy free. I know the arguments against this – but I remember with pleasure my helmet free days riding around some of the states in the US where at the time it was legal. I was intrigued to hear that it IS illegal in Greece, and there are fines… but this is Greece I was told…
I came to sample the ambiance of a revolution as it happens – if there indeed is one… I believe there may well be given the statements by the Greek negotiating party – how refreshing to hear that the bureaucrats from the Troika had been told that they were dealing with sovereign nation and to take a hike.
Meanwhile back in Athens, I had been told that Exarchia square is traditionally a left wing hangout. It did not disappoint – the whole area shrouded in graffiti and packed with bars and cafes. The square itself is a congregation spot for young people who packed it out the Friday night after the election. There was definitely a feeling in the air. I ended up in a bar talking to some artists who were lucky enough to be landowners and had an income. Not sure they were exactly 1 percenters but hardly typical. Beer isn’t for nothing over here either (4.50 for a glass of beer). When you hear about salaries in the three figures for a month, it puts it in perspective.
As I write, the future of the Greeks within the Euro and perhaps the European project is not clear. Another Greek default is on the cards, and it is impossible to tell what the repercussions will be, although the risks to the European project are clear.
An irresponsible country?
Wandering around Athens for the weekend, I thought about all I have heard about Greek irresponsibility in recent years. My own feeling is that it is difficult to label an entire nation as irresponsible. I am a fan of the European Union because there has not been a war between members since its foundation, and this from a traditionally savagely warlike part of the world. I do not wish Greece to leave the union, and I do not want the union to break up. A Grexit may be the first step in that direction, which I feel should be avoided.
So are the Greeks “irresponsible”. Let us go with generalisations and see where it leads us…What is irresponsible? Fiscal, social, military? Irresponsibility…synonyms “reckless, rash, careless, thoughtlessness, misguided, heedless, negligent, uncaring…”
The story goes that Greek banks lent money to Greeks who went out and much like the Irish, went on a spending spree the likes of which had never been seen, buying among other things Porsches. I was recently informed there are more Porsche owners in Greece than top-rate tax payers. I did not verify this claim, and if true indicates a tax system in need of reform… but tell us something the Greeks themselves are not acknowledging. We know a few things about this ourselves. People were receiving emails from banks for pre-approved car-loans, and they… as humans do…often succumbed to temptation. This is bad stuff. Really bad. Reckless consumerism.
So let us expand our definition of “irresponsibility” beyond the narrow confines of “fiscal” responsibility.
It is important to point out the obvious here. Germany in Poland alone wiped out up to 5-6 million people during the period 1939-45. Reckless, rash, uncaring? This is just a fraction of the total deaths due to their military actions carried out in WW2. While Germany has done much to acknowledge this horror, for my money, the record nonetheless stands if we are to insist on labelling the irresponsibility of nations as a trait. If we are to be in a European union, then we must acknowledge our bedfellows. Greece wins out on the “not slaughtering millions” trait. The magnanimity of their debt forgiveness gesture in the 1950s may be overstated, as Germany was broke and simply was not going to be able to pay, but at least the nations that gathered in London to decide terms made a decision that gave Germany an opportunity to grow. It could have been very different. One Allied plan after world war two was to completely dismantle the German industrial complex and return it to an agrarian nation. Were it not for the Soviet threat, this may well have been the chosen option. Instead, and thankfully, Germany was afforded the opportunity to move on and has been in many ways a model of democracy since that time.
And of course Germany is not alone. Little Belgium under Leopold II oversaw the death of a reputed 10 million in the Congo between 1885-1908, a genocide that Irishman Roger Casement was heavily involved in bringing to light through his interaction with the heroic ED Morel, the Paris-born shipping agent Britain who refused to keep his mouth shout about the obvious.
What about France, another pillar of the European response to the Greek crisis? – Incredibly, after the slaughter of World War two, and in spite of less than enthusiastic support from the US, France elected to reassert itself in Vietnam in 1946 where Ho Chi Minh’s Democratic Republic of Vietnam lasted just 20 days before succumbing to French forces. Misguided, heedless, negligent? Fighting continued till 1954 with French defeat, but was a precursor to the devastating Vietnam war.
I have not mentioned the UK or others, but suffice to say, the irresponsibility of the nations that make up this union are many. The Greeks themselves invaded Turkey shortly after the end of World War 1. In Ireland too, undeniable facts regarding the extent of state and societal involvement in the appalling treatment of men women and children in institutes have been laid bare. Comparing slaughter in Europe to the Magdalene laundries may seem a leap, but Europe is the Europe of now, and policy makers in each country today are the heirs of this previous Europe.
If Europe is to succeed, and with it the peace within its borders, then the sense of optimism and togetherness that permeated the years preceding the euro crisis is needed. The past is not irrelevant. History should be moved on from but not ignored or forgotten. Each country in Europe is on a journey. Greece gained independence from the Ottoman empire in 1830, and its journey has not always been easy. Powerful and warlike neighbours have not helped.
But let us move to the now.
Has the treatment of the Greeks been akin to that of a bold child, by an uncaring, heedless Europe that has refused to acknowledge lessons from the past? I am disheartened to hear my own countrymen and women speak of them as such. One sometimes gets the feeling that people are dissatisfied that the Greeks are not more miserable. Pointing out that many Greeks actually do pay tax as PAYE workers, or that the minimum wage is a little over 500 Euro a month, or that pay-cuts of two thirds have taken place does not seem to generate much sympathy. After speaking with people in Athens, I can confirm that many are indeed miserable, and afraid of what happens next.
A Greek default with reasonable terms will allow the country the opportunity to grow and continue its European journey with optimism for her future and a shared destiny with countries large and small in a project that still has potential to be a social template for a bright future for all of us. I hope that they will be given that chance. The government in power in Greece has a mandate from its people and deserve the chance to put things right given that the “No alternative” plan has so far completely failed.
But this week will tell the story of what happens. A disorderly exit from the Euro does not seem to be concerning investors, but the effects of such an exit may not be so easily containable. Austerity in Europe will soon be effectively ended anyway by ECB actions, and it would be a shame not to allow Greece share in this.