Wednesday 28 September 2016

No harmony in the lullabies as the cradle of our civilisation is rocked

Gerard O'Regan

Published 27/06/2015 | 02:30

A woman walks past a mural of praying hands in Athens as the ruling Syriza party dismissed reform demands from the country’s international creditors as 'blackmail' this week
A woman walks past a mural of praying hands in Athens as the ruling Syriza party dismissed reform demands from the country’s international creditors as 'blackmail' this week

The author and broadcaster Germaine Greer once suggested that every woman, at least once in her life, should have a relationship - preferably of the torrid kind - with an Italian man.

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She did not elaborate, but presumably it's got something to do with what has been dubbed "Latin Lover Syndrome".

Popular imagination has it that the Italian male does indeed have a panache and style, in relationships with the opposite sex, which leaves his northern European counterpart floundering. However, despite the assurances of Ms Greer, there are many without first-hand experience of such matters, who can only take her views at face value.

But the national stereotype of the Italians and their capacity for la dolce vita - the good life - is rooted in the popular imagination. It's right up there with the widely held belief that most Germans are hard-working, super-organised, and always on time.

However, when we think of the Greeks, what image comes into our heads? Certainly we've got to see and hear a lot of their politicians on our television screens in recent months. However, behind the often false bonhomie and gargantuan handshakes for the cameras, a palpable aura of distrust is usually obvious after yet another failed meeting.

Whatever the immediate to long-term fallout from the current situation, a growing unease that the Greek authorities cannot be relied upon to uphold their side of a bargain is now a huge problem for the country.

Maybe the rot set in when they first joined the euro. There is still suspicion that the books were cooked somewhat by the government at the time so they could avoid making unpopular financial decisions.

Of course, there was also fault on the other side. The powers-that-be in Brussels, in classic Eurocrat style, seemed to look the other way, because having them within the fold was ''good for business''.

But once the good times began to slip away - as we in Ireland know only too well, to our cost - the devil started to appear in the detail. Suddenly the whole of Europe seemed to start zoning in on the Greeks and how they kept their national accounts.

And then, as the billions started moving to Athens to try and keep the ship of state afloat, a perception that the Greek economy was a bottomless black hole began to gather pace. This is a belief shared by a range of countries, from Germany to Finland and from Austria to Estonia, and has been the biggest obstacle in trying to swing another bailout deal these last few months.

It was compounded by the fact that the new wave of Greek politicians wielding power continuously overplayed the victimhood card. There has been scant acknowledgement that many of the country's problems are self-inflicted and have been left to fester for decades.

Much has been said about non-payment of tax - and, in fairness, this issue has probably been overstated. It has been suggested, that in reality about two thirds of the population have no option but to pay up, because the money is deducted at source.

But all the figures show there still is a huge problem with a black economy culture which infiltrates all levels of Greek society. The classic case of the plumber wanting to be paid in cash is one thing - but many in the relatively affluent middle class, including doctors and lawyers, are of the same mindset.

Those dubbed oligarchs, plus business people of varying hue, who have traditionally been close to the country's power structures, have salted away billions in Swiss bank accounts.

International monitoring agencies also suggest corruption and the culture of the backhander remain deeply ingrained in the public service. Meanwhile, a self-protectionist, closed-shop mentality, manifest in various trade and business cartels, stifles much initiative and human ingenuity.

Such attitudes may be rooted in the country's history, when, during the long centuries of Turkish rule, most Greeks felt more than justified in fiddling what they could from the state. But in the era of the EU-funded bailout, it's time for such three-card-trickery to end.

Syriza is a Greek acronym for 'The Party of the Radical Left' and has many members with no experience of ever being in government. They loathe the capitalist club which is the EU; and, instinctively and emotionally, they would like to be out of it. The signs are that some would be willing to take their chances in a kind of ''go it alone'' philosophy, and tell their overlords in Brussels and Frankfurt to get stuffed.

Tsipras, for his part, has been throwing shapes in the direction of Russia, the country's ''cultural cousin''.

It has greatly delighted Alexander Putin, who has been on the international back foot since his adventures in Ukraine.

But from a Greek viewpoint there are two key problems with this approach. Russia does not have the funds to provide a long-term subsidy to keep the Athens government afloat. And, maybe more pertinent is that, whatever their misgivings about the way they have been treated by the EU, over 75pc of the Greek population want to keep the euro.

Down in the right-hand corner of Europe, most Greeks, with their ancient and proud history of being the ''cradle of democracy, do not wish to pursue a policy of economic isolation or some new arrangement which would make them overly dependent on Russia.

But, at the risk of sounding too simplistic, they can't have their cake and eat it. Staying with the euro, for good or ill, means interacting with the Germans, simply because they are Europe's economic powerhouse. And it means doing deals with the dreaded ECB and IMF.

This has been the paradox at the centre of the Greek negotiating position. They have cleaved to a belief that they have more negotiating power than is the case.

However, Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis continues to console us with his designer leather jackets, and even on occasion with his grand-looking motorcycle.

It all seems just a little too flash. But sometimes, style does win out over substance - just ask Germaine Greer about those Italian men.

Irish Independent

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