Saturday 3 December 2016

The human cost of a Greek tragedy

Laura Heuvinck in Athens

Published 18/04/2015 | 02:30

An anti-establishment protester tries to attack riot police during a protest in Athens yesterday.
An anti-establishment protester tries to attack riot police during a protest in Athens yesterday.

A couple in their early 60s driving an old banger stop close to my apartment. I can see them from my window, looking suspiciously around them to see if anyone is watching as they edge towards the wheelie bin on the road.

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They open it and, having to climb half way into it to rummage around, they leave a minute later disappointed at the lack of usable items and drive further up the road to the next bin.

Having lived in Ireland during the crash, it's not like the trappings of poverty are alien to me, but this is different.

According to the 2013 Eurostat figures, more than one in three Greeks are at risk of poverty. Poverty in Greece means living on or on less than €13,842 for a four-person household. That hurts.

Granted life, particularly rent and groceries, is cheaper in Greece than in Ireland. But many Greeks are on the legal minimum wage of €683 a month, while a coffee is still €2.50 and my second-hand 2010 VW Polo was still €10,000.

The situation is unbearable for 3.6 million Greeks and has prompted the newly elected left-wing government Syriza to legislate for a "humanitarian crisis".

This move gives food and electricity to those most in need and was supported even by the main opposition New Democracy party, a sister party of Angela Merkel's CDU and of Fine Gael.

The first loan of €110bn to Greece was in 2010 and since then, the IMF, ECB and European Commission have been part of all Greek spending decisions and ensuring that the austerity measures were implemented.

Almost five years later and another €213bn added on top of the pile, Greeks are back at the edge of the cliff.

I'm no economist so I can't explain why or how it all went so wrong, but I must agree with the Syriza voters who have decided to let someone else have a chance.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has the tough job of negotiating with a group where no one is on his side, but he has a strong Greek backing of those who are sick and tired of seeing their personal situation getting worse while for five years there were promises of recovery.

What Tsipras does not have, however, is a mandate to leave the eurozone, as 76pc of Greeks remain in favour of keeping the euro.

Facing the dilemma of a Grexit or Graccident is weighty. Whether they walk, fall or tumble out of the eurozone, decisions will be made in the coming weeks, as the Greeks will fast run out of cash. Yet aside from the repercussions on the eurozone and the EU project, the fear remains that if Greece defaults, will the badly needed structural reforms actually take place?

Will the culture of tax avoidance and evasion be finally tackled? Or what about the corruption problem, another subject where the Hellenic Republic has scored the second-worst in the EU class?

Plato spoke extensively about corruption in ancient Greece, so perhaps it was inevitable that the same disease would afflict modern Greece. However, like any disease, corruption can be eradicated - and has been in many countries within one or two generations.

Nonetheless, the civic duty that comes with paying taxes fairly and contributing to society is lacking amongst Greeks. Corruption, oligarchs, tax evasion - sure, the list of problems is extensive, but the other truth is that austerity has not worked.

The question on everyone's mind is how come the same medicine prescribed by the Troika has worked better in Ireland than in Greece?

Both countries had external advisers for years (although the Troika has been banned from Athens since Syriza's rise to power, only 'low-level technocrats' are still allowed to visit the Greek capital).

So how come Ireland is the best pupil in the class and Greece the poorest?

Important differences exist between Ireland and Greece.

First, the Greek version of democracy is different. Irish voters look to continue their support for the Fine Gael-Labour coalition until at least the end of this political term, creating some stability. Whereas most Greeks probably cannot remember the last time an incumbent prime minister sat out his full term. Political stability is the mother of economic stability.

Second, emigration among highly-educated Greek and Irish young people is most likely similar, but the language barrier is a problem faced by all those made unemployed by the construction bubble. Many of the Greek electricians or quantity surveyors would not have a near-fluent second language like English that enables them to emigrate to places like Australia or Canada. Although emigration comes with its own problems, it provides a short-term financial solution to many young Irish people.

My third - and more random - thought on why there could be a difference between Ireland and Greece could be birth rate.

While Greek families have reduced the number of children they have due to the crisis, the Irish intend to spend their way out of the crisis by keeping up the highest birth rate in Europe.

It would not be fair for Greece to default on its loans, just when Ireland is finally seeing some light at the end of the tunnel after years of hardship, but perhaps it is time to admit that the Irish solution is not the answer to the Greek question.

Irish Independent

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