Tuesday 21 May 2019

Despite the hubris of Greek leaders, it is appalling to see a proud nation on its knees

Reforms are needed from Greece, no matter how disillusioned with Europe the population is
Reforms are needed from Greece, no matter how disillusioned with Europe the population is
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

In Greek tragedy, hubris is a character's excessive pride or self-confidence resulting in loss of contact with reality. It offends the gods, who punish the individual because neither fate nor the gods can be thwarted.

Aristotle refers to it in his work 'Rhetoric', saying young men and the rich are hubristic. He does not include politically naive governments overplaying their hand, but that springs to mind watching the Syriza coalition engage in brinkmanship.

There are false gods, of course. The troika is one. Unchecked capitalism is another. Communism is yet another. The Greek government is not emerging well from the current crisis, but neither are the institutions with which it has been negotiating.

Meanwhile, Greek people are suffering. They are a resilient race, but tough times lie ahead. The blame can be parcelled out in many directions. But recriminations are not useful compared with solutions. And the obvious one is growth first, debt repayment later. That's not only the practical but the humane way forward.

From our Olympian heights here in Ireland - shaky though our claim is to any moral high ground - we can learn a useful lesson in time for the General Election. Beware of politicians bearing unrealistic promises. The rise of the Independents has been a recent feature of the political landscape. But outlandish pledges without economic substance? That's reminiscent of Syriza, elected on the myth that an unreformed Greece could remain in the euro.

Alexis Tsipras's left-wing coalition was right to seek improved terms. But the miscalculation of his approach highlights his regime's inexperience. There is an art to government and it can look deceptively simple. In fact, it is a balancing act involving backroom diplomacy and trade-offs, among other skills.

A leader should stand up for his people, but not so ineptly that his actions threaten to unleash a tidal wave of economic damage. Holding a referendum after the end of a bailout programme requiring renegotiation does not strengthen a negotiator's position. It limits their choices. Defaulting on the IMF does likewise.

Instead of having Europe over a barrel the Greeks are staring down the mouth of a different sort of barrel.

There is no danger of contagion in the eurozone from a Greek exit. It was a problem four years ago when a number of countries, including Ireland, were floundering. But the contamination deterrent no longer exists. That's another of Greece's tactics rendered useless.

Here's what rating agency Standard and Poor's says: "While both parties to the negotiations may have miscalculated, the price for the error is very much higher for Greece than it is for the EU partners, whose economic and financial linkages with Greece (which accounts for less than 2pc of eurozone GDP) are low." Meaning Greece stands to lose more than Europe. This is a David and Goliath story with no slingshot in David's hands.

However, the troika has also been ham-fisted. It devised an unworkable bailout package for Greece that pushed people into poverty. Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz hit the nail on the head: "It is startling that the troika has refused to accept responsibility for any of this or admit how bad its forecasts and models have been."

Has the bullish Tsipras stance been the best way to face down Europe? That's of particular interest in Ireland, where many feel we let ourselves be pushed around. But capital controls are not a pretty sight.

Arguably, we accepted the troika's medicine partly because we took some measure of responsibility for our situation. By comparison, Greek people blame everyone but themselves. Back to hubris.

A key fact to absorb about Greece is that tax evasion is normal, widespread, and without repercussions. That's not why Greece finds itself backed into a corner, but it's a contributory factor.

In his book 'Boomerang', about the world debt crisis, American writer Michael Lewis makes the case that tax evasion has been tolerated by one Greek government after another, as have corruption, inefficiency, and a bloated public service.

To its credit, Syriza highlighted the need to clamp down on tax evasion.

But its handling of Sunday's referendum does not reflect well on the government.

It is stoking national indignation when it needs to tell people clearly what they are voting for - what No means. Soldiers guarding cash machines? Hospitals running out of supplies? Salaries suspended for state workers? Pensions axed? Shortages in supermarkets? Rationing at petrol stations? Increased odds on a military dictatorship? Capitalism is cruel, but military rule is pitiless. An inexperienced government on an ideological hobby horse can push a country towards destruction.

How to save face now, and pave the way for compromise? Reforms are needed from Greece, no matter how disillusioned with Europe the population is. And Europe needs to abandon the comfort blanket that Greece should never have been part of the union, as though that justifies pushing it overboard.

Nobody was press-ganged into joining the EU and nobody is manacled to it. But it is appalling to watch a proud nation on its knees and not stretch out a helping hand.

Empathy with the distress of the Greeks becomes us here in Ireland - not least because we, too, have been through the troika grinder. Incidentally, empathy is another term from Greek drama. This is a people worth reaching out to, Europe.

Irish Independent

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