Greece wants Greek solution to problems, not 'Merkelisation'


LETTER FROM GREECE:THE 19TH-CENTURY American writer Henry David Thoreau observed that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”. That is certainly not the case in Greece, where desperation is becoming increasingly unquiet as life, and the country itself, collapses under the burden of new austerity measures.

The unrest is not only in the “mass of men” but within the system itself. Riot police recently dispelled a protest outside parliament by their off-duty colleagues; civil servants in the finance ministry have blocked access to the building for incoming EU inspectors.

Perhaps the most bizarre, as well as the most insulting, incident came when deputy prime minister Theodoros Pangalos (a former communist) announced that he would not be able to pay the €7,500 tax for which he has been assessed in respect of the 54 properties he owns. Last year he declared an income of €614,000. Our hearts bled for him so much that in Corfu we joked about taking up a collection, until we found that the people of Rhodes had done just that.

If the emergency property tax bill is sent together with the electricity bill, as decreed by the government, those who don’t pay will be disconnected: in some cases this is “can’t pay” and in others “won’t pay”, but the result is the same. The union in the electricity company says it isn’t there to collect taxes, so there is doubt as to whether that will happen. Collection of several billions through this tax is perhaps the most vital part of the government’s attempt to reduce the national deficit, along with a one-off “solidarity” tax on wage-earners to pay the unemployed (which the government can’t afford to do), the sacking of 30,000 civil servants, and reduction of the taxable income threshold, originally from €11,000 to €8,000 and now €5,000.

In 1967, when he was 15, a gun was literally put to George Papandreou’s head by officials of the military junta while ransacking the family home in search of his father, Andreas, subsequently prime minister.

Today, he has the EU’s gun to his head. Which is worse, and is there, in fact, any difference? The traumatic effect of the 1967 experience may still resonate in his mind when faced with an equally impossible situation today. If the next tranche of €8 billion bailout is paid, it will merely postpone what is now widely seen as the inevitable scenario of Greek insolvency and default.

If there is one positive aspect to Greek public opinion, it is that Greece would rather sort out its own problem without interference and dictation from Brussels and Berlin, and fail on Greek terms. A Greek solution to a Greek problem.

Many believe that sovereignty and self-respect can only be restored by a return to the drachma. This would make Greece more competitive and affordable and it would make Greece Greek again, not merely a puppet and an adjunct of the big states. But this runs counter to Papandreou’s determination to “change Greece”, to make it more European, efficient and transparent.

So there’s another gun to Papandreou’s head: public opinion. The fact that he is attempting almost single-handedly to change the trajectory of his country does not accord with irredentist Greeks who see their destiny in the Balkans and Asia. Papandreou is without doubt the most intelligent politician in Greece today, but he is castrated by his own brains.

Even with his American birthright (his mother is American and he was born in California during his father’s exile) and his pan-European experience, he knows that you cannot change the Greek DNA. But he asks us to cling to Europe, and this is his mistake in the eyes of most Greeks, who see Europe as an unfriendly, if not a hostile, entity, pursuing the “Merkelisation” of Greece.

The glue that holds any society together is consensus, but what makes it vibrant is dissent. Greece is on the brink of collapse – some say civil war. As normal society grinds to a halt exemplified by the 48-hour national strike that starts this morning, the implosion will necessitate intervention to ensure distribution of essential goods and services. It is not unthinkable that the army might undertake those, and other more far-reaching, roles, at which point we should all be reading Thoreau’s short essay On the Duty of Civil Disobedience. But does the army necessarily support this, or any other, government? A military – or quasi-military – regime in Greece would be far more damaging to the EU than a Greek default.

It seems that in making everyone – except perhaps the super-rich – pay for Greece’s financial mistakes, the government is completely insensitive not only to public opinion but also to the hurt this will inflict on those who simply cannot afford it. For example, the removal of the subsidy on home heating oil will effectively double the price to the householder; in 2012 the price of electricity will increase by 30 per cent.

Thoreau wrote: “When I meet a government which says to me ‘Your money or your life’, why should I be in haste to give it my money?”

A referendum is to be held to test the waters on this issue: how the Greeks will answer Thoreau’s question will be crucial to the survival of the state.