Greece Letter: Skilled workers the main export as bailout gains fail to show
Instead of selling their food abroad, Greeks are leaving their country in order to eat
Feta cheese on a market stall in Thessaloniki, Greece. Photograph: Oliver Bunic/Bloomberg via Getty
A Greek government minister recently alleged that Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister, “never wanted the Greek bailout programme to succceed”. This conspiracy theory gains in credibility as Schäuble continues to obstruct efforts at debt relief. And Mervyn King, former governor of the Bank of England, describing the EU’s “existential problems”, suggested that German voters were not in favour of “propping up less competitive economies”.
Many in Greece would wonder why “competitiveness” should be a measure of one’s success in life. Providing love and sustenance for one’s family is absolutely non-negotiable for Greeks, whose sense of honour (filotimía) is inalienably connected with self-respect and self-sufficiency. To be under a debt of obligation (ipochréosi) within the clientelist system that permeates Greece is honourable, if embarrassing.
But to be in debt outside one’s own society, to be tied to the fortunes and diktats of international finance, is dishonourable because it is shameful, especially when it is seen to be inflicted by a country from which Greece suffered so much in the second World War.
If by competitiveness we mean success in business, then the achievements of Greeks abroad stand head and shoulders above those of many other nationalities. Greeks, like many others, including the Irish, were driven abroad by poverty and famine in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The incentive to succeed in host countries such as the US was based on survival. Greeks founded a legendary shipping industry with luminary names such as Onassis, Niarchos, Goulandris and Chandris. Fifteen Greeks are among the world’s top 100 shipowners.
Today, emigration is near to catastrophic. The Bank of Greece estimates that more than 400,000 people have left Greece since 2008. The loss of skilled workers is the most damaging. About 35,000 doctors, 8,000 of them newly qualified, have emigrated. A starting doctor’s salary in the UK is £28,000 (€32,000); in Germany, it is €36,000; in Sweden, €72,000; in Saudi Arabia, €132,000 tax-free. At home, if there were vacancies, the pay would be €14,400.
Greeks are leaving in order to eat, whereas Greece should be exporting its food, not its brains. Eight of the top 20 Greek exports are food products: olive oil, olives, cheese, fish, fruit and honey, selling principally to Italy, Germany, Cyprus, Bulgaria and Turkey.
Apart from the lack of an export agency such as Enterprise Ireland, the main problem is a lethargic bureaucracy. The Panhellenic Exporters Association has criticised the non-appearance of incentives promised under the bailouts, while the current restrictions on banking abroad have inhibited investment in overseas markets. In Ireland, Michael Noonan may have been correct when he famously said that the only Greek product familiar to supermarket shoppers was feta cheese.
The Greek state budget for 2017 has identified as one of its key strategies the need to boost exports, acknowledging that lack of synergies and the oligopolistic nature of industry have hampered the growth of small and medium-sized companies. Exports represent 10 per cent of GDP (half that of tourism), against an EU average of 25 per cent.
Setting up a business in Greece costs twice the European average and the applicant has to jump successive hurdles because the “one-stop shop” promised by successive governments has never materialised. Applause for Greeks who achieve success abroad is therefore all the more audible.
Light in the tunnel
If small is beautiful, then the recent achievements of Greeks abroad is a light in the tunnel of disincentives. In Düsseldorf, Stavros Evangelos, a young award-winning baker, is cornering a market in specialist breads. He says: “If I had stayed in Greece, I would never have realised my dreams.”
One of the really disappointing aspects of Greece abroad is the lack of Greek restaurants, unless a city is large enough, like Chicago, to sustain a “Greek quarter”. In Dublin, I can think of only two authentic Greek tavernas, and mourn the loss of Ramos’s outstanding buffet in the now defunct Epicurean Food Hall. Over the past 20 years, too many Greek restaurants have come and gone, when they could be flagships for both tourism and culture.
In London, a young Greek banker who anticipated the financial crash set up a catering business, Kalimera (it means “good morning”), and now operates a restaurant in Camden Market and a food truck in Paddington, patronised by a queue of businessmen and bankers.
Meanwhile, a dermatologist working in Germany, who wants to go home, and says:“We will have a lot to offer in the way of different ethics and mentalities. No country could suffer a fate as bad as Greece. It has been totally humiliated by corrupt politicians and a system that was tolerated for far too long”.
On a London street, ex-banker Telemachus Argiriou continues to sell “extra virgin Greek food” to his former colleagues. Maybe Mervyn King is one of them.