Only thing certain for Greeks is their ongoing bleak outlook
Greece Letter: Measures to alleviate austerity are only deepening country’s financial vortex
Protesters clash with riot police outside the Athens parliament building over planned government reforms, on January 12th, 2018. Photograph: Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters
“Greece is a land where you can fool none of the people none of the time” wrote an American observer in 1944. He attributed this to the “lightning-like intelligence” of the people. Today, however, Greeks feel they have been fooled because there is such a growing mismatch between what should be happening and what is actually happening.
There is, also, however, the danger of a “cultivation of victimhood”, blaming others for your own misfortunes. No one is suggesting the Greeks are not partly responsible for their condition. Nor does anyone deny that vigilante gangs of neo-Nazis attack Muslims and non-whites on the streets of Athens and set fire to synagogues. But the economic and refugee crises have been exacerbated by international paralysis.
No one knows who is fooling who, but everyone is sure that deceitfulness is rampant in government, and particularly in relations with the EU and Greece’s Balkan neighbours – Albania, Macedonia and Turkey.
Although the EU and the International Monetary Fund admit that they imposed the wrong solutions to the 2010 crisis, there is no way they can, or want to, rectify their errors. But they still try to convince themselves, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that the situation can be rectified. The Greek press therefore continually emphasises that solutions must come from within.
The voters who brought Syriza to power are disillusioned by its U-turns and non-performance of election promises. But they are equally disillusioned by the alternative: especially by the leader of the opposition, Kyriakos Mitsotakis.
Syriza represented a break with a history dominated by political dynasties of which Mitsotakis is a part. Syriza, due to its inexperience in government and its timorous capitulation to the EU and the IMF, has failed to deliver on transparency, accountability, structural reform and an end to cronyism. Almost no progress has been made on any of these fronts, but voters see no chance of any other party initiating change. Which makes them very conscious of how vulnerable the country is to globalisation and geopolitics.
Greece has always been pushed around by the bigger states and, now, by the Leviathan of the EU and the invisible world of capital. That will never change and, however much Greeks may dream of past, classical, glories, they know they will always be influenced by geopolitics. They may have defeated the Persians at Marathon in 490BC, but that doesn’t mean they have a leadership role in modern-day Middle East.
Greece inevitably balances vertiginously between East and West. Although most politicians see the Greek future firmly in Europe, they also recognise the need to revolutionise the economy through investment from megapowers like China, which is acquiring property and options throughout the region.
Despite Greece’s desperate need to grow the economy, new measures designed to alleviate austerity are in fact deepening the financial vortex. Statistics jostle each other for credibility. Conflicting prognoses suggest not so much deceit as uncertainty. No one, not even the experts, really has a clue what is the current state of play and therefore no one can predict what will happen next. But everyone agrees the economic forecast is bleak on the macro level and in their own homes.
It is still almost impossible to start your own business due to prohibitive tax and bureaucracy. Pensions are shrinking; employers’ social security contributions are rising; the minimum monthly wage is now €586 while the average industrial wage is €1,000 per month. The tax threshold for a single person is due to drop from €8,600 to €5,600. Even if the economy grows, the national debt will increase to €342 billion, thus ensuring decades of repayments.
This all means less spending in the shops, less prospect of getting a job or renting an apartment, and less tax to the exchequer. The lightning intelligence still inhabits the Greek spirit, but most of it is emigrating to where its expertise can find worthwhile, rewarding work.
Above all, in the much-vaunted but unlikely event of exiting the bailout this year, Greece will remain under severe scrutiny by the EU and creditors for many years. Exit from the bailout depends not only on fiscal rectitude but also on the privatisation programme and on structural reforms demanded by the EU, which are proceeding at a snail’s pace.
Greeks want to wake up in the same country where they went to sleep before the crisis. To that extent, they are fooling themselves, but no one else. One thing is certain: you can all be uncertain all of the time.