Bureaucracy paralyses day-to-day living in Greece as costs soar

Greece Letter: the public service has too many ‘passengers’ and lacks meritocracy, with a stifling level of state control affecting every aspect of ordinary life

A recent letter to the editor of this paper suggested that Ireland “is being strangled by red tape and mismanagement”. The writer hasn’t tried living in Greece, where bureaucracy is paralysing day-to-day living.

The advent, in 1981, of the Pasok (socialist) government, led by Andreas Papandreou, meant “jobs for the boys (and of course girls)”, creating a top-heavy public service in which many positions are sinecures. Clientelism, which had long been a feature of Greek society under Ottoman rule, continued under Papandreou’s adroit management of local politics. He was the first Greek politician to establish the equivalent of the cumann – local committees which established loyalties and obligations. He stood godfather to thousands of young people who thereafter benefited from his largesse and, in return, were indentured to him.

While it was advantageous that, with accession to the then EEC, Greece’s rising tide should lift all boats, the consequence has been to leave many such boats stranded above the receding tide of austerity. The moral is, you cannot have your caique and eat it. In particular, the public service has too many “passengers” and lacks meritocracy, with a stifling level of state control which affects every aspect of ordinary life.

For example. buying a second-hand car in Greece involves visits jointly by the vendor and purchaser to five different offices and a bank (as the purchaser pays tax on the transaction, which requires a bank draft). When I explained the Irish or British system to a man from whom I was buying a car (we had a half day to discuss this in our travels between one office and another) he said “‘I don’t believe you – it couldn’t be that simple!”

For decades successive governments have promised a “one-stop shop” for foreign investors who currently encounter the layers of bureaucracy (and bribery) necessary to set up a business here. But the same obstacles stand in the way of any initiative by Greek citizens, and is one of the most serious factors encouraging young Greeks to emigrate.

One inhibiting factor for young people is the school and university system, where most teaching is by rote and a strictly controlled curriculum. In May the education ministry published a new bill aimed at “a drastic overhaul of Greece’s chronically dysfunctional university institutions”, as newspaper Kathimerini put it. We have heard it all before. There is an innate conservatism in education, as in so many aspects of Greek culture and society, where it can be exceptionally valuable. But a system which gives little encouragement to lateral thinking by its brightest and most eager children diminishes the value of Greek life in general.

The most embarrassing instance of paralysis came in May with the announcement by the Niarchos Foundation (Greece’s biggest philanthropic body which built Athens’ new cultural centre, opera house and national library) that it was cancelling a €4 million grant for projects including a museum designed by Renzo Piano. The reason? “Five years of continuous delays and inaction on the part of the relevant authorities”, as Niarchos stated.

At the same time the financial crisis of 2010 and its aftermath (much of it due to government mismanagement), exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic and now by the financial consequences of the Ukraine war, has led to rapidly rising poverty levels. Inflation is at a 28-year high of over 10 per cent as costs of energy, housing, transportation and very basic food soar.

Despite government emphasis on foreign investment as a sign of international confidence in Greece, and despite the increasing “westernisation” of Greek society, the average monthly take-home wage of a public servant is €750, out of which rent, food and other necessities must be paid. Most recent data by the Hellenic Statistical Authority suggests that the average citizen currently has monthly expenses of more than €900 – a gap that is increasing and cannot be bridged.

We were told that rising energy costs would see an increase of approximately 40 per cent in electricity. When the bills arrived, we saw inexplicable rises between 100 per cent and 500 per cent, leaving consumers bewildered and outraged. We were told that, except for hotspots such as Mykonos, the property tax would be reduced for 90 per cent of house owners; my property tax, on a bog-standard bungalow in a remote village, was up 35 per cent.

Currently, in order to receive the next tranche (€6bn) from the EU’s Recovery and Resilience Fund, Greece must implement one reform every two days between June and September if it is to honour its commitment to a total of 65 administrative reforms, including professional training, licensing renewable energy projects, computerisation of retail checkouts (to eliminate tax fraud), agricultural investment and the creation of industrial parks. It is unlikely to happen.