Old-fashioned Greece has no chance of becoming truly developed

Greece letter: Corruption, tourist ‘resortification’ and poor education and connectivity stifle progress

What is a developed country? Since at least 1980, when Greece joined the European Economic Community, as it was then, the country has been struggling to become an economic success like the “developed” countries of the now EU. And failing. I’m referring not to the economic collapse in 2010, and the consequent austerity measures, but to the overall strategies for becoming “westernised” and modernised.

As Roderick Beaton (one of the most acute commentators on Greek history) recently observed, “since independence Greeks have faced choices between competing versions of who they really are”. This divisive uncertainty about how to exercise freedom and organise society is a postcolonial legacy, evident today in the contrast between the haves and the have-nots.

Greece, like Ireland (as Fintan O’Toole argued in this paper last month), is both overdeveloped and underdeveloped, but cannot call itself a “developed” country as western economists or sociologists would see it. Yes, the new Athens airport has a rail link to the capital’s splendid metro, and yes the government gives a €150 subsidy to reduce the costs of a “staycation”. But according to EU statistics in 2020, 30 per cent of Greek people were at risk of poverty or social exclusion, compared with 21 per cent for Ireland. Only Romania and Bulgaria are more vulnerable. In fact tax dodgers hugely outnumbered those living below the poverty line. Figures for 2019 show an estimated total of €100 billion in unpaid taxes — an increase from €40 billion in 2010.

One head of a special taskforce to identify tax evaders resigned out of frustration, telling an international conference about the “4-4-2″ formula: no, not football but the tax (evasion) system; any tax collected is divided: 40 per cent is rebated to the taxpayer, 40 per cent is pocketed by the tax collector, and 20 per cent finds its way into the exchequer. His successor, who also resigned, acknowledged that on several occasions he was “advised” by senior politicians not to proceed against specific tax culprits. The power of politicians — especially inside the clientelist system — is intimately linked to wealth.


Three main areas demonstrate the inequalities strangling Greece: education, tourism and clientelism/bribery.

Education is riven by class and economic divisions, as revealed last month in a study by the University of Crete. Of the “free” secondary school system, one newspaper, Kathimerini, said “It’s not free and it’s not education”. The annual budget for education is insufficient to meet modern standards. If you want your children to go to university, it’s almost obligatory to send them to one of the 3,000 crammers (the frontistirio, technically a “tutorial college”). Anxious parents are paying an annual total of €1.6 billion, or an average of €200 per month per child. It’s been described as a form of kleptocracy.

Greece does not have history, or the industrial revolution, on its side. It does not have the close relationship to the European (and world) banking system. Yet it continues to believe that it must catch up

Tourism: in the 1960s and 1970s Gerald Durrell lambasted the Greeks for their greed in developing tourism far beyond their, and the country’s, capacity. Today multinationals set the pace for resortification. Foreign investment of this type, the mantra of the Harvard-educated PM, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, is seen as a panacea when in fact it is a placebo: there is no overall vision for the development of the country’s biggest industry.

Clientelism: bribery is rife throughout the administrative system, but particularly in health and planning applications. The EU recently revealed that 91 per cent of attendees at a health service expected to pay a bribe in order to access adequate medical or nursing attention, compared with the EU average of 29 per cent. The fakeláki or “small brown envelope” is a sine qua non of one’s health.

Greece ranks 32nd of 66 countries surveyed in terms of its digital connectivity — three places behind Ireland, due to poor roll-out of digital infrastructure, but more significantly social and economic conditions. The “brain drain” of young graduates is severe, due partly to the better pay available overseas and partly to the lack of encouragement for young ideas. So much so that in 2014 the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels hosted an exhibition of contemporary Greek art entitled (paraphrasing WB Yeats) No Country for Young Men.

Greek “filotimia” — the sense of dignity, self-esteem and, above all, honour that guides the family in all its transactions — is the most powerful imperative for Greek people. It is seriously at risk from the homogenisation and globalisation of their lives.

The reality is that Greece, with its adherence to old-fashioned values, cannot hope to become a “developed” country. It does not have history, or the industrial revolution, on its side. It does not have the close relationship to the European (and world) banking system. Yet it continues to believe that it must catch up with an ever-accelerating EU.

Fifty years ago David Holden of the Sunday Times described Greece as “rich in talent and poor in resources, developed in its tastes and underdeveloped in its capacities”. Little has changed. But Greeks — real Greeks — deserve better.