After Dubai, is Athens next?

Faced with runaway public debt, rampant tax evasion and a gaping hole in the pension coffers, to name just a few national woes, Greece is on the brink of bankruptcy, says the European press. And it fears the repercussions for the euro and a potential domino effect on fiscally shaky countries.

Published on 9 December 2009 at 16:07
Probably worth a few quid. Athenian coin (5th to 4th century BC). (AFP)

“So while foreign newspapers are filled with pictures of Greek students rioting – an annual pastime, rather than a response to any particular crisis – [Greek financial minister] Mr Papaconstaninou and his colleagues in the newly elected centre-Left Pasok party are more concerned about a range of problems that are simultaneously far more dull, and far more serious,” the Daily Telegraph reports. “Tax avoidance, national debt and a vast pension gap have pushed the country to the brink of bankruptcy.” “George Papandreou's government came to power thinking that the government's deficit would amount to six per cent of GDP, so” explains the London daily, it “based its manifesto on spending its way into recovery. Once in office, it discovered that its predecessors from the centre-Right New Democracy administration had in effect been cooking the books, and that the deficit was running at 12.7 per cent.” All of which, concludes the Daily Telegraph, is "leading many to label Greece the next Dubai”.

"After Dubai, fears for PIGS,” Les Echos aptly headlines, pointing out that Greece is not the only country unnerving the financial markets. "The purposely pejorative acronym Anglo-American traders use for Portugal-Ireland-Greece-Spain in one fell swoop has been on everyone’s lips in the markets and the British press for weeks,” writes the French daily. Seeing as it is out of the question for these countries to quit the euro, Les Echos is antsy about “the impact any potential aggravation of the PIGS’ troubles might have on the whole eurozone”.

Risk of domino effect

"Is Greece's debt crisis also a crisis for the euro?” asks The Guardian. “The answer is a definite no if ‘crisis’ means ‘the break-up of the eurozone’.” “But,” the British paper acknowledges, “this is definitely a crisis for eurozone politicians and the European Central Bank. Nobody really knows what happens when a member state suffers a serious debt crisis. Ireland, obligingly, recognised the danger and adopted extreme austerity measures. The bond market (at least for now) is reassured by the sight of tax rises and cuts in public spending. Greece, on the other hand, seems to be nowhere near the point of signing up to austerity.” Spiegel online points out in this regard that the country’s European partners are very wary of Greece, especially since Athens has been conspicuous for repeatedly lying about its finances in the past – and “respecting the stability pact for only a single year (2006) since it introduced the euro”.

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In the face of the Greek crisis, the German news magazine notes that the European finance ministers are certainly on red alert, but their hands are tied: "Brussels is stuck. Normally it is not supposed to fork out money to a member state to stop the gaps in its budget. And even if there were a way to get round this proscription, the consequences would be fatal: the budgetary carelessness common to countries like Spain, Italy and Ireland would spread throughout the continent. The message would be clear: what’s the point of fiscal discipline if others are going to end up footing the bill? What’s more, there’s the risk of a domino effect: if one eurozone member falls, speculators are going to test other candidates’ stability and the monetary union could burst at the seams.” Der Spiegel quotes one London banker telling a joke that is going the rounds in the business world: “If someone’s €1,000 in debt, he’s got a problem. But if someone’s €10 million in debt, it’s his bank that’s got a problem. And in this case the bank is Europe.”

Greek opinion

Time to get a grip, and fast

Greece is dancing a “tense tango with the international markets”, as Ta Nea sees it. “The country is now being likened to Argentina [near-bankrupt in 2001], which amounts to yet another slap in the face,” the daily reports. “The financial minister is going to have restore the country’s credibility in the international arena and, what’s more, convince Greeks the tax hikes are for their own good.”

To Ethnos leads with “Turbulence due to a game downgrading dominoes”, alluding to the succession of downgrades Greece has been getting lately from credit rating agencies. In its editorial, the centre-left daily points out that it is now “a race for credibility and, above all, against the clock. The new socialist government, in office for two months now, needs to act fast because Brussels wants immediate reforms and national dialogue will be, de facto, cut short”. The Greek press underscores that the financial minister will have to take drastic and rapid-fire action, which is bound to spark a public outcry.

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