Yesterday [February 6] saw the same repetitive pattern we have seen for almost two years now, as the time when Athens will run out of money (most likely in March) draws near and the EU is expected to return and pump more cash into the Greek veins. And each time it is costing more to get Greece to adopt credible reforms.
Everyone knows that the Greeks are playing with fire. But this seems not to matter to anyone, least of all to the Greeks. The government of Lucas Papademos, a technocrat who was supposed to have the support of all parties to take the difficult decisions that George Papandreou dared not take, has proven as slow to budge as its predecessor.
Yesterday the troika of the IMF, the European Central Bank and the European Commission had to threaten the Greek government with the torments of hell to get them to agree to lay off 15,000 civil servants in 2012 to lower the country’s deficit. Greece has more than 700,000 public servants (out of a population of 11 million) and has promised to cut that number by 150,000 by the year 2015. But it is doing so with the alacrity of a turtle. In fact, it already had promised to slash 32,000 last year, but in the end trimmed only 2,000.
That’s how things stand in Greece. The troika asks the Greeks to reduce the minimum wage (which is higher than in Spain), lower salaries, eliminate bonuses, reduce pensions and lower public spending, and Greek politicians turn a deaf ear. They know very well that Europe has been woefully misled, and they are taking advantage of it.
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Their national self-esteem and pride are gigantic
There were three principles that Germany defended as sacrosanct: no bail-out, no default, and no exit from the euro. The first one was violated in 2010 when it agreed to bail out Greece, Ireland and Portugal. Now, the Greeks are messing about on the second (yesterday the Prime Minister ordered the Finance Ministry to draw up a report on the possible consequences of a default). And leaving the euro has been brought up several times in the negotiations over the last few days.
The Spanish government is no stranger to this. The EU leadership do not like the prospect of opening the exit door of the euro club, because after Greece would go Portugal, and nobody knows where the list could end. But they would also like the Greek politicians to take events more seriously. "We knew long ago that the Greeks are the way they are. The problem is not only economic but political,” says a senior official.
And the way out does not seem to lie in threats, like the German threat to appoint a proconsul or the French idea of creating a separate account where the money to pay the interest can be deposited. The Greeks have never felt inferior to other Europeans. Although their economy is in ruins, their national self-esteem and pride are gigantic. They have, in fact, always distrusted the idea of Europe, unless it would mean that Brussels would fund their lifestyle. But all this was known almost from the day they entered the EU.
Dickens forecast the crisis
Charles Dickens was born 200 years ago, on February 7, 1812. Nearly a century and a half after his death in 1870, "our world, unfortunately, resembles his in several ways," notes Spanish daily El País. Referring to 'Hard Times', the paper writes -
... today, in the midst of the crisis, with the stock market in the red, with high taxes and low salaries; with European governments who try to fill the bottomless pit of the financial system with public funds; and unemployment which continues to rise, it is possible that the reader would be surprised to see how the novel, published in 1854, describes reality.
Unsurprisingly, it is Greece that today seems to best evoke the London of 150 years ago. "Those children, abandoned in the street by their families in the hope that someone will feed them, could they not appear in 'Oliver Twist' alongside street children?" wonders El País. Contrary to Dickens' forecasts, the injustice of capitalism did not lead to its collapse. "One need just look again at Greece today," the paper says, adding -
The television talks about children, who mid-morning, faint from hunger in class and newspapers report that, while the country is soliciting aid from the European Union, its rulers are going to Switzerland with over €200 billion.