Greece: Whose (De)Fault Is It Really?

Greece. September

Autumn creeps over this island even though the temperatures are still around 30 degrees. But there are no cicadas now, vine leaves turn rusty, lemon leaves as yellow as their fruit lie in drifts, the velvety green globes holding almonds hang like Christmas tree baubles. The sea is clear, pale turquoise and marvellously warm, the sky is the rich blue of September.

There has been no rain here since May and the ground crackles beneath the foot. But silver grey olives, dark, shiny myrtle and melancholy cypresses, watered by the Ionian’s relentless winter rain, maintain the island’s greenness. Thunderstorms are predicted to break this drought next week but for now it is a gorgeous, peaceful time of year.

Ionian Island church

The drought and storms to come in Greece’s political situation will not turn with the season of course. The apportioning of blame: tax-evading Greeks v venal bankers is pointless now. Bankers will or will not be held to global account and Greeks have an historically justifiable mistrust of their leaders, an adversarial relationship with the authorities in general and a strongly tribal culture. They are last minuters - as we saw with the eventually impressive and tasteful Olympics. They are extraordinarily hardy at best, obdurate at worst. They are not, as northern Europe would have it, idle – those connected with tourism, work very long, hot days, seven days a week in uncomfortable conditions and in towns most of those in offices earn low wages, enterprising young companies start up but are often stifled by bureaucracy. There is little extreme wealth visible in Greece and an increasing amount of visible poverty.

Modern Greece is a relatively young state and within its 180 odd years of existence repeated suffering and chaos have had a lasting impact politically, economically and in the way it views the world outside its borders. Tyranny, genocide, war, exile, vast waves of immigration and depressions have marked the Greek journey through the twentieth century.

Balkan fighting around WWI started in 1913 and continued until 1922 in Greece. A dictatorship was enforced under Metaxas from 1936 -1941. In WWII, Nazi Germany subdued Greece with a deliberate reign of terror and this included a famine in which 300,000 died in Athens alone. Political polarisation between fearless wartime resistance movements led to civil war from 1946 to 1949, which not only left deep scars and resentment but saw some Nazi collaborators achieve high office in its aftermath. Following a right wing coup in 1967, the Junta of the Greek colonels ruled until 1974 and a still unknown number of students at Athens Polytechnic university were killed when their opposition was violently suppressed.

Whether this is the sort of long term stable democracy that should have been included in the Eurozone is a question I cannot answer, but perhaps Greece deserved some help to become the sort of productive, peaceful democracy it, and Europe, needed?

Some tavernas and shops are closing now; much of the trade here is seasonal. But this year some are closing forever. Arcades of shops in bigger towns and cities are boarded up. Women on the wealthier streets in Athens stop affluent looking locals to petition for domestic work. Families in small city flats with adult children: unemployed graduates and young married couples, may well despair. Unemployment, already grave, is the fastest rising in Europe.

Greece has suffered and is suffering. And as it suffers it also undergoes the national indignity of relentless criticism, verging on contempt, from other European countries, supposedly its partners.

Greek minsters speak robustly and impressively of the need for and commitment to austerity, and those educated, rich Greeks I know who have interests at home and abroad, concur. But all the ordinary Greeks I have spoken to expect a default and casual talk is simply about timing, so the government is failing to convince its own citizens of its view of their interests or offer them a viable future.

What is bizarre: sometimes irritating, sometimes funny (my main home, after all is not here) and sometimes sad in its desperation is the efforts to raise revenue. Spontaneous taxes are raised on properties or on restaurant takings. A sudden emergence of a system of parking tickets and a law which can interpret potential obstruction fluidly (in the absence of warning notices or markings). The 10,000 euro fine on beachside café owners for a sun lounger set on the pebbly beach below a certain (invisible) line. The very visible yellow line being painted (at midday, in searing heat) along the small port, so that vehicles on one side or another - who knows? - can be fined. A month’s amnesty on illegal construction (like tax evasion, it is commonplace) so that for a fraction of the usual planning licence, and with no spatial or aesthetic consideration, the buildings can be passed. The island is a whirr of cement mixers and labouring Albanians, the island engineer in a frenzy of activity to agree submissions to some central amnesty granting office on the distant mainland. The result: short term income and long term eyesores and a lesson for those few who built within the rules. Doctors and dentists have been on strike, so have refuse collectors and, with a certain irony, tax collectors.

On islands there is only one way in or out, so the arrival of the tax inspectors or the parking wardens or the police who enforce the wearing of helmets on scooters, is well heralded. Islanders are used to adapting to transients: there is brief compliance, then like the seasonal tourists or the migrating collared doves, the curious interlopers depart and things go back to normal.

None of this theatre goes any way towards re-educating a country in the need to pay tax, nor in establishing a relationship of trust which encourages potential tax payers to believe their taxes will provide services not increase the prosperity of a rich minority. It all speaks only of panic.

Lakka streetToo many of the blows fall, intentionally or otherwise, on Greece’s major industry: tourism. Long taxi strikes this summer saw hot, angry tourists dragging cases along on uneven pavements to the out of town airport through a blockade. Tourists don’t care that the taxi-drivers’ grievances may be legitimate (the government is trying to raise money by issuing more and now cheap, taxi licences, while existing drivers paid heavily for licences and say the market is flooded). The tourists will merely go to Spain or Turkey next year. The Air Traffic Control is on strike this weekend: more delays for travellers and losses to precariously balanced holiday companies. The recent ‘discovery’ that many Greek ferries had fake seaworthiness certificates (a sort of marine MOT) issued by a Russian ‘business’ operating in Greece, which provided the paperwork without the financial cost and time of exhaustive safety checks: X raying hulls, lifting the boat out of the water and so on, has halted easy travel to the islands. Many boats will never pass the legal requirements and are uninsurable, some companies cannot take the loss of income. More stranded travellers will think, probably only once, about an island holiday in 2012 and go somewhere less troubled.

It is probably hard for a Greek to feel militant on an island in summer, part of an extended family and anchored to ancestral roots; the sea and sun are free; but once the city-livers return to Athens and Thessaloniki, to cramped apartments, restlessness and the winter, things will seem dark indeed. Whatever their government says, whatever the interests of the broader European economy and beyond, default can hardly seem worse than austerity measures and international opprobrium for the man on the Athens omnibus.

In the early C19, as Greece struggled to free herself of Ottoman rule and emerge as a new and independent nation, Lord Byron wrote a lament about the country he loved.

The isles of Greece, the isles of Greece,
Where burning Sappho loved and sung.
Where grew the arts of war and peace,
Where Delos rose and Phoebus sprung.
Eternal summer gilds them yet,
But all, except that sun, is set.


The sun is setting here, on this most beautiful of countries, though, we are told, the sun eventually rises again. But on what? Going down to the tiny port to pay a bill of €160. I only had €50 notes. “Just give me €150 for now,” said my amiable creditor, “as for the odd ten... next year. In New Drachmas.”


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