Going to Greece? Take a Book to Read in ATM Queues
The most important thing in Greece today is to have a book. The endless queues to draw the meagre daily ration of money the Oxford-educated Greek aristrocrat, Euclid Tsakalotos, the nation’s new finance minister allows each citizen to withdraw tries everyone’s patience. Having a book to read passes the time.
Waiting in line for the most necessity commodity in the world – cash – is reminiscent of pre-1989 communist Europe’s queues for food. Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras joined the Greek communist party after 1989 and his finance minister’s last book was published by Pluto Press, the veteran Trotskyist London publishing house.
So far Greeks have drawn on millennia of stoicism and shown little anger. Syriza has been brilliant in channelling Greek discontent against two easy and culpable targets.
The first is the old guard of Pasok and New Democracy who must accept much of the responsibility for the disastrous wrong turns of Greek economic management. Curiously, the first book Tsakalotos wrote was a defence of Pasok’s clientalism as practised by Andreas Papandreou. He wrote it after spending his twenties as a full-time Oxford student doing his first degree then a doctorate in the feverish university leftism of the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher re-invented class war as she set about destroying the post-1945 social contract, savagely attacked trade unions and launched her latter-day version of Guizot’s Enrichissez-vous.
Syriza is no less clientalist than the old parties and has used government power to reward its supporters. Currently all metro and bus services in Athens are free and the night-time streets are full of young revellers.
It is only as the sun rises that their grandparents begin queueing for money to buy some food for their sons and daughters left without work. 82 per cent of young Greeks voted No in Sunday’s referendum. They are not yet tied to ATMs or worried about their savings. But one day and soon the Syriza fiesta will end.
Culprit number 2 for Syriza are the Europeans. The term ‘Europeans’ is spat out with contempt rather as it is by English Europhobes. Syriza is right that the European banks which lent recklessly in the first decade of the Euro have much to answer for. If the drug addict is responsible so is his dealer.
The state take-over of banks orchestrated in 2010 and cheered on by economists like Paul Krugmann meant that private sector loans to Greeks became public liabilities. In a brilliant sleight of hand the private banks off-loaded their foolish and unrepayable Greek debt on to the backs of taxpayers.
As a Eurozone member Greece could not default and devalue the traditional way out of state indebtedness. In 2011, George Papandreou, a US-trained moderniser, wanted to hold a referendum to force the Greeks to decide whether they would accept reforms or return to the Drachma. In a monumental error of judgement, Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy and Christine Lagarde refused Papandreou’s offer to cut the Gordian knot.
Instead Greece limped on with a centre-right government under Angela Merkel’s protection. One unsung hero of the Greek crisis is Harry Theoharris who was named Tax Collection Tsar and set about this job with gusto until fired by New Democracy prime minister, Antonis Samaras, because he tried to collect taxes from New Democracy oligarchs. Finally the crisis produced the Syriza government.
So the Europeans have to accept some blame and are now in a quandary as neither Washington nor any intelligent Western geo-strategist wants to see Greece cut loose on the most troubled flank of the entire EuroAtlantic alliance. Of course Greece can be forced out of the Euro as Britain was forced out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992 in similar humiliating circumstance. But then who is next? ‘If the Euro fails, Europe fails’ is Mrs Merkel’s favourite maxim. In her tenth year as Chancellor she faces a decision that will define her place in history. The woman who booted Greece, the cradle of democracy, out of Europe? Or the statesperson who found ways to prevent this and keep Europe whole and together?
Her life is being made difficult by the impossiblism of Tsipras and Tsakalotos. Their refusal to countenance real reform like cutting the bloated Greek military budget which pays for 1300 tanks, twice as many as the Britiah Army has, or calling European finance ministers ‘terrorists’ as the ousted former finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, did in the referendum campaign has created a chasm between Athens and the rest of Europe.
Maybe that is what Tsipras-Tsakalotos want as they dream of engineering the perfect socialist society and economy of their student days. Tsakalotos has now found a new ally in Sinn Fein, the Irish nationalist party. Sinn Fein means “Ourselves Alone” and Taskalotos addressed its annual conference in April. For Sinn Fein the eternal enemy are the Brits just as the Europeans are for Syriza.
Sinn Fein’s founder and leader during the Irish War of Independence was Eamonn de Valera. He refused to accept any compromise with London and launched the Irish civil war against those ready to do a deal. He finally accepted reality and became president of Ireland but with a backward looking autarchic economy that kept Ireland in poverty for decades.
Is Syriza a reincarnated Sinn Fein? Does the spirit of De Valera who wanted Ireland to have a strong church reign over Greece where Syriza refuses to make the wealthy Greek orthodox church pay any tax?
As Greeks sweat in the sun to get out their Euros perhaps Tsakalotos can write a quick history of Ireland and the glories of standing alone, no compromise, an external enemy to blame and hate, and why economic reality is a chimera a proud nation can wish away.
Denis MacShane, currently in Athens is a former UK Minister for Europe. A revised edition of his book Brexit: How Britain Will Leave Europe will be published next month by IB Tauris.