AS we fret about Brexit and the darkened world that will bring; as we fret about the excitable US president, Donald Trump; as we fret (some of us anyway) about Fine Gael’s grand adventure in ineptitude and prevarication; and as we fret about really important things such as Johnny Sexton’s fitness and the size of the French pack, the people of Greece are, again, wondering what the future holds and how much more they might be asked to sacrifice and endure.
Greece has, since 2008, experienced an economic collapse on a par with the Great Depression of the 1930s. The Greek economy contracted in the final quarter of 2008 and — apart from some feeble growth in 2014 — has weakened ever since. It has shrunk by around a quarter, the largest fall in an advanced economy since the 1950s. Half of Greeks under 25 are out of work, and in western Greece more than 60% of young people have no work, a sobering contrast to the lowest unemployment figures in a decade published in Ireland yesterday.
Greek salaries and pensions have been repeatedly cut. Living standards have fallen dramatically, the hardship is real and biting. Greeks have had to, since 2010, accept 12 rounds of tax increases and cuts in supports. The country needed bailouts in 2010, 2012, and 2015 from the International Monetary Fund, Eurogroup, and European Central Bank. Greece negotiated a 50% “haircut” on debt owed to private banks in 2011. These are extraordinary, crushing figures and must give pause for a there-but-for the grace-of-God moment.
For ordinary Greeks, the system has failed. That assertion stands despite a culture of tax evasion and unsustainable work arrangements, especially in the state sector. These issues have dominated all negotiations that preceded each of three bailouts and do so again as talks on reform continue so the next tranche of funds might be made available to that increasingly desperate country.
As ever, the kindness of strangers is limited and has strings attached. The IMF believes some Greek debt must be written off to inspire optimism if not a recovery. EU institutions disagree and, led by Germany, argue that deferred payments rather than waived payments are the answer.
This is a philosophical argument much like the one that suggests Brexit must be as hard as it needs to be to discourage any other EU member state that might consider breaking rank. As a cold calculation it may make sense but what about the unfortunate Greeks who have endured a decade of real hardship and indignity? Is this really what the EU is about? Is it what it has become? Is this what we, albeit a very small voice in the debate, want done in our name?
The EU is questioned as never before and its future is far from certain. It is attacked by resurgent, isolationist nationalists in one member state after the other. The subjugation of Greece will not restore EU credibility, rather it will undermine it further. None of us can afford that because, like it ot not, the EU, despite its myriad flaws, is the best guarantor of peace and prosperity available to us. Now, it’s time to show Greece that they can share that guarded optimism.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved