THE TROUBLE WITH GREECE
by Lal Johar
‘GREECE IS NOT FOR SALE’, the familiar inscription read, placed on the top of several public buildings or displayed on banners at places likely to catch the foreign correspondent’s eye.
‘Why all the jumble?’
The question was put by Harold Dupré, a young Canadian businessman. He was puzzled with public demonstrations against the recent agreement between the Greek Government and what was known as the Commission for the Greek Debt Settlement appointed by the EU Council of Ministers. He was talking to an old acquaintance, Frederick Crowther, a middle-aged British diplomat of reputedly sound opinion. The Englishman found the settlement ‘not bad forGreece, all things considered’.
‘Are there at least some people finding any good in it?’
The diplomat gazed around thoughtfully for a moment, then pulled his chin to indicate disapproval and shook his head.
‘No’, he said resolutely. ‘Ah, well. Another week of this exciting show, and off I go. My term here is over.’
‘They will surely miss you.’
‘O, that’s for sure’, the diplomat chuckled. ‘They shall miss my pleasing manners, my diplomatic sensitivity, my admirable efficiency, as I have been told time and again. I’ve been through this, you know. In truth, they’ll only be too glad to see the back of me.’
The diplomat used that time-honoured trope every time he thought that his departure foreboded catastrophe for those left behind. He proceeded to outline in detail the intricacies of Greek politics to his Canadian friend, with bits of recent and older history thrown in at regular intervals. He then explained the present predicament.
The Greek Government had agreed, after a hurried, but intensive bargaining that no less than six islands in the Agean would cease to be part of Greek territory. As simply as that. A part ofGreecehad been literally sold: not the private property in it, but the public property and the sovereignty was transferred to the European Union and its institutions. The weightier of its ministers tried all his skill in rhetorical legerdemain for which he was famous, assuring the public that the settlement was advantageous forGreece.
The diplomat confided to his young listener that that was his idea. He had hawked it to his superiors at home, and to the Greek side at the same time. A ‘special negotiation’ was to be made between the Greek and the E.E. side, involving the IMF, of course, and the European Central Bank, in order to give it additional clout.
Once the idea was accepted, a closed meeting took place between the Greek PM and a small team of ministers on the one side, and on the other a five member committee, consisting of representatives fromItaly,Finland,Slovenia,Hungary, and Luxemburg. The absence of representatives from stronger economies was not coincidental.
‘That too, had been suggested by me,’ added Crowther. ‘The idea was that the outcome should be a ‘genuinely European’ decision, that should be taken for the good of Europe and for that ofGreece. It should not appear to be the outcome of diplomatic games and economic power politics. But the handling was crude.’
‘Because the committee was chaired by a blunt Finn who was not particularly sympathetic with Greece’s plight and no friend of fine distinctions. He spoke first saying that the proposal for buying out the Greek debt in exchange of Greek land had to be accepted as it was – take or leave it, as he said, in fact in so many words. He then listened impassively to the dramatic pleas for leniency made by members of the Greek delegation. It would be both pitiful and tragic, the committee was told by the Greek Premier, if a whole nation should suffer the loss of a vital part of its territory, when this could be averted by granting a little more time and financial easing. The Slovenian member gave a sign of helpless sympathy, but the rest remained silent and kept an inscrutable countenance. The Chairman was singularly unimpressed. The whole atmosphere was loaded with a powerful impression of déjà vu.
The hapless Greek officials heard the Finn Chairman’s brief address. He seemed completely unconscious of, or indifferent to, his bad – in fact, quite dreary – English accent and to the fact that what he had to say caused such a consternation to the other side. He said that he understood the tragic situation in which not only Greece, but the whole of Europewas in, and that he felt it ‘even more bitterly than you.’ The Greeks, in other words, were in for it. But, the Chairman concluded, he was resolved to bear calmly their fate. Six islands – no mean ones – were handpicked by the Committee and they would form a territory under E.E. mandate.
‘It looked bad’, the diplomat continued, ‘but it wasn’t that bad, as you shall see in a while.’
He then went on to draw a picture of the way the news was received in the European press and television. It was mainly or wholly treated as a good thing. Historical comparisons were made. For some, a decisive step had been made for the political unification of Europe, since the latter was to possess and administer this territory qua European Union. An Italian historian compared it favourably to Alsace-Lorraine which became Reichsland in1871, in the newly created German Empire, giving the Germans a stronger sense of unity. Other analysts inEurope were less sanguine about the exchange. For them it was yet another case throwing good money after bad. So they found the news almost as depressing as most Greeks did.
Dupré found this double dissent odd. He opined that the bargain was probably good for the E.U. ‘I mean, once the Greeks were snookered into that kind of squeeze, there must have been some gain for the E.U. as a whole.’ The experienced diplomat winced. He didn’t expect on the part of Dupré, whom he had known to be a shrewd trader, and very rational in his approach to problems, such a ‘zero-sum’ notion of political and economic diplomacy. He wanted to tell him that such an idea was unproductive in any negotiation, but he suppressed the urge. He replied instead that it was advantageous to both sides, as all agreements must be, if they are going to last. The ‘package’ offered to the Greeks was ‘not bad’. But public opinion, understandably, found it unpalatable. People just would not be comforted with the fact that the whole of the Greek debt was written off and that Greece was given enough financial support from the European Central Bank to meet current needs. The economy was to get an extra boost from foreign investment that would, hopefully, be attracted by this fresh beginning.
‘It was a major feat of diplomacy that new funds were created to that effect , after a lot of mediated proposals and counter-proposals and a huge amount of patient work behind the scenes, ’ the British official added and gave a wink.
‘That sounds like a bit of a nice package’, Dupré conceded. Crowther explained that everyone did not see it that way and that most people inGreecefelt that the agreement was unspeakably hideous. The leader of the opposition called it ‘an appalling act of national treason’. A variety of new self-styled political leaders condemned it with bell, book and candle in meetings held at public squares, trade unions and students’ assemblies in universities.
Under circumstances like this, individuals not overendowed with reasoning capacities, gain the upper hand. That is what happened inGreeceat the time. People who ought to know better joined in the hullabaloo. An impressive array of writers, journalists, representatives of the arts, academics, cinema producers, and pop singers, competed in grandiloquent denunciations of the infamous settlement. Indeed some of them, known in the past for their oracular utterances and gravitas came to the fore. Some, with solemn earnestness, others with the copious use of that brand of prose-poetry they are so good at, came out to add their weight to those who opposed the deal.
As was to be expected, the inhabitants of the islands, who were the most immediately concerned, after all, joined in the protest demonstrations. They expressed their unanimous indignation at the horrid act. Of course, they were given exit options. They were at liberty to stay on under the new administration, or to settle in mainlandGreece with a generous compensation from funds expressly allocated to that end. But they rejected such shameful proposals as insulting to their dignity. They would not even dream of leaving their homeland, while they shuddered at the thought of living enslaved under the heel of foreign rulers. ‘Liberty or death’, that was their motto, many of them said. They led demonstration after demonstration disavowing the sell-out. Foreign observers were surprised to notice that no alternative course had been proposed.
The Canadian pulled a face of disbelief. ‘Well, there must have been some alternative courses proposed,’ he exclaimed. ‘Absolutely none’, Crowther replied shaking his head slowly to add significance to what he said. ‘At least none within the constraints of political and economic feasibility. Nor were there any minority voices heard that found some redeeming qualities in the bargain made.’
He then proceeded to recount the Greek Government’s travails. The grim prospects it faced. The loss of nerve even for routine matters of governance. The public outcry and the holding of every authority to ridicule by a hostile public. The ruinous descent into the abyss of ungovernability. The grief at the sight of compatriots being compelled to serve under foreign masters, being made ‘slaves of Europe’ in the words of a popular song inspired by the horrendous event.
‘So this is how things stand at the moment’, the diplomat concluded.
‘That’s a great pity’, the Canadian retorted.
‘Still, my business here is not concluded. I am to return in six months time.’ ‘And what, precisely, is your business here?’
‘Software and logistics services. Some of these guys here are very good. And I don’t mind telling you that the Greek community inCanadahas a very good name. Will you still be here, six months from now?’
‘Well, I shall be in and out. We might coincide. Give me a call or send me an e-mail.’
‘Crowther, I am glad to see you back inAthens, just as we planned it six months ago. I suppose you are going to explain this change in climate.’
The Englishman was only too pleased to provide the explanation sought, the more so, since he had worked it all up right from the start, as he said with no false modesty. He proceeded to unwind the thread of his narration from last time. The country was in a pretty bleak mood. Even the Communists were less prompt at sounding the trumpet of world revolution inGreece, as they had done in the past. Most people’s disposition was disconsolate and ready to write sorrow on the bosom of the earth.
This mood changed, briefly, as the public’s interest turned to another event that shook the body politic as well as informed public opinion. An altercation of unprecedented verbal violence had occurred between two senior ministers. They had allegedly hurled grossly offensive epithets at each other, relating to their family honour and sexuality. Passions were exacerbated in the weeks that followed, their respective ministries would not cooperate and the Prime Minister oscillated between sacking them both or supporting one against the other. But he was evidently not cut out for resolving such dilemmas. So he dithered endlessly as was his wont, making endearingly ambivalent remarks in favour of both.
After a while, interest in the fracas waned. Besides, they had both realised eventually the futility of perpetuating it since they all had other fish to fry. So, they responded positively to the PM’s somewhat pathetic pleas for some sort of rapprochement between them. They both declared publicly that they had great esteem for each other, even though they have found themselves in wide disagreement at times. It went without saying that they never meant to insult each other and that their respective statements had been misrepresented by the press.
‘Blaming the press is a common reaction of politicians here, as elsewhere,’ Crowther added. The businessman asked if that distracted attention from the melancholy subject of the national sell out. Of course, it did for a while. During that time, U.E. officials had quietly taken over key positions in the administration of the newly acquired territories. The locals were rather pleased hearing that they would enjoy a ten year tax holiday. They were also pleasantly surprised to see the quality of public services improved. The administration was more efficient. In fact, people were surprised at the increase of their own efficiency, each one of them.
‘How come? Their public sector is notorious for being a complete shambles, their inefficiency is a bye-word to the world.’ The diplomat shook his head in disagreement. He proceeded to explain that the Greeks are renowned for their adaptability. ‘When they see railway lines, Crowther said with a wicked grin, ‘they follow them and see to it that they remain in place’.
Another compensation for Greeks, according to the British official, was increased tourist inflow and a substantial decrease of illegal immigration. The new rulers, somehow, found ways of averting the latter by a combination of diplomatic means and efficient policing of the sea. By the end of the year, some of the islands’ inhabitants that had emigrated to more or less cheerless places ofEurope’s North, opted to return to their place of origin. At the same time, applications for citizenship in the ‘U.E. District’ as it came be called, increased. People queued up to hand in their applications in hundreds, along Vassilissis Sophia Avenue. It was rumoured that quite a few of them had demonstrated just two months before that, on the same Avenue, against the outrageous sell-out.
‘And was that true?’
‘Can’t say, really. But usually these are exaggerations. My experience is that people are consistent with their beliefs.’
The Canadian could not tell from the impassive expression in his interlocutor’s face if that was said tongue in cheek. So he let it pass. The diplomat went on. A rumour spread that people had been ‘manipulated’ in opposing the deal – by ‘suspicious centres of propaganda.’ The ‘lost territories’ became dangerously crowded, not by Asian and African, but by legal Greek immigrants. None wanted to be ‘left out’ of the advantages offered by residing there. Pressure is actually exerted on the Government to cede another zone to the U.E.
‘Absolutely not. Free. No talk of ‘sell out’ anymore.’
‘You mean they want to actually give away Greek territory? With nothing in exchange? And will the Greek Government do it?’
‘Not too easy. They have sounded foreign ministers to that effect. But the answer has been negative. The reason is simple. Imagine what will happen if, say Calabria in Italy, or the Pardubice Region in the Czech Republic, or Härjedalen in Sweden and Dorset in England get the same idea.’
‘So what does the U.E. side propose instead?’
‘Assistance in designing ‘new admin zones’ for Greece. And it is not a bad idea. The Greeks, as I told you, are adaptable. They already have the know-how from the six ceded islands. But a ‘higher authority’ is needed. The ‘new admin zones’ are to be chunks of territory to be put under U.E. responsibility at successive intervals. ’
‘Why not all at once?’
‘Ah, because the ‘old guard’ resists. Hundreds of thousands of parasitic state employees for one, still cling to their privileges, that is, their employment security, their inefficiency, even though by now, they have been more or less bereft of their opportunity to take open bribes or engage in other corrupt practices.’
‘But, surely, all that can be changed. The Government can introduce legislation abolishing privileges…’
‘The Government can do nothing about it. Not here. It cannot legislate against its own army of supporters who are state employed in one way or another. And even if it did, it cannot implement its decrees. It is a very poor enforcer of its own decisions.’
‘How about the rest? The number of civil servants has been swollen, but there is the rest of the population that, surely, has a different attitude.’
The Englishman was and looked unsurprised at the naivety of the question. In his profession he had had a long practice of patience with questions that betokened lack of adequate information. Questioners could be either intelligent or unintelligent, informed or uninformed, astute or dull individuals. But the person he was talking to, was thoughtful and knowledgeable, and highly motivated to be rightly informed. His question sounded naïve to anyone who knew the scene, but it was a question arising logically from the situation described. That was why Crowther was not surprised. In fact, he was lying in wait for it.
‘Most Greeks, as I told you, are great adaptors. When inRomethey do as Romans do. When they settle inGermany, theU.K., theU.S.and I imagine inCanada, that is in ordered societies where the rule of law obtains, they prove to be law-abiding, civic, hard-working citizens. They adapt. InGreece, those who are like that, are simply overwhelmed by the others who are the very opposite.’
‘But there must be enough of them to reverse the trend,’ Dupré insisted. ‘Unfortunately, this is not so’, the diplomat continued scathingly. There is a tangled web of state/individual and state/corporate interrelationship that coexists with a rent-seeking culture which obtains in Greecea t all levels.’
‘A rent-seeking culture, did you say? What is that?’
‘In a word – it is getting something for nothing. To be fair to the Greeks, it is a a fact that everyone would like to get something for nothing, preferably without cheating or stealing.. But over here, it runs deep in the culture. That is why Milton Friedman’s commonsensical saying that there is no such thing as a free lunch is ignored, misunderstood or rejected out of hand. Getting something for nothing means that someone else pays for it. The work ethic that goes with that attitude speaks for itself.’
‘But why call it rent-seeking?’
‘This is what economists call it. Not being one, I can only trust their knowledge and terminology. As far as I can make out, it is a form of rent, i.e., unearned income on top of what one may properly expect as payment for work done, or capital provided. Usually it means a sort of gift by the state in the form of a clause in a bill enacted in parliament, favouring certain categories of individuals or companies. It can also take the more modest form of a sinecure or poorly paid, yet emphatically parasitic state employment.’
‘How about corruption?’
‘That is a more acute form of rent-seeking. The rent-seeker, big or small, ‘invests’ in political influence. The politician ‘buys’ votes in exchange for favours, the businessman ‘buys’ political influence by legal or –mostly- illegal handouts. Each one feels that he or she has a stake in this quagmire.’
‘Yet there must be enough people who are getting the dirty end of the stick in this little game.’
‘Certainly. But those who know that they stand to profit from this sick set up, will fight tooth and nail to preserve it. The real antithesis is not between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’, but between rent-seekers and real producers, or, what amounts to the same thing, between opportunists and honest people.’
‘So, what happens now?’
‘To put it crudely, many people, including rent-seekers who see that the party is now over, are simply exercising their exit options. That has a much lower cost than it had in the past. People faced the prospect of either emigrating to unknown and unfamiliar places or staying on under conditions of unabashed kleptocracy and parasitocracy. The cost was hard to bear for either course. Now, they press for ‘emigrating’ by transforming parts of the country into ‘new admin zones.’
‘And you think that this will spread?’
‘Inevitably. Information is spreading fast, as you know from your own business background, what with the Internet, blogs, Twitter and what have you. The advantages – not to say the joys- of efficient public services, incorruptible administration and productive opportunities are not only seen to be possible, but to obtain next door.’ The Canadian made a nod of approval. Crowther expanded. New political movements were being formed calling for the end of ‘old type sovereignty.’ The idea advanced by ex-leftist firebrands is the ‘new type sovereignty’ , that is, ‘the empowerment of the Greek people’ by the sale of the entirety of state possessions to private buyers at home and abroad.
‘But will that assuage political passions?’
‘For a time, probably, as the squabble for rent-seeking opportunities shall have have liitle sense. But probably a new cleavage will ensue. I can’t guess now. But I am quite confident that it will emerge soon.’
And soon it did between the newly ‘empowered’ beneficiaries of the ‘new sovereignty.’ It was to be between those who thought the way forward was through hard work and high pay, and those who favoured the idea of dwelling thereafter in the lap of luxury in a land of Cockaigne, by simply selling the know-how of ‘new sovereignty’ strategies and secession techniques the world over.