Europe: Waiting on Athens

  • 8 February 2012
  • From the section Europe
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The President of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso has declared: "I think all Europe has now the eyes on Athens." Europe's leaders are waiting, drumming their fingers impatiently.

Yet Athens is a city of false deadlines. They are made and discarded casually. Yet again today there is an expectation that the leaders of the coalition will agree to a raft of austerity measures and so pave the way for a second Greek bailout.

The text of an agreement was finalised last night. It sets out where the extra spending cuts - amounting to 3bn euros - will fall.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Protesters see the culture of austerity as of German design

Lurking in the wings are the accountants of the troika: the IMF, the EU and the ECB. These officials are consulted at every turn; they determine whether the cuts, which will affect the lives of ordinary Greeks, will satisfy the creditors.

It is a horse trade between those who will shortly be accountable to the people at election time and those who will never have to face the voters.

The outline of a deal is clear. The largest spending cut of 1.1bn euros will most likely be in health care.

There is undoubtedly waste in the system but I visited a hospital near Piraeus two days ago that had a shortage of syringes, dressings and basic drugs. A doctor told me his salary had already been cut by 35% in the past two years and he expected a further 20% cut.

Local government funding will be reduced. There will be a 20% cut in the minimum wage but annual bonus holiday payments in the private sector may escape.

If a deal is done today - and expect some last minute haggling - it will be described as historic. The leaders of France and Germany will praise the responsibility of Greece's politicians.

In reality, like bailout mark 1, it will buy time. The spectre of a messy default in March will have been removed. There will be a huge sigh of relief in Brussels.

It is wise, however, to be cautious. Any agreement will still have to be voted on in the Greek parliament. Secondly there is the question of whether the deal will go far enough.

The IMF has insisted that Greece's debt to GDP ratio must fall to 120% of GDP by 2020. With private investors taking losses of up to 70% on their investments, Greece's debt mountain should be reduced by 100bn euros. Then there are the spending cuts.

But there might still be a shortfall - perhaps by as much as 15bn euros. Eurozone governments may be asked to fill that gap and some countries will baulk at reaching into their pockets yet again.

If all that is done - what are the prospects for the real economy in Greece? It is expected to shrink by 3% this year. Businesses are closing by the day - 65,000 have gone. Unemployment is close to 19%.

I spoke to a gold dealer. In just one store between 25 and 30 people a day come in to sell their jewellery. There are now scores of such places.

It is just one barometer of a country hurting. Greece is in recession while further cuts are being insisted on. There is a distinct possibility that the Greek economy will continue its decline upsetting all calculations. It will continue on international life support whilst money flows out of the country and the best and brightest head for Australia and Canada.

Much of the political class in Greece argue that the country has no alternative.

Either the people accept this deal or they will face the chaos of bankruptcy. A majority of Greeks accept that argument reluctantly. The risk, however, is that this deal ushers in ten years of austerity that will break Greek society.

Yesterday - in torrential rain - there was a protest against the new spending cuts. On the steps of the parliament they burned a German flag. Certainly in Greece - and perhaps in Italy and Spain too - the culture of austerity is seen as of German design.

If the bailout only delivers more pain then the blame will fall on Germany - as the Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti has hinted.

This week has witnessed an extraordinary sight - a German chancellor openly taking sides in a French election. She justifies this on the grounds that we are all European.

The President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy has defended her. "We have gone through such a huge crisis," he argues, that "we are looking to each other in a different way than before".

"What we are currently going through is... the Europeanisation of national political life," he added.

It is an interesting observation from an official always worth listening to although the voters - as far as I know - have expressed no interest or support for "the Europeanisation of national political life".

It underlines what some regard as the most dangerous legacy of the eurozone crisis - the sidelining of democracy at both a national and a European level.