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The Greek crisis is Europe's crisis

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Paul Mason | 20:09 UK time, Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Athens, 10pm: All economic crises eventually become political crises. But they don't all follow the same pattern. Even the most complex of economic crises can usually be summed up in a few graphs the shape of a V or U. But once the pressure works its way through into the visceral world of street demonstrations, scarred national pride, old wounds re-opened, no graph is going to encompass or predict it. Thus, as the UBS sage George Magnus puts it: "political economy is back." (UBS Research, The Return of Political Economy, 5 February 2010)

But the political economy of the Greek sovereign debt crisis involves all those concepts that the two-dimensional economics of the past 20 years finds it not only hard to cope with, but distasteful even to discuss: class, communism, Europe's fascist past. Oh, and whether the Euro is going to survive.

The economic crisis has raised a bonfire of the vanities. It floored countries like Iceland and Ireland, where the prosperity and property booms were found to be driven by a financial system that went quickly bust. But Greece is on a different level: it's not the banks that are bust but the country.

The incoming Pasok (Pan-hellenic socialist) government discovered that instead of 3%, or even the revised 6% of GDP, the budget deficit was running to 13%. Somebody had been mis-stating the figures; whole tranches of defence expenditure, for example, seem to have been covered up.

And while a 13% deficit - and a 110% national debt for that matter - are not a disaster for a developed country, they cannot really be sustained in a country where, as my Greek barber puts it, "not paying your taxes is a national sport".

On the streets here, people don't blame the current Pasok government, yet. Young, trendy leftists rail against "global capitalism"; the jaded old guys in the cafes talk about "the octopus" - the political system with a corrupt (they allege) tentacle in every corner of Greek society.

But it's not just successive Greek governments that look culpable. The European Union turned a blind eye to consistent rule breaking. It offered the protection of a single currency and a central bank, without requiring fiscal discipline. Now it is finding out you need more than this to make a currency strong - you need political will.

For just as with Wall Street - where regulators had no idea about the scale of dodgy dealing and little enthusiasm to find out - Brussels has tolerated Greek government rule-flouting, more or less systematically, for the best part of two decades.

Greece was bailed out by the EU in 1987 and reforms were promised, but not delivered. Having scraped into the Eurozone at the height of an economic upturn, Greece has never looked like it could stay within the rules without some massive reform programme that the political system is incapable of delivering.

If Greece were a "true sovereign", with its own currency, that currency would now be the subject of a massive tactical burn by hedge fund speculators, just as Britain's was in 1992. But it is part of the Eurozone. So only the insurance policies on its national debt can be the subject of wild speculation. An $8bn bet has been placed on the collapsing value of the Euro - and as one banker tells Newsnight tonight, it has further to fall.

As George Magnus points out, sovereign debt crises usually need four measures to resolve: devalue the currency, slash interest rates, monetise the debt - by the central bank buying up government debt - and a bailout. Of these only a bailout would be possible for Greece. The Eurozone makes the first two impossible and the third nearly so. So it's bailout or bust.

But here's the problem: the crisis has exposed the absence of any mechanism for the Eurozone or EU to bail Greece out, and the absence of any collective will among EU finance ministers to do so. After 20 years of failing to force Greece to stick to the EU and Eurozone rules this should not come as a surprise, but it has suddenly struck the markets how weak it makes the Eurozone itself look.

For if Greece were to default, suddenly its bonds could not be accepted by the ECB as collateral. That would cause contagion to other parts of the financial system, because for Greece read also maybe Spain and Portugal. Bankers use government bonds issued by these countries as collateral in deals and suddenly their collateral would be not looking very healthy. It would probably spark a full blown run the debt of all flaky Eurozone countries, in the form of rising real interest rates on government debt and credit default swap movements.

And it would do something else: it would blow apart the strategy of the EU for dealing with the crisis beyond the Eurozone. Latvia, for example, imposing massive austerity as a price for eventually getting into the Eurozone; Iceland, pushing its way up the queue to join the Eurozone; Bosnia, unofficially already using the Euro; Ukraine, with its distant hopes of EU membership; Turkey ditto. Forget all this for a long time.

Suddenly the idea of inviting crisis-wracked countries to join either the EU or the Eurozone would not look very clever, especially to the good burghers of mittel-Europa who had been told for two decades that the whole Euro project was going to place them at the epicentre of world stability and prosperity.

But. Newsflash. Greece to planet Earth. Here's the better-than-expected news...

There is, I surmise on the basis of being here 36 hours, zero chance of Greece being forced into default by a mass social movement opposed to the cuts.

It's still possible that the bond markets themselves could force Greece this way - but having spoken face-to-face with left wing student leaders and public sector worker activists, here's what they say:

Their timescale is two years, not two weeks. Even those who do not want this to happen accept that Pasok will basically channel and head-off the anger. I have spoken to a bin-man on 750 euros a month take home pay, facing a 10% pay cut, who says this, and is mad as hell about it, but still prepared to see the Pasok government as a shield against the global markets, not enemy number one.

I've just sat in a village café with local leaders from both Pasok and New Democracy who say they will support the government, painful though it is. But only so far. As one put it, if they force us into deep austerity, we may have to launch a revolution - though it may not be this generation that does it.

For these reasons it's what happens after any bailout that is crucial.

The country has unresolved political fault-lines going back to the Cold War. Among commentators it has become fashionable to affect ignorance of the differences between Eurocommunist and hardline post-Soviet doctrines, or to care about strikes, or to remember who did what to whom in that chaotic period at the end of World War II. Now these are highly relevant in Greece, a country where a minister can state openly that there are "fascist elements" within his own police force, and where the rival wings of post-Soviet leftism have between them 34 MPs, and hammer and sickle posters plaster some village streets.

The Pasok government of George Papandreou was put into power during the first wave of political reaction to the economic downturn, in 2009. The centre-right New Democracy party, which it now seems mis-stated Greece's financial difficulties, was thrown out in a swing to the left.

The Papandreou government privately briefs that it is the target of a right-wing ideological speculative attack by US and European hedge fund managers and that its deficit reduction plan is sound. The communist-led, trade union movement has rejected the plan as too austere but is currently restrained by the fact that the voting base of Pasok and the left is supportive of Mr Papandreou and does not want to create an opening for the return of the right.

But soon the markets - or an IMF-led bailout, or even a rule-shattering EU-led bailout - will demand tougher measures.

There is a massive public sector workforce here. Its wages have grown rapidly, and out of proportion to any other Eurozone country, 30% since 2006 compared to 10% for the Eurozone, according to figures produced by GFC economist Graham Turner.

These public sector workers will be the big losers in any austerity plan. Staring, plaintively, at a binman's wage slip bearing the grand total of 750 euros takehome, for a month, after 25 years service, brings it home to you. On the same payslip I counted about 400 euros worth of deductions - only 58 of which were actual tax. Direct tax rises will hit such people hard.

If an austerity plan is, eventually, imposed on Athens from outside, either from Washington or Brussels, then the Cold War history of Greece becomes highly relevant.

During WWII the German occupiers tried to run the Greek economy from Berlin. Then in December 1944 a different army opened fire on Communist-led demonstrators in Athens, many of whom had been part of the anti-fascist resistance. That was the British Army. Together with the US, and with the approval of the Kremlin, the Brits then disarmed the communists. A year later civil war ensued, between the communists and a monarchist-conservative government. It tore Greece apart.

If it were all just ancient history it would be irrelevant. But if you go into the kafeneions where there are still veterans of that time alive, much of the discussion still revolves around these events. Villages are divided left and right, along lines of a blood feud that is viscerally remembered. And on the farmers' roadblocks that are paralysing northern Greece, where I've been today, they are not ashamed to voice their belief that this is all a plot by the US and Britain to ruin the Greek economy. And for Berlin and Brussels they have contempt.

Right now the Greek political class has held together: all except the two left parties in parliament have declared support for the Papandreou austerity plan.

If a harder one is imposed from outside there will be mayhem - and Pasok will most likely (if it follows generations of political form) swing leftwards, leaning on its popular base and refusing to countenance further austerity. To anybody who followed the Argentine crisis of 2002 it's a recognisable pattern. But Argentina was not in the Eurozone. A default-defying swing to the left would immediately call into question the credibility of the Eurozone, whose rules - at Maastricht, long before the Euro itself was launched - were written to make such swings to the left impossible.

The old fault-lines could persist peacefully in Greece, essentially, because it has been a laid back, highly educated and middlingly prosperous country. If the Eurozone's architects turned a blind eye to this low-tax haven on their southern border it has been because in many ways it has lived the Euro dream: entrepreneurship plus a welfare state; high culture plus flowing football.

To keep the dream alive, it is highly likely that Greece is about to be bailed out, and that the current EU mission to "monitor" Greek economic figures is a precursor to that. But it's the shape of the bailout, the conditions and the social reaction that will prove crucial.

Right now, from where I'm sitting, the Greek crisis looks as follows - the Pasok government will hold, making press speculation about imminent default or social upheaval look overblown - and in the light of the huge bet placed on it in the markets, a little bit cui bono.

But as for the young generation, they will be queuing up to leave the country: they see the whole thing as the end of a dream: they have only low wages, 27% unemployment, minimal pension rights and a decade of meagre growth to look forward to.

It's the anger of the youth, not strikes like the one that will paralyse this city on Wednesday, that is the real unpredictable factor.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Paul.....

    Well, yes, The Greek crisis is the entire continential of Europe crisis in respect to the recent requirements in management of finacial and budgetary duties....

    -Dennis Junior-

  • Comment number 2.

    Excellent post, getting to those parts that other fail to reach, Paul.

    But I can't help feeling how convenient it is for "high finance" that the global financial crisis gets sublimated into a chase against victim countries (and consequent media coverage) that, while they may have contributed to their current situation, were not a "basket case" a few months ago.

    Back to "business as usual".

  • Comment number 3.

    Great piece, fairplay. Doesnt it question the idea of a federal currency relying on the fiscal rectitude of its weakest members/bail-out potential of its strongest. The Maastricht / Growth Stability Pact = self regulation / light-touch! But, we were here before with Greece? 2004 - accusations that government spending on the Olympics / defence had been understated; deficit figures revised upward.Wasnt Greece in the euro-entrants second phase.The corrosive point being that perhaps countries have entered the eurozone on a foundation of sand and on a hollow promise.Puts a nail in us joining methinks!

  • Comment number 4.

    suppressing domestic riots might be a new role for the military rather than the current hunt a jihadist game?

    as we know hitler came to power in not so different circumstances [off the back of a financial meltdown]. As you say we may be 10 years off that yet. If ever. It is avoidable.

    When people start to see the real cuts in their living standards [while bankers who caused this still get their bonuses] which politician is going to say 'it's for your own good that you suffer but they don't'. In chaotic times people look for a strong man even if he is a gangland boss. The people 'will' them to appear.

    Stable society is not the default position of countries. Somalia is. Society needs to be worked at, planned for, with some kind of model in mind that can give decisions their coherence.

    Moral relativist nihilism dominates so we have no discernible nation building model that builds the good society. Because to say something is better than something else is regarded and name called by the relativists as 'discrimination'.

    If you don't know what the good is how can you be directed by it. If you deny its existence and falsely call it discrimination then what road are you taking?

    The political or guardian class has no idea what the good is which is why we have no idea what we were doing in iraq or afghanistan. They have forgotten and neglected the skills of guardianship and occupy themselves with duck houses and the lecture circuit.


    If there is a nation building science it is one without textbooks and professors. Minor seriously flawed oppressive models like communism, taliban model, monarchy, nationalism, etc fill the vacuum They are flawed and oppressive because they are based on things like race or enforced equality through terror or divine books or authority of one sort or another rather than the good.

    In the same way the EU auditors have not signed off the accounts for years the euro never was a watertight currency living according to rules.

    rules? in the creative world of finance rules are a stupidity tax for those dumb enough to follow them?

  • Comment number 5.

    The Dow soared today on the back of rumours that Germany was about to bail out Greece... and about 45 minutes later the market took a dip - tomorrow will be interesting - when Germany said that the rumours were unfounded.

    The EU has been 'interesting' for years.

    Politicians and bureaucrats in Brussels earning lavious salaries and expenses passing rules, regulations and laws that cost the rest of us billions in tax. Worse, whilst the good old naive and stupid Anglo-Saxon countries pay up, cough up and put in place whatever ridiculous rules that Brussels passes... the Southern European countries have been taking billions in grants and simply ignoring all the nonsense coming from Brussels.

    In short, the Northern Europeans have been subsidising the likes of Greece, Portgual and Spain to the point where those countries have a relaxed, stress-free existence on the back of the hard work, stress and labour of us 'mugs' in the North. What on earth they have done with all the money is beyond me!?

    Maybe now - just maybe now the 'rebellious' populance that worried so many in Davos will materialise?

    Why should we - with all our social, economic and, frankly, 'stressful living' problems - bail out the Greeks, the Spanish and whoever!? Why should you and I toil and pay tax so they can carry on their 'med party'? Why should we in the UK toil away worrying about the tax burden, our lack of pensions and a decrepit healthcare system whilst subsidising the Greeks, and others, to have better healthcare, better pensions and, frankly, to do sod all economically?

    Anyhow, we need the money to bail ourselves out!!!

  • Comment number 6.

    This is exactly what WOTW predicted.

    Kraft to close Cadbury plant it offered to keep open
    https://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/retailandconsumer/7199322/Kraft-to-close-Cadbury-plant-it-offered-to-keep-open.html

    It's also exactly what ALEXANDER CURZON and JadedJean predicted.

    Enough is enough!....we need to start doing something about this...and soon!

  • Comment number 7.

    Paul,

    This country will shortly have a very large number of angry, unemployed youth!

    They will need to be safely directed....take my word for it. The underlying feeling of nationalist abandonment is huge!

  • Comment number 8.

    Paul:

    Just saw your Reportage about the Greek Crisis...What is the proposed back plans for Greece if the protests are made true..

    Will Greek Authorities going to do if the they don't have any MAJOR plans in the background.

    -Dennis Junior-

  • Comment number 9.

    Greek 5 year CDS spreads are approximately 400bp. To compare that with the rest of the world, the 5-year spread for the U.S. and Germany are approximately 35bp. The spread for Canada is in the area of 15bp. For France it is 60bp and for Japan and the U.K., who have recently received warnings from ratings agencies about possible downgrade have, their CDS spreads are approximately 90bp.

  • Comment number 10.

    All fantasies come to an end or, as we used to say back in the Sixties, no scene lasts forever. The problems only start when some folk wish to linger and choose not to move on. Then it all gets vicious.

    I will ask my favourite question; are we seeing the end of social-democracy by which a soggy leftist elite buy off the frustrations of a people trapped in an economy made stagnant by the selfsame soggy leftism of that elite? Like the Soviet system it fails to engender value adding activity that creates employment, creates aspiration, creates initiative and creates hope.

  • Comment number 11.

    As always Paul, thoughtful, insightful comment that makes the other BBC commentators (Peston, Robinson, etc.) look like the pygmy hacks they are. Thanks to you and Newsnight I am almost tempted to say "Gawd Bless the BBC". (Almost, but not quite!)

    But as you say, how strange are the times that we are having to dust off all those old-fashioned political concepts that the 1990s "end-of-history" triumphalists --- and the single currency surely belongs in that category --- thought were dead. Not just race and class, and all those memories of historical slights and battles, but serious people are reviving those old concepts of a bankers’ ramp, or international finance. (And yes, I am well aware that such terms were once used as a synonym for something more sinister.)

  • Comment number 12.

    What if EU issues guarantee to Greek Bonds, and China buys these, whilst at the same time and dumps US Dollar bonds, which are no longer enjoy guarantees ?

    Nervous Hedge Funds ?

  • Comment number 13.

    Beware of Greeks bearing gilts!

  • Comment number 14.

    Great article that understands the underlying divisions in Greece really well, what the Americans and British did to the Greeks after the war was terrible.

    Freemarketanarchy - It seems that New Labour have got plans for the unemployed yoof of Britain. They are going to give them job guarantee scheme jobs. Basically once they have been unemployed for twelve months they will be given a basic wage job. There is conditionality attached and they HAVE to take the job. Most of them are being created by the government. This is the ideas of Demos and the new left think tank - led by Mr. Purnell.

    Very sinister if you ask me.

    This crisis has a long way to play out in many countries. How governments are going to keep up the neo liberal 'globalisation is good for us all' mantra when direct experience is telling populations otherwise will be interesting to see. As always globalisation is failing. Whenever we have pushed forward for a globalised economy in the past it nearly always leads to economic crises, geo political shocks and a return in the end to protectionism and nationalistic policies. History is repeating itself.

  • Comment number 15.

    @12. Quite. Stiglitz has said that the EU should call the hedge funds' bluff.

    There's no point in destroying the infrastructure of a country and making it an even poorer partner with the eurozone, making it even more vulnerable. Anybody can see that Spain in a much better state than pre-EU, largely due to the massive inward investment that it received. One of the main raison d'etre of the EU was to provide a larger market by levelling-up standards of living. That idea needs to be revived.

  • Comment number 16.

    'But it's not just successive Greek governments that look culpable. The European Union turned a blind eye to consistent rule breaking. It offered the protection of a single currency and a central bank, without requiring fiscal discipline. Now it is finding out you need more than this to make a currency strong: you need political will.

    For just as with Wall Street - where regulators had no idea about the scale of dodgy dealing and little enthusiasm to find out - Brussels has tolerated Greek government rule-flouting, more or less systematically, for the best part of two decades.'


    Is it sinking in yet that the purpose of the EU bureaucracy may be to prevent the 27 states from locally governing the markets? That is, by sucking power away from the nation states, free-market anarchism runs that much better for those who do well by it? Surely this is what the Lisbon Treaty and its 'rights' is all about? The political noose will tighten because of the PIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain) at the trough, but the agenda will continue I bet. It's about disempowering states...... disempowering the Public Sector orientated in favour of internationalism, misleadingly branded the Socialist International. Think instead of the old Dutch East and West India Companies. Privateers.

    Still, I love to be wrong. Really...

  • Comment number 17.

    Thanks for a good 'political economy' analysis for once from the BBC. Though maybe it shows some wishfil thinking.
    To quote though:
    "...rules - at Maastricht, long before the Euro itself was launched - were written to make such swings to the left impossible" - well that shows respect for democracy in Europe doesn't it (I say sarcastically), no wonder there is little respect for it.
    It is quite a surprise, but overdue, that actual analysis from media commentators now includes political and class issues. This I assume is because they can no longer be ignored without seeming stupid. But even so, we still get absolutely inane headlines such as those exclaiming Greece's problems are due to its 'Soviet Style' economy (!) and not its bankers or the doctrine of the Neo Liberal globalisation capitalists.

  • Comment number 18.

    Other terms which go with anarchism:- deregulation, volatility, permanent-revolution. This is very good for those who make money out of speculating. Lots of money can be made as bubbles grow and contract. Watch them shorting. Look at what happened to the Dow and FTSE after the Big Bang and electronic trading/registration. The market loves controllable instability or Planned Chaos as Von Mises once called it.

    Speculators understandably hate statists as the latter are into stability at the cost of boom and bust etc. Sadly, it is much harder to build and sustain order than it is to destabilize. That's what all this daily fear-mongering and uncertainty is about I suggest.

  • Comment number 19.

    Statist (1.36pm), I think you are right.

    But this 'socialism for the rich' (eurozone club) is not really socialism, it is in fact just the ruling class getting together (associating) to defend their wealth and to increase it. This is why the EU is not really that great for us ordinary folk, but fine for big capital. There is a war between capitals here going on too, in the form of the dollar v euro, but it is an anarchic one.

    Protests will increase, the austerity measures have so far not cut in yet after all (though there is austerity for most already).

  • Comment number 20.

    So what has changed in Greece?

    It has always been in crisis and has been financially baled out many times in the past.

    What we can be sure of is that it is the 'common person' who ends up paying for the excesses - the most important of which was the Olympic Games.

  • Comment number 21.

    We are talking here about the necessity for wealth redistribution amongst the states in the eurozone, a fiscal and federal remedy for the debt crisis. But, this is the wealth gathered by the wealthy ruling classes of, say, Germany and France, and they will be reluctant to help out, say, Greece or Spain.

    They (Germany, France) might envisage putting more burdens on their own people, but that will be hard to justify after bailing out their bankers. A big muddle it is, a big fudge is needed to fix it.

    Like the rise and falls of the global stocks and shares, waves of global anger are likely to follow as the effects of the crisis reverberate around.



  • Comment number 22.

    'The old fault-lines could persist peacefully in Greece, essentially, because it has been a laid back, highly educated and middlingly prosperous country.'

    Check out Greece on the OECD PISA tests (15 year olds) in comparison to say Germans. See also Spain.

  • Comment number 23.

    20. kevinpugh 'So what has changed in Greece?'

    The population? I suggest you look into the birth rates and changes to the populations over generations.

    For a clue as to the consequences, put Germany, Denmark, Finland, Sweden and........ Portugal, Spain and Greece into the online OECD PISA comparator here or use this (same):

    https://pisacountry.acer.edu.au/

    Do it for maths with the default parameters.

    It what we're collectively made of which drives what we collectively can do. Competition isn't fair on an unequal playing field.

  • Comment number 24.

    it's all Greek to me...does anybody know?

  • Comment number 25.

    21. Gary Tedman 'We are talking here about the necessity for wealth redistribution amongst the states in the eurozone, a fiscal and federal remedy for the debt crisis'

    The thing is, and it's a very big thing which is not said often enough these days, there's a mammoth assumption hidden away in all this talk of redistribution, and that assumption is that people are the same everywhere and that if they just had equal access to the fairy dust we call money, all would be better. But what if that isn't so? What is that assumption is in fact false, and that people are not the same everywhere, and that groups of people differ?

    I say what if.... WHAT THEN?

    In my experience it's very bad practice to make assumptions, especially if that's done whilst ignoring refuting 'uncomfortable' evidence. In fact, it's a bit errr... bigoted, but lots of us in the democracies do exactly this. Why?

  • Comment number 26.

    "Win-Win for Greece and Europe"

    There is an easy alternative to fiscal austerity to preserve a cherished way of life and inventive spending habits of Greek people. Moreover, it will not cost them any money - not now, not ever!

    To the contrary, this alternative will ensure debt-free public finances and general prosperity for Greek people in perpetuity regardless of their creativity and imagination in public accounting procedures or relaxed working habits of the population.

    The alternative is to sell a small part of Greece to Israel to establish another sovereign state, this time in Europe. The Israeli citizens will gladly part with their assets or enter into long-term financial obligations to leave the troublesome neighborhood and permanently relocate to the birthplace of Western Civilization. That will not only take care of the current Greek debt, but will doubtless generate a healthy surplus that may be used to further improve the quality of life for Greek people. Besides, fleecing Jews out their savings is a venerable European tradition utilized throughout history to improve public finances.

    Such an influx of Jews into Greece will create a financial and technological powerhouse in the land of Homer and Pericles. The Greek people will never again have to worry about balancing budgets, raising retirement age, or any other issues associated with low productivity or ineffective tax collection.

    Sincerely,

    Gilmart Willems

  • Comment number 27.

    Don't know where my treatise vanished to but someone must have pulled the plug on it before it was submitted. Damn. Time wasted.

  • Comment number 28.

    @ 26 - gilmart willems.

    What about the Marxist Socialist Jews railing against Capitalisms excesses who are reluctant to forge new enterprises in this new uncertain world. You cannot say with any certainty that they, disproportinatley juxtaposed with other cultures; create wealth or the environment conducive to wealth prosperity?

    Do you have to be religious to excell in Capitalism?

  • Comment number 29.

    28. At 12:28pm on 17 May 2010, Henry James wrote:

    Do you have to be religious to excell(sic) in Capitalism?

    ------------------------------

    Only in Israel!

 

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