Greece is not a dog: the arrogance of the austerians

by Ingeborg Beugel on September 11, 2012

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Dutch and German politicians like to blame Greece for refusing to stick to the agreements — but, in truth, the Greeks are doing more than they should.

Everyone who talks about Greece these days — even well-intentioned liberals — seems to assume a priori that Greece is somehow “opposing the reforms” and “refusing to stick to the agreements”. With Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the forefront, of course. Greece does not deserve respite, not a second of extra time and not a single penny more, simply because “the country keeps breaking its promises.”

First of all, the problem is that it’s impossible for a country as a whole to stick to any agreement whatsoever as if it’s some kind of ‘person’. In Greece there are countless people — the majority of the population — who have been struck by austerity measures that have been forced down their throats as if they were some kind of natural disaster; measures that are the result of those aforementioned “agreements”: a 40 to 50 percent reduction of salaries and pensions, an unbearable series of extra taxes, layoffs on a gigantic scale, a massive increase in unemployment and poverty, the destruction of labor rights, the implosion of healthcare. All these things are utterly unthinkable in a country like Germany or the Netherlands, yet nobody seems to give the Greeks who bravely carry this burden any credit whatsoever.

And then there is obviously the minority, a substantial part of Greece’s rich and corrupt political and industrial elite, which does dodge taxes on a grand scale by funneling money away to foreign countries, but which still gets away unscathed. The majority of Greeks who are bending over backwards to serve the Brussels diktat cannot help that. The middle class, the incredibly hard-working and impossible-tax-paying Greek, cannot be held responsible for that. Try to convince those people that, simply because a tiny minority keeps behaving scandalously, their country is somehow “refusing to stick to the agreements”.

Mind you, it’s exactly that “virtueless” minority of Greeks that Berlin and The Hague were happily doing business with and that could comfortably continue its corrupt ways under the watching gaze of Brussels. For decades, journalists wrote blisters onto their fingers about all the things that were going wrong in Greece, how the people suffered as a result of this, and how sooner or later things were bound to go wrong — but EU politicians didn’t even budge. I would like to see Dutch Prime Minister Rutte explain to my elderly Greek neighbor, who now has to find a way to survive on a miniscule pension of 300 euros, that she is somehow “refusing to stick to the agreements” and “opposing the reforms” when she recounts, crying, that she can’t (and hence won’t) pay her electricity bills.

Secondly, this is not about “agreements” at all. Somehow, that word presupposes that we are talking about two equal parties agreeing on a mutual course of action. Nothing could be further from the truth. Greece has been humbled, mangled and castigated, forced to accept the various IMF demands and Merkel’s austerity measures in a profoundly unequal “like it or lump it” type of situation. The word “agreements” itself is just as deceptive as the words “support” or “reform”. In the case of Greece, “agreements” refer to demands made at knifepoint. Support does not consist of gifts, subsidies or investments, but of big fat loans at disastrous, sky-high interest rates that squeezed Greece will never be able to repay. And the reforms are really just absurd budget cuts that would be utterly impracticable in Northern Europe, including the prospect of a total annihilation of minimum labor rights — something for which Europeans, including the Greeks,  have fought for centuries.

Thirdly, contrary to what Merkel and Rutte unjustifiably keep claiming, ad nauseam, the Greek government is making unbelievable, superhuman efforts to fulfill those impossible demands from Brussels. It does so in spite of the inevitable social unrest and understandable resistance of the Greek people, who are naturally rebelling against all this injustice. Whoever still claims that the Greek government is “once again” falling behind on its commitments and, as a result of slacking and bad governance, fails to pursue the right measures and reforms in the timeframe imposed by Brussels, is simply lying. Merkel is lying. Rutte is lying. Nobel Prize-winning economists and commentators like Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman have already been predicting for two years, also ad nauseam, that Merkel’s current austerity policies are not only failing to work, but are actually driving the Greek economy ever deeper into the abyss.

And behold, they were right. The fact that Merkel and Rutte seem to believe that the targets of their much-revered but ultimately disastrous austerity policies are not being met has nothing to do with the fact that the Greeks are “failing once again”, but is simply the result of a stupid and unworkable set of policies. Back in the Netherlands, Prime Minister Rutte keeps complaining that Greece isn’t privatizing fast enough. This is completely unjustified. Something else is going on: the time Greece has been granted to privatize is simply surreal. Not a single government could comply with that. It’s simply demagoguery to go on and claim that the “Greeks are falling behind again”.

Moreover, the pressure of this “Mission Impossible” pushes the Greek government into an unworkable situation. Partly because of Brussels, it finds itself with its back against the wall, in an in extremely weak position to privatize. It is being forced to sell off large state assets at firesale prices. Foreign buyers and vulture investors smell weakness — and blood. No surprise, then, that government revenues are disappointing; something which can subsequently be used by Rutte and Merkel to claim that “Greece is not honoring its promises”. The same goes for the disappointing revenue from all those extra new taxes: the austerity measures have pushed the Greek economy into a diabolical recession, as a result of which all those EU and IMF calculations about expected revenues turn out to be wrong. That’s not the fault of the Greeks.

One of the most extreme pronunciations came from Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte in a recent pre-election debate with Labour leader Diederik Samsom. Samsom openly asked Rutte whether, in order to save Greece and the euro, he would be willing to cough up the money for another bailout. (Obviously, it’s not about “giving” this money, it’s about expensive loans. But let’s leave that aside). No, Rutte yelled. Why not? Because it would be extremely unwise to say that now, for the Greeks would immediately slow down, sit back and stop privatizing and reforming. After all, they would count their blessings in advance, knowing full well that “someone would pay for them” again and therefore refuse to do anything whatsoever. And so Samsom had to be careful with his words, because the Greeks were listening along — and they would “now receive a completely perverse incentive” from the Labour leader.

Rutte: “we have to keep them on a tight leash.”

Excuse me?

As if Greece were a dog. As if the Greeks were shitty little kids grabbing every opportunity to skirt their responsibilities. What an idiotic way of doing international politics. What an arrogant attitude toward people who are bending over backwards to stay inside of “Europe”. Rutte apparently has such a deep distrust and such a profound contempt for our fellow EU member state that we — from the point of view of Ruttian pedagogy — have to actively deceive them and, above all, should not let them know that they can count on any further bailouts if needed. As Prime Minister, Rutte has already made it known that he has “nothing to do with the Greeks”. Such a person, who just like the right-wing extremist Geert Wilders likes to play with the gut feelings of ill-informed citizens to win their votes, should never be allowed to become PM in the first place.

Last but not least: in my own environment and extensive circle of acquaintances in Greece, I do not know a single Greek who does not want to see reform — in the pure sense of the word — from the government; not a single Greek who does not want to put an end to the old and corrupt Greek political establishment, and who does not believe that the debt, for which they themselves are not responsible, should ultimately be paid back (should it?). These people deserve our support and encouragement; not to be treated arrogantly, mercilessly and unjustly, like second-class citizens — or even worse, like a dog.

Ingeborg Beugel is a Dutch journalist and was formerly based in Athens as a foreign correspondent for various Dutch media. She regularly appears on Dutch television to comment on the Greek debt crisis.

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Michael Theo September 11, 2012 at 15:16

There are many points I need to make for the above article:

1) I came across many articles where a bunch on “intellectuals” spend so much time, trying to give answers regarding the Eurozone crisis. But it seems somehow myopic to me the fact that most of the publications tend to analyse only the economic side of the world order, ignoring the fact the this so called economic crisis is not just economic, but also a crisis in social, political and cultural values. We need to have in mind that all these divisions between European North and South are nothing more but a reflection of deep cultural differences. A deeper analysis on the European socio-political historical background would be enough for us to get a different but more accurate perspective on the current political affairs. What we see today is that Northerners keep blaming the Spanish, Italians and Greeks. But all these hatred against Greeks has its roots in white supremacism; the idea that Germans, Dutch or Scandinavians are superiors, because they are blond, unlikely the olive skinned Southerners, who have more in common with Asia and Africa. This division was ignored for many years, when the economy was strong. But once the crisis hit Europe, then this imaginary of superiority exploded again.

If you want to understand better what I mean, I suggest you to read Hannah Arendt’s book, The Origins of Totalitarianism. The second part of her outstanding work deals with European imperialism and race thinking from the end of the 19nth century until the outbreak of the First World War. The industrial powers needed to craft new markets and this caused invasions. Racism was used to justify imperialist these. Hence, we are talking about an imaginary that has been cultivated for thousands of years and, of course, it is not easy to be wiped away. It is a part of European civilization, its dark and odious side, and if the Europeans want to get rid of it, they will probably need to adopt a different perspective about life and society.

2) Among all the countries of South, Greece has been blamed more. Why? 1) Because the Greeks resist, unlikely to many Northerners who blindly follow protestant work ethics and 2) because Greece is the less European comparing to Italy, Portugal and Spain. In fact, Greek lifestyle has been influenced a lot by Asian cultures. There are many Greeks (one of those is me) who don’t consider themselves Europeans, and this is right! I am not European. I am Greek! I have nothing in common with Dutch, Germans etc.

3) All the above seem to be enough to convince a logical thinker why European Union doesn’t work. We cannot become the United States of Europe. You cannot tie 27 different nations, with different languages, ethics, history, culture and identities under a common economic umbrella (especially when there are such huge divisions). It is an utopia to believe that this project will work. See the results now! The stronger attempts to conquer the rest, using racism and hatred, as you perfectly speak about the example of Wilders.

4) In fact, I did not expect solidarity from Europeans. But at least they should let us leave this EU fiasco. It would be more than happy with that.

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Johannis September 14, 2012 at 15:27

Totally sympathetic with your post, but paradoxically at the very end you seem to reaffirm the dark and odious side of European civilization by divorcing yourself and Greece from this picture. Setting yourself apart. As if Greek superiority-complexes and imperialism is historically non-existent. Believe it or not, but European institutions were once conceived as a counterweight to these exact tendencies. There is an opportunity now to overcome the darkness and further strengthen European integration and solidarity. The likes of Angela Merkel and Mark Rutte are not here to stay forever. They’re just footnotes. Hopefully a new generation stands up, following in the footsteps of Jean Monnet, Konrad Adenauer, Robert Schuman e.t. In the meantime, we have to keep talking. Exposing the folly of these self-serving but unsophisticated demagogues.

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Klaus Kastner September 14, 2012 at 18:45

This is as good a place if any to post a couple of verses from Nikos Dimou’s “Misfortune of being a Greek”:

#60: “Our relationship with the Old Greeks is one source of our national inferiority complex. The other one is our relationship in terms of space (and not time), namely: our relationship with our ‘more developed’ contemporaries; our relationship with Europe”.

#61: “Whenever a Greek speaks of Europe, he automatically excludes Greece from it. When a foreigner speaks of Europe, it is unthinkable to him not to include Greece”.

#61: “So, how European are we? Much separates us from Europe; possibly more than unites us with it. Of the major intellectual currents generated by the European civilization in recent centuries, we only received a faint echo. Neither the Scholastic of the Middle Ages nor the Renaissance, neither the Reformation nor the Enlightenment nor the Industrial Revolution. It’s quite possible that we are culturally closer to the orthodox Russians than to European rationalism. And the influence of the East?”

#63: “The fact is that, regardless what we say, we don’t feel as Europeans. We feel like outsiders. And worst of all, it hurts us terribly when we are told that”.

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Alexis September 15, 2012 at 09:59

Nikos Dimou? How can someone who self-identifies as “non Greek”, be a “guide” to anyone of how “Greeks” are or feel???

Dimou is a controversial figure in Greece. He subscribes to an deconstructive imagined community philosophical perspective of identity so although he is a Greek citizen he does not consider himself ethnically Greek (defining his ethnic identity differently than majority of the Greek population). He has been widely accused in Greece of intolerance towards Greek citizens that do see their identity as related to Greeks.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nikos_Dimou

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Klaus Kastner September 15, 2012 at 13:34

My intent was not to justify Nikos Dimou, only to quote him.

Andreas Zafi September 11, 2012 at 21:50

I agree with you. I am half Greek myself and have lived in Greece long enough to understand its culture and habits. The differences between north and south, west and east are too big to be united. Neighbouring countries can become united in most cases but you can’t expect Greeks to be the same as Dutch or Germans. Neither can you expect Spanish people living like people from Norway or Finland. I think this EU should not have been made, or atleast not this big.
I don’t know how to solve this situation but some people would appreciate not to be talked about like if they were beasts or scum. They are just like you and me and the rest of the world.

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JOhn September 11, 2012 at 23:48

Hello i am Greek and still living in Greece. I would never change my country for another even with all the problems we have. I just know that 30 years i am alive now i was raised by a wannabe America society. Now that i lost my culture as a Greek and i have embrased west-side culture they say that it still isnt good enough and i have to become a German. Excuse my language but it wont be long before Greeks tell all the EU to go f*** themselves. If its hunger the blackmail then we can be hungry on our own.
As for the Greek government, i would like them to give even the slightest attention to the 40% bachelor and master degree educated young people they have because Greece is not the ground , its the people of Greece and they are leaving.

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γεωργιος September 12, 2012 at 13:32

The real reason that they make this to the european south (all the measures) is that they refused to follow the rules for seeding and the codex alimentarius. they try to force them to accept new world order. they want to promote The GMO products (genetically modified organism). Say no to GMO… make your own revolution. grow your own vegetables.

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Kostas September 12, 2012 at 14:23

Thank you very much for this excellent article Ingeborg.
It is the most accurate portrayal of the situation i have read from a foreign journalist. The handling of the crisis in Greece by the EU, IMF, ECB and the compliant Greek government is absolutely criminal.
Sadly, populist media in Europe lend moral support to all this by misrepresenting what really goes on in Greece. Of course this has also turned public opinion against Greece and Greek people who are viewed as lazy, corrupt and of low moral standards. I come across reports on a daily basis that verge on racism. This humiliating defamation has to STOP. It is terribly unjust and at the same time a poor show of values and ethics from citizens of more well off countries towards the Greek people who are suffering immensely. Once again thank you very much for your effort. Kostas Ntinas

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Aristotelis September 12, 2012 at 14:32

This is a great article, explaining what really happens in this country, without cliche’s and fanatism. I keep especially the last words. All Greeks want reforms. The problem is that this plan is failing. In the meantime – until it totally collapses – Greece will collapse too. And it will not be alone.

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Ingeborg Beugel September 12, 2012 at 15:43

Okay, okay. But right or wrong – I agree Greece should not have entered EU – now Greece is in. Its a globalized world, todays problems cant be answered by single countries.North EU should change attitude towards South EU. North WANTED the South,apparently only for ‘the good times’. North EU made a lot of money in the South: from the interest on the loans to South EU and from selling products, made in the North, to the southern countries. Brussels did NOTHING over 30 years, just looked on while Greece did NOT assimilate, did NOT fight corruption and clientalism, did NOT reform and did NOT collect taxes. 30 whole years. Now there are bad times. Time to show solidarity. ps You dont have to become European. I dont feel much Dutch myself, and I welcome other cultures and ways of life …

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Katina September 14, 2012 at 03:29

Mis Beugel, Congratulations on a very impartial and couragious, well written and logically argued article!
My heart aches because of the way Greece and its people are suffering.
I am not an authourity to discuss such matters and I should not even voice an opinion, especially since I am angry, but I want to humbly share a thought. Without the Greek language, philosophy, arts, and ideals the Western and… Northern World would still be in “darkness.” This whole fiasco is not an economic one but rather came to be because of the break-down of the Ancient Greek and Cristian values and ideals. George Theo, I am with you on the cultural and political breakdown issue. The Germans have been planning to take over Greece, not for 30 years but for 70, right after they lost, back in the 40s, because of Greece resistance. Greece has been many times on its knees but, push enough, and always comes back stronger than ever. This time She will too, because, if you take away the few corrupt politicians and elite, the Greek young people carry the ancient spitit in their hearts, the one that makes them excell at what they do. Sooner or later, they will lift Greece high again.

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Klaus Kastner September 14, 2012 at 08:31

This is a good article. I have been struggling with this issue that there are really two Greece’s and at least two types of Greeks in my own postings for some time now. Yes, the majority of working Greeks are, and have always been, correct payers of income taxes because they are taxed at the source. Yes, the majority of Greeks (at least I believe that they are still the majority) are very decent, hard-working/clean-living, correct, open-hearted people who definitely do not deserve what is happening to them now. And yes, in my own day-to-day life in Greece (we spend about half the year there) I seem to be meeting only these kinds of Greeks. Finally, it seems quite clear that many of those now paying the prize for the Euro-party were not among those who had great benefits from the Euro-party (and some had enormous benefits from the Euro-party, much of it now stored away in foreign banks).

The trouble is: how can one change that situation? Short of triggering a revolution in Greece where the “good guys” win and the “bad guys” are held responsible (which is definitely not an adviseable course of action), I can’t think of much. Greece now finds itself in a situation where more money from abroad supports a rotten system and where no money from abroad drives the majority into poverty. Those whom Petros Markaris describes as the “Profiteers” and the “Molochs” win either way.

The amount of money which the suffering Greek people would need in order to avoid poverty is peanuts compared to the amounts of money that have been recycled through the government. Could one bypass the government and the public sector when it comes to distributing the funds?

The level of unfairness within Greek society is mind-boggling to me. Some Greeks (I would hope it is a minority) still take the rest of the Greeks (who I feel sure that they are the majority) for an unbelievable ride.

It may well be that the EU is the wrong place for Greeks. But — would it really be all that different if Greece left the EU?

Again, the definition of the problem is relatively easy and this article does a good job at that. What Greece and the EU are desparately short of are possible solutions which are better than just driving Greeks into poverty. I attach a link to a possible solution which has come to my mind, but that is only one person’s opinion.

http://klauskastner.blogspot.co.at/2012/09/an-economic-development-plan-for-greece.html

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Jerry Melinn September 14, 2012 at 09:26

There is no doubt that ‘Northern Europe’ is engaged in a media war, using mainstream media to criticise the Greeks and their government for not, as you describe, “living up to their promises”. Now the spin is about ‘labour market reform’, with a 6-day or 78 hour working week. This would be totally unacceptable in any other European country and is a good example of the hardline approach being taken in relation to Greece.
However, it seems to me that since the crisis began, all the government has done is to cut wages and pensions, while imposing extra taxes on property or home heating oil, for example. This does demonstrate that ordinary Greeks are paying a heavy price for past mistakes. On the other hand, the second bailout memorandum ( I concur it’s not an agreement) contains measures and reforms, which should open up the economy, enable the collection of taxes etc. There are vested interest groups within and outside the government who oppose these changes so little progress has been made in these areas. I ask myself, if wages have fallen by 30%-50% and other operating costs have been reduced,why is this not reflected in a reduction in the price of goods and services? Prices are actually increasing here ! The government should be reforming the system so people can get the best value for their money. For example, the majority of children where I live go to frontisteria for Maths, Physics and Chemistry (apart from English lessons). These are basic school subjects, which should not require private lessons at a very big cost. Why is this happening ? Are teachers not being paid to teach these subjects? This is only one example of many, where the system is manipulated to extract money from ordinary people. It seems that the problems are so intractable that nobody knows where to start. My suggestion is a ‘social partnership’ between the government, employers and trade unions in order to address to issues one step at a time. Most people wouldn’t mind their wages and pensions falling if the prices of goods and services fell to reflect these cost reductions but what’s happening in Greece is the worst of both worlds – family income falling and prices and taxes rising.

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Troy Ounce September 14, 2012 at 12:18

Remember that Greece has stronger cards than the Troika. If Greece defaults the whole stack of card will be coming down big time. They have choice: be treated like a dog for the coming 20 years or be free of these financial terrorits. After default, introduce a new currency and you will prosper after a few months of uncertainty. Say the words: “We will default on every single financial obligation the Greek State has”. Kick them in the nuts, Greece!

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Johannis September 14, 2012 at 15:52

Tough negotiating skills might have been enough. As in: “If you don’t back any Eurobond scheme proposed by the EC, we’ll simply forge ahead with unilateral debt restructuring and a budget reform agenda of our own”.

Andreas Papandreou would have had the cajones.
He was against Greece’s EMU entry anyway.

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Klaus Kastner September 14, 2012 at 18:51

I agree that Greece has the stronger hand of cards. Greece has already taken the damage whereas the North has yet to book the losses.

Just a word of warning because Greece decides to tell the rest of the world to go fly a kite. Without funding from abroad, the Greek economy would experience a similar thing which Cuba experienced when the Soviet funding stopped. Imports would essentially have to be cut in half overnight. There may be enough foreign currency to cover the essential imports but certainly bye, bye to most of the rest (cars, motorbikes, smartphones, etc.).

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Kostas Karkagiannis September 14, 2012 at 12:23

All in all a good article. Especially the last paragraph. When the crisis broke out, I thought: this is one change in a generation to get rid of the Greek clientelistic state and, with a bit of luck, also of tax evasion and maybe, just maybe, of corruption. I also thought that, it can’t be otherwise, a lot of Greeks must be extremely unhappy with the way things are, the way the state “operates”. I am afraid that I was wrong. If you look at the last electoral results there is only one possible explanation: The majority of the Greeks do not want change, do not want to get rid of the Greek superstate, of clientilism. I would be extremely happy to be mistaken about this.

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Johannis September 14, 2012 at 16:18

‘Fortunately’, you are mistaken. Because the only reason Greeks voted for the ancien regime again is because the European leadership, who were so critical of it at first, threatened to kick Greece out of the euro zone if the opposition party SYRIZA won the elections instead. SYRIZA had been leading in the polls for a long time, in part because they campaigned on an anti-memorandum/anti-austerity platform. It was simply a case of hypocritical blackmail. ‘Europe’ was intent on keeping the status quo intact.

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