Originally published in NRC Handelsblad, translated from the Dutch by Jerome Roos.
There’s only one word that adequately describes the majority of Dutch media reports on Greece right now: a witch hunt. Of all the arrogant stupidity, full of gut feelings of Dutch superiority, De Telegraaf takes the cake. “Kick them out of the eurozone. Our citizens no longer want to pay for these wasteful Greeks,” was this newspaper’s headline on May 19, following the results of a Telegraaf survey of over 11,000 participants. Or what about the following headline, on May 13th: “Again, billions of euros thrown into a bottomless pit.” Apparently this kind of nonsense works. By now, 58 percent of Dutch people are opposed to ‘giving’ even a penny to Greece.
For what it’s worth, the average Greek retirement age is nearly 65. Some Greeks that I know who take up their retirement funds early, usually receive between 200 and 600 per month. At that point, sitting on your ass is not even an option. These people have to immediately find employment elsewhere, usually more than one job. After the first round of cuts last year, a high school teacher now earns an average of 800 euros per month. 500 euros of this goes to rent and other fixed costs. You’re left with 300 euros to live off. As a teacher, you simply can’t start a family. And what do you do if you’re a kindergarten teacher or a hostess with a salary of 650 euros per month? A Greek widow (my 94-year old neighbor on Hydra) lives off 400 euros a month. That’s not even enough for her diapers and medicine. She manages to pull through under appalling conditions thanks to her family and neighbors. I don’t know any Dutch person working three jobs to make ends meet, but I do know dozens of Greeks who work three jobs just to survive. Yes, there are Greeks benefiting from high and early retirement. They are an exception, not the rule. By the way: on Hydra, there’s a retired Dutch teacher, a carefree baby boomer, who retired at her fiftieth, never having to work again and enjoying Greece for the rest of her life without any financial worries. Not a single Greek colleague of hers could do that.
According to the latest Eurostat statistics, the Greeks work 40.6 hours a week, most of all 27 EU member states. That says nothing about productivity and efficiency — which is lower — but it does say something about the alleged laziness of the Greeks. According to OECD figures of 2009, the Greeks are the only ones among western countries who exceed the line of two thousand working hours per year: Greece, 2119 per year; Australia 1690; Belgium 1550; Netherlands 1378. That the average Dutch people in the street, or average Dutch journalists are ignorant, fail to inform themselves, and utter the most insulting remarks, doesn’t surprise me given our social climate, but if politicians and notables express themselves in the same way, it’s time to ring the alarm bell.
Geert Wilders, the Dutch far-right populist, calls the Greeks ‘junkies’, to whom you shouldn’t give any money. Our national demagogue has found his new Moroccans in Europe — the Greek people and the inhabitants of other “garlic countries”. Piet Moerland, Rabobank CEO, believes that “the Greeks have to feel the threshold of pain”. What Greeks? Anyone but the honorable ladies and gentlemen with whom he knowingly did business? Or the ordinary Greek citizen, who had nothing to do with it, but who’s paying the bill? The Dutch, who are only sensitive towards their wallets and who have no regard for history, causality, or the social consequences of the often unjustified measures that have until now affected the weak in Greek society (simple workers and pensioners), are living up to their reputation.
In 1974, after seven years of dictatorship, Greece became free and independent for the first time, after decades of foreign interference and oppression by right-wing governments that didn’t care for the people. When, in 1981, Andreas Papandreou, the father of the incumbent prime minister, took power to become the first left-wing prime minister in the history of Hellas, he played into the pressing needs of the people at the time: the need for freedom (everything should be allowed, including demonstrations, powerful unions and ‘free state’ universities where the police wasn’t allowed to venture), the need for national pride, and the need for a caring state. He thought the economy would grow by pumping in money, increasing incomes and creating employment. So he began to borrow.
Papandreou was anything but successful, even though he had been a professor of economics at Berkeley. His strategy would have worked only in a protected economy, but Greece was a member of the EEC. The extra income of the people went straight to consumer goods that were imported from abroad. The money borrowed from abroad flowed right back into those very same countries. Industry in Greece slowly faded. Companies went bankrupt. Northern Europe was stronger and better.
The same happened with other countries in Europe’s southern axis. Weaker economies served as a growing market for the stronger economies in the European core. With the introduction of the euro in 2001, this development proceeded even further. Germany and the Netherlands benefited enormously, both through collecting interest on loans and through the growth of their exports.
All in all, Brussels and the European banks gave in to their own drive for profit maximization without any self-restraint, lending some 2,000 billion euros to Ireland, Belgium, Portugal and Spain — and to Greece, while everyone was fully aware that cronyism there still reigned supreme after entrance into the European Union, that the public sector was bursting at the seams, that the business climate was poor, that the political elite on the left and on the right was corrupt, that the rich engaged in mass tax evasion, that the institutions functioned poorly, and that European money was not being used well. If you do that for thirty years, without any checks or sanctions, can you still keep a straight face while blaming the Greeks alone for their mismanagement?
Did Brussels not know by 2009 that the Greek budget deficit was not 6, but 12 percent? Nonsense. Brussels and the banks were simply standing there, looking on and doing business with anyone who all those people who are now being called a “bottomless souvlaki”.
As long as the Greek economy kept growing at a remarkable 4-5 percent rate, thanks to the tourism and shipping industries (in which the Greek shipowners are considered the absolute world leaders), nothing could go wrong. The structural instability caused by excessive borrowing remained invisible until the crisis of 2008 did hit Europe, but left Greece untouched for the moment. The EU, under the presidency of France, decided to support the banks. Greece participated, although Greek banks did not use the support at the time. They did not need to, because — unlike Dutch banks — they had not participated in the “American casino games”. In that respect, the Greek banks were more solid enterprises than the Dutch ones. Their problem was — and still is — just that they (also) had Greek bonds in their portfolios. In 2009, the global shipping industry collapsed as a result of the global crisis. Tourism decreased dramatically. In the spring of 2009, European Commissioner Almunia warned repeatedly that things would go wrong for Greece. Nobody did anything. There were Greek elections in June and September. In such moments, it’s customary for Brussels not to bother a member state. Moreover, the right-wing prime minister at the time, Karamanlis, who was an ally of neoliberal Northern Europe, felt that support measures could wait.
Only in the autumn of 2009, after the “confession” and “Mea Culpa” on the Greek deficit by prime minister Giorgos Papandreou in Brussels, right at the moment when the global crisis was starting to be felt in Greece, did the full extent of the country’s problems emerge. Ever since, the propaganda machine has been running at full speed. Contrary to reality, the Greeks are not just being blamed, but they are suddenly also considered to be Mediterranean profiteers, living like a louse on a sore head, at the expense of the righteous North European taxpayer. The angry statements by EU bosses like Barroso, Trichet, Juncker and Merkel were raining down. Papandreou did not even get time to sort things out. No, Greece should immediately display good behavior. Speculators smelled blood. They openly started betting on a Greek default.
Greece was drained by the markets. It no longer received any credit and had to beg the EU for assistance. Under the leadership of Angela Merkel, the IMF was called in. Tough conditions were set, even harsher than the IMF desired: punishment was enacted. Punishment for what? Punishing Greece is like a perverse confirmation of the EU’s inherent powerlessness, and a confirmation of the fact that the EU is mainly a bureaucratic institution that fails to act politically when it has to in order to stave off catastrophe.
The ordinary Greek people are now expected to foot the bill for the extremely high interest repayments to the European banks. Unfortunately, the Greek prime minister started last year what he should have ended with. Taxes have been raised. Salaries were already much lower than in the Netherlands, but they have now been reduced by an additional 15 percent. Social security has been minimized. All kinds of public services have been cut out entirely.
Most Greeks are struggling just to keep their head above the water. Every day, desperate people demonstrate in downtown Athens. They are not, in other words, on the beach drinking ouzo. But it’s not enough. The merciless figures show that the situation in Greece has actually gotten worse. The Greek market has collapsed. Tax increases are failing to raise revenues (you simply can’t squeeze any milk out of an empty cow). All the public sectors in Greece — postal services, ports, utilities, etc. — have to be privatized, not so much to help the Greeks, or to actually increase the efficiency of these often poorly-functioning institutions, but rather to for them to serve as collateral for the European banks. Sharply lower incomes and higher taxes, combined with top-heavy loans, do not only destroy the economy, but also social cohesion. Unemployment has already reached 16 percent. Next year, it will be 22 percent. Greek people have no prospects. Among those under 35 years of age, 37 percent wants to emigrate.
Dutch Finance Minister Jan-Kees de Jager sees only one solution: “A very radical, painful adjustment package for the economy, cuts and privatization, whether there is political opposition or not”. So what does he envision? Do those Greeks who have bought houses, but who can no longer pay for them because the housing market has completely collapsed, have to be evicted en masse? Do defaulters have to have their water and electricity cut off? Do all Greek buses have to go back to the depot, do schools and hospitals have to be closed? How far do De Jager and his neoliberal buddies want to go?
As far as I’m aware, there is not a single Greek who is not aware of the fact that the debt has to be repaid, but they justly demand lower interest rates and longer repayment terms. They also want the cacophony of ominous and hateful statements from European leaders to be stopped, so that Greece can get some air to recover.
The scourge of our time is that we are formulating ever more simplistic solutions, in childish neoliberal doublespeak, for the extremely intricate and complex problems we face. The reality of globalization and extreme interdependence of financial institutions is different and screams for greater insight, reflection and good governance. Nobody offers any perspective. “Simple solutions” do not exist. Brussels doesn’t know anymore. Neither does Dutch politics.
In a solidary Europe, the question shouldn’t be: how do I get my money back with maximum profit? It should be: how do I help a country get out of a recession for which I am partly responsible, and who will foot the bill for that? In the first place, part of the money should be taken from those responsible for causing this mess — from the elite. The Greeks who have committed fraud for years on end, who evaded their taxes, who obfuscated their money and who speculated irresponsibly, are going free, partly thanks to a recent law on parliamentary immunity. It’s an eyesore to the Greek people that Papandreou has failed to sue even a single corrupt politician, to punish even a single entrepreneur or ship owner, and to recover even a single penny from the billions of euros that have disappeared into various pockets. And in no way does Brussels seem to be pushing for such measures. In fact, on this subject, Brussels has remained silent as the grave.
Undoubtedly, this silence serves to disguise other dubious practices — such as the money from Siemens, which lavishly handed out bribes in exchange for a monopoly position at the Athens Olympics of 2004; or Germany, which forced Greece to buy expensive German submarines, which it doesn’t need, at a price twice as high as Turkey had to pay for them; or France, which forced Greece to buy wildly expensive fighter planes in return for its ‘aid’.
Indeed, the propaganda of the mainstream media provides Europe and the Netherlands with a convenient scapegoat to exploit.