Nightmare foretold if Greece heads for euro exit

Published May 18, 2012 12:35pm

A Greek exit from the euro could cost $1 trillion. — Photo AFP

ATHENS: In Athens, the homeless are on the streets in growing numbers, soup kitchens feed twice as many people as a year ago, and the poor are diving into garbage bins in search of scrap they can sell.

Greece is close to breaking point as it struggles with austerity targets set by creditors, but this is just a foretaste of the nightmare of unrest, hunger and even anarchy that could engulf the debt-crippled nation if it is forced out of the euro.

If the exact economic impact of such a move is hard to nail down - newly issued drachmas devalued by up to 70 percent, runaway inflation, a banking meltdown, a collapse in trade - the implications for ordinary Greeks crushed by the debt crisis are even harder to predict.

Without international bailout cash, salaries and pensions would go unpaid and violence, political extremism and uncontrolled emigration could quickly follow.

After voting inconclusively for parties that opposed foreign-imposed austerity, including the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, Greeks head to the polls again in a month's time. This election is being portrayed internationally as a referendum on the single currency, even if Greeks do not yet see it that way.

A Greek exit from the 17-nation euro zone, or “Grexit” as some economists have called the once unthinkable eventuality, risks turning the nation into what would be be close to a failed state on the edge of the European Union, one of the most prosperous societies the world has ever known.

Greece imports 40 percent of the food it consumes, nearly all of its oil and natural gas and much of its medicine. It has long been clear to some commentators that there could be trouble ahead.

Confronted with post-exit turmoil, foreign suppliers would simply put up the shutters until the situation becomes calmer, leading to acute shortages of basic commodities, which could fuel serious civil unrest, according to Bank of Greece Governor George Provopoulos.

Even if Greece did manage to import limited amounts of food and other basics, they would be cripplingly expensive. Provopoulos warned as long ago as December that a return to the drachma would be “real hell”, with Greeks forced to resort to barter during the transition period between the two currencies, “trading a kilo of olive oil for three kilos of flour”.

Nightmare Scenario “There will be shortages in basic staples. Without fuel, the army and the police would not be able to move their vehicles. After a long period, things will return to a better balance. But during the first transitional phase we would be experiencing a nightmare scenario,” Provopoulos said.

A former finance minister, Yiannos Papantoniou, saw trouble ahead nearly a year ago: “Greece would not be able to support 11 million people so there will be huge emigration flows,” he told Reuters Insider television last July. “Disruptions, social disruptions will come. I would say a regime of total anarchy.”

Last year 23,800 Greeks emigrated to Germany alone, 90 percent more than the previous year, German data show and Greeks are queuing up to learn German.

Most economists agree the austerity measures Greece is labouring under offer it little hope of recovery near term, and some argue that if it leaves the euro, it could export its way back to health on the back of a vastly devalued currency.

But, barring tourism, it does not have businesses or industries that could drive such a recovery.

Even if freed of its debt-cutting targets, the fact the country runs a primary deficit - spending more than it takes in taxes - means it would have to continue austerity measures and, because it would be shut out of international markets, it would have no one to borrow from.

“Even if you strip interest payments, with a primary current account deficit at about 10 billion euros, it would mean economic life would grind to a halt,” said Yannis Stournaras, head of Greek think tank IOBE.

“Greece would have a hard time to import oil, foods, medicines and other primary inputs. Imagine the navy, police, without fuel. Natural gas spigots would close. GDP would be hurt by a battered banking system. Public debt would increase.”

Greece's recent history gives a taste of the political turmoil that could follow. After German occupation in World War Two, the country plunged into bitter civil war during the 1940s. Political turbulence in the 1960s was capped by a colonels' coup d'etat in 1967, with democratic elections not held until seven years later.

Conditions are already hard for business people in Greece, with the country in its fifth year of recession. “The first shortages have begun to appear,” said Melina Ferousi, a businesswoman who imports paper and stationery items.

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