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Modern odyssey of Greeks

June 30, 2012

RECENTLY in the national elections, Greece voted for the centre-right New Democracy party headed by experienced politician Anthony Samaras (a 60-year-old Harvard graduate with an MBA) instead of the leftist coalition of the Syriza party headed by a young (38 year-old, civil engineer) populist leader.

It was a clear message by the voting population that they want to stay in the eurozone by following a prudent policy towards other EU countries and not to risk any immediate bankruptcy through unwise unilateral policies by an inexperienced dogmatic leftist coalition that includes political groups detached from reality.

This voting result was a relief for the international money markets that, for the time being, avoided a world financial turmoil which would have been many times stronger than the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy.

The danger of having, at this critical moment of Europe’s future, a populist government in Greece to experiment by trying to implement dogmatic illusions was great since the country is in its fifth year of continuous recession.

This has led to an unprecedented unemployment level of 22 per cent, the closing down of many enterprises and the unmitigated lack of any future vision of prosperity that left large portions of the population willing to vote for any alternative voice that could promise hope, as unrealistic as it sounded.

Greece has been demonised, mainly by the German press, as the rebellious child of Europe with people that are not hardworking, people whose chief hobby is tax evasion and an outdated public administration that resembles that of the last days of the Ottoman Empire (against which the Greeks revolted in 1821 after 400 years of occupation).

Such a description of Greece is to say the least unwarranted. We have to remember that in all socioeconomic phenomena their description is largely subjective and it depends on the viewer’s interests at the time of observation.

At this particular time, Germany is the indisputable financial leader of Europe and this gives it the power to dictate, to a large extent, its desires regarding other Europeans. As a mentality or attitude, Germany is a disciplined ‘assembly line’-oriented, productive nation versus a free-spirited trading nation which is Greece. Greece is populated by people who effortlessly travel around the world, who are adaptable, who are sociable and likeable and who feel at home everywhere.

There is no way that one can expect Greeks to effectively follow the strict rules of austerity imposed on them by the lending countries (primarily Germany, followed by France) without any vision of progress and development. Greeks need time to breathe, to reflect, to dream and to visualise a clear path for a better future.

The accusation that Greeks are not hardworking is far from the truth: the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has listed Greece on the top of the list of working hours per week. Regarding tax evasion (with a remark that Greece is not the only country in the world to be condemned for this) serious and systematic efforts are being made to combat it.

A similar picture has been projected about the improvement of the public-service sector that has long suffered from lack of reward for good work or consequence for the lack of it. (In my view, this is the result of the established ‘socialist’ mindset of the supposed equality that has prevailed in the country — and especially in the public sector — for the last 30 years by mainly populist governments.)

Now, what is the bottom line?

Mr Mario Monti, the technocrat prime minister of Italy (and distinguished professor of economics and president at the famous Bocconi University of Milan, Italy) was very clear recently at the G20 conference in Mexico when he said: “the markets are convinced that the Greek vote is not enough: a more substantial European integration is needed. Nobody believes that the European Union is the sole cause [and even more Greece alone, I will add] of the crisis that has emerged from inequalities that exist in other countries, including the United States.”

It is clear that the eurozone needs a road map with concrete interventions that will strengthen the euro coupled with a serious and well-thought-out development plan.

Yoska Fisher, the former German minister of foreign affairs in a recent article warned his fellow Germans and Europeans that their rigid attitude has destroyed Europe twice with wars and that there is a danger of repeating it a third time — but with a financial war this time. In fact, he pointed out that Ms Merkel is trying to put out the European fire with kerosene.Unfortunately, it is not yet clear to the Germans that if the euro disappears, they will lose their euro leverage by going back to their own currency and becoming a third-class world power. Neither do they seem to understand that one cannot squeeze one’s trading partners to death as this is synonymous with destroying one’s own lucrative market.

Le Monde, a French broadsheet, wrote some time ago that, unfortunately, we are governed by political dwarfs on both sides of the Atlantic.

Although this is an exaggeration, the lack of political leadership, i.e. the lack of world-class politicians with visionary statesmanship and a broad view of affairs beyond narrow constituency interests and even short-sighted — accounting type — national interests, is commonplace.

In Europe, today we need inspired politicians with a win-win mentality which is not evident at the moment. The ancient Greeks used to say, “We need either kings to become philosophers or philosophers to become kings.”

The writer is a professor at the University of Piraeus, Athens.