x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Anger in Athens frustrates EU's plan to save euro zone

Angry protests on the streets of Athens seem incongruous with the blossoming of spring in the capital.

The banners range from the benign to the inflammatory. "We didn't share the profits, we're not paying for the crisis," one sign reads. "We are people, not numbers," announces another. Still a third, reflecting the anarchy some have endorsed, suggests repaying the Greek government in "Molotovs, not loans". Angry protests on the streets of Athens seem incongruous with the blossoming of spring in the capital. And yet, as Greeks celebrated their independence day this month, calls for revolution hearkened less to their history than towards the current economic crisis.

Despite its overtures to foreign investors, Greece has infuriated its domestic population, who believe that austere economic measures have been imposed by a corrupt and inefficient government. As the first country to truly test the euro zone's credibility, there is a feeling among policy makers that Greece is a case study for other shaky European countries, and that its recovery needs to be done right. But with internal unrest virtually bringing the country to a standstill - which included the closure of its international airport this month - any bailout plan (even one pried from the iron fist of Germany's chancellor, Angela Merkel) seems bound to fail.

To meet a looming April deadline that demands ?20 billion (Dh99 billion) in debt repayment, Greece has scrambled for revenue. But the sudden increase in taxes across the board, including petrol and VAT, could keep tourists away this summer, striking a blow to an industry that makes up 15 per cent of the country's GDP. Add a 20 per cent surcharge on alcohol and a hike on cigarettes, and Greeks may soon have a cleaner bill of health, but their economy may stay in sorry shape.

More worryingly, it is the middle class, the bedrock of Greece's domestic economy, that will bear the brunt of austerity measures. Public sector employees, for example, who make up 40 per cent of the country's GDP, have little to look forward to after deep salary cuts. Around the world, embassy hours are being cut to meet costs; at home, families who plan around their Easter and Christmas paycheques won't have a savings cushion. As one Greek civil servant in Abu Dhabi said: "These pay cuts seem permanent. There is no future in my career now."

Government employees are not the only unhappy lot. Adding to the public sector's disgruntlement are students, whose anger at unemployment and poor salaries has historically resulted in street clashes with police. Infamously, the shooting of a 15-year-old youth sparked countrywide riots in 2008, which tapped into frustrations about deep economic problems, including rampant unemployment and perceived government corruption.

Recent protests and rioting have built on these long-simmering frustrations. Athens's anarchist factions have attracted the sympathies of the youth, whose bleak outlook has earned the government little sympathy. Young women have been especially affected. Annamaria Droubouki, an unemployed academic, believes there is no future for her in Greece despite her educational background. "With ?700 [a month] you can hardly do anything," she said in a recent documentary highlighting the crisis. "Then the jobs are mostly part-time work. You have to wait until you're at least 35 to find a decent job. To establish a family is out of the question. I'm still living with my parents. When I started studying at age 18, I wouldn't have thought my life at 30 would be anything like this."

Those who leave the country in search of better opportunities in places like Germany are replaced by immigrants, another group of job seekers who often find employment in Greece's thriving black market. Its workers are, for the most part, the housemaids, the cooks, the janitors and the nannies; no small part of the total workforce stands apart from, and yet is affected by, the state's economic woes.

There are also the less savoury activities like prostitution, narcotics and tax evasion, which also account for significant sources of income. So necessary are illicit activities to the economy, in fact, that the National Statistics Survey revised Greece's formal GDP in 2006 to include black market dealings. It rose by 25 per cent. As is usual in Greece, demonstrators have taken to the streets to express their rage. But protests won't help to mend the long-term problems that caused the crisis in the first place.

As any physician knows, there are wounds far beneath the surface that take longer to heal. Healing this growing rift between the state and its people - of which the crisis is merely a symptom - will have to put Greece's people, rather than its creditors, first. That means banging the drum of transparency until it rings loud and clear from the Acropolis to Mt Olympus. Corruption, long the disease in many European countries, will not be cured by more money, but more accountability.

It also means holding all citizens accountable for their part in the crisis. Uprooting habits such as tax evasion will require no less than a complete revolution in the national mindset. And yet, the change must come. It will be almost impossible to convince German and French citizens to bail out Greece when many, as the Greek finance minister said recently: "declare an income of ?15,000 while at the same time maintaining a big house, a big car, a recreational boat and sending kids to private school".

Similar sentiments are washing over the rest of the European community as it watches its southern economies struggle. Just as Greece, they will need more than just a cash injection from the European Union or IMF to survive. Like a person, the long-term health of the state requires careful attention on many fronts. But it also requires the patient to look within and say, to echo an ancient phrase, Iatre, theratevson seafton: or, "Physician, heal thyself."

@Email:mmetallidis@thenational.ae