Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Greek debt crisis: A tale of ritual humiliation

Mark Steel in The Independent

What a relief that the Greeks have finally seen sense, and agreed to Angela Merkel’s demand that their Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras must scrub Berlin with a dishcloth, and crawl along the banks of the Rhine in a thong barking like a dog.

The week before he’d agreed to dress as a fairy and sing “The Good Ship Lollipop” while German children poked him with stinging nettles, but now that isn’t enough. So he has to accept even more measures essential to stabilising the Greek economy, such as being hosed down with kebab fat while naming the German squad that won the 1954 World Cup.

Otherwise, as EU leaders made clear, there would be no way Greece could stay inside the solar system; they’d have to orbit a different star in a faraway galaxy, which could be extremely damaging to the Greek tourist industry.

Instead of inviting further chaos by leaving Greece in the hands of the Greeks, their finances have been handed over entirely to the only people we can trust to behave responsibly at all times: the banks. Thank the Lord we’ve got at least one institution that has never behaved irresponsibly or recklessly in any way.

Perhaps the Greeks should have gone to Brussels and said they were rebranding Greece, so it’s no longer a country, but a bank. They’d have been bailed out by lunch and given a free set of steak knives as an extra gift. Instead they’ve got to sell off their entire country. By Christmas you’ll be able to buy a family ticket for 300 quid to visit the Domino’s Parthenon, where you can watch a parade of philosophers dressed as your favourite pizzas, with Pythagoras pepperoni proving a particular favourite, then scream your way down the Acropolis on a log flume.

One of the main demands in the final deal is that the Greek state must sell off €50bn-worth of its assets, which amounts to everything it has. This is part of the drive to make the economy stable and efficient. This works as long as you assume privatisation unarguably makes an industry more efficient. Obviously there are examples such as the railways in Britain, where privatisation has resulted in cheap reliable trains on which you can always get a seat, it’s easy to buy tickets across different rail networks, and customers are even offered delightful unscheduled 40-minute stops outside London Bridge station to give you the opportunity to paint the view of a gasworks in Bermondsey.

The demands placed on Greece are so extreme that even the International Monetary Fund has declared them “unsustainable”. The IMF is the body that has spent 50 years forcing countries such as Tanzania and Haiti to cut wages and sell off its possessions, in return for loans it needs so it can pay off the interest on the last lot of money it borrowed (from the IMF). So when it says the demands on Greece are too harsh, it’s like making the leader of Isis say, “Steady on, that’s a bit too Islamic”.

Still, someone has to tell the Greeks they can’t expect to carry on getting something for nothing. And the European Central Bank and national central banks – who, according to the Jubilee Debt Campaign, “stand to make between €10bn and €22bn out of Greek repayments” – are exactly the right people to deliver that stern but fair message.

Christine Lagarde, managing director of the IMF, is paid a salary of €550,000 a year, and by special arrangement pays no tax on that whatsoever. So she’s certainly the right person to lecture the Greeks, because she’s never been behind on her tax payments once. Every month she dutifully pays her nothing bang on time; she understands the importance of behaving responsibly with public money.

The most perplexing part of this story is that, a few days ago, it seemed as if Alexis Tsipras and his party, Syriza, were set to resist the orders being thrown at them, especially as they’d gone to the trouble of winning a referendum on whether to accept the EU demands. I suppose Tsipras thought that when the majority of Greeks voted against, it was because they felt those demands weren’t harsh enough, and they deserved to be punished much more severely as they’d all been very naughty.

Because Tsipras went into negotiations making it clear he was desperate to keep Greece in the eurozone, the EU could demand whatever it liked, knowing he’d accept anything rather than abandon the euro.

That sounds like going into a car showroom and saying, “I desperately need a car right now and I’ll have anything rather than leave without one”. A salesman could say, “We’ve only got this one, it’s got no engine and the windscreen’s made of wood and it pongs as a family of weasels live on the back seat and the bonnet’s on fire, it’s £10,000”, and you’d have no choice but to take it.

But maybe he did have a choice, to tell the banks they’ve made plenty out of Greece as it is and so, on balance, the elected government had decided to go along with what the Greeks voted for twice in a few months – wasting their money on schools and old people in villages, rather than do the sensible thing and hand over every coin as interest payments to institutions such as Goldman Sachs.

They’d have been kicked out of the eurozone, and probably out of Uefa and the Eurovision Song Contest, and scratched off the Inter-rail map too. But they’d have been a little beacon for everyone across Europe who feels the banks aren’t acting entirely in our interests, probably enough people to worry Angela Merkel just a bit.

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