Too early for good news from Greece

Ministers' claims that the economy has "turned a corner" don't bear up to scrutiny.

"Greece has turned a corner" is the general message Yannis Stournaras, the Greek Finance Minister, has been trying to spread in the past few months. Not only "The IMF has praised improvements to Greece's much-maligned tax collection procedures," as the Greek media have been reporting lately, but also, as Stournaras said, "Greece could return to international debt markets by next May." This same line has been at play since late last year, when the Bank of Greece Governor Giorgos Provopoulos stated in an interview with the Financial Times that the worst is over. "Greece could return to the markets in 2014," Stournaras went on. "We've turned a corner".

The international media have tried their hand at this, with Reuters columnist Hugo Dixon writing in his piece The Gloom Around Greece is Dissipating:

Athens now seems on course to achieve 'primary balance' this year. In other words, it will not have a budget deficit before interest payments. That means it probably will not have to implement another round of austerity next year, so the economy will not be struggling against that obstacle.

One might notice there is a quite big maybe in there, standing out. In the same spirit, Yannis Stournaras commented last week in an interview with NET that "this year we managed to make up for two thirds of the fiscal gap, without cutting pensions". Again, Stournaras seems to only be speaking about part of the money Greece will need within 2013 in order to avoid cutting deeper into pensions and public spending, while at the same time admitting that 2013 will be a very difficult year. His view is that unemployment will start falling in 2014.

There are several problems with this, and the unavoidable question arises: is Greece really doing better or is Stournaras simply spinning a positive vibe to soothe the markets and maybe help Merkel and co. look good ahead of the German elections in September? The first issue here would be a whopping €8.2bn the country owes to private companies and contractors. Greece has only managed to make its overall finances look good by stopping payments towards the domestic market. Part of the bailout funds will have to be used in order for this debt to be paid off, but a sense of "too little, too late" is in the air as this delay has strangled many businesses in the past 3 years. A "possible return to the markets" is more like a "necessary exit" as bailout funds run dry next April and additional aid looks unlikely to arrive. Any issues we might face on the road there, lie exclusively with the coalition's financial strategy.

The government's decision to increase taxation on heating oil did not only leave many Greeks unable to heat their homes last winter, but also caused general revenue from taxes to drop by €291m, after consumption fell by 68.7 per cent. Since the beginning of the year, due to this and other tax hikes, tax revenues were lower than the targets set by the government and the Troika in the first three months of 2013.

The most terrifying prospect Greece faces in the next few months though, is the devastating unemployment. Overall unemployment in Greece is now 27 per cent while it goes up to 28.7 per cent in certain regions. In the 18 to 25 age group, unemployment stands at a staggering 64 per cent. To give some perspective, unemployment stood at 21.9 per cent last January, and has more than tripled since the crisis began in 2008. It is likely that it will touch 30 per cent by the end of the year, despite the cuts in wages that now sees those making the minimum wage earning no more than €440 per month after taxes.

It is easy to assume that in his statement, Yannis Stournaras means that unemployment will start falling once it reaches the dreaded 30 per cent. This does little to comfort Greeks. Despite the numbers the government chooses to stress in order to support its position of "light at the end of the tunnel", the very real problems of unemployment, dwindling consumption and political instability are felt by ordinary Greeks. New cuts in wages and pensions are still on the table if Greece doesn’t achieve a primary surplus this year or if, let's be honest, this primary surplus is achieved on shaky grounds and new taxes await within the year.

We've yet to see the Greek government clash and cut its ties with the Greek oligarchs that have refused so far to pay their fair share of the burden. Ship-owners still enjoy scandalous tax-exemptions, while the same people who often found themselves facing charges for cheating the state out of millions (and still owe tens of millions according to the data released by the ministry of finance) appear to still be in business with the ruling New Democracy party. This only stands proof that the government will opt to put even more of that burden on the backs of those already finding themselves in dire position because of this unwillingness.

The ruling coalition and the Troika's spin dominates public discourse in Greece. According to a recent report, the government takes up 63.4 per cent of the time allocated to political parties, while the Troika and its representative’s statements take up 57.2 per cent of the rest. This may be helpful for the financial climate to improve at a superficial level and to make Angela Merkel and Wolfgang Schauble look good while elections draw near (a courtesy Schauble looks unwilling to grant Greece), but it does little in the way of truth.

A harsh summer that will bring hikes in electricity bills will find Greeks once again in discomfort, this time battling the predicted heatwave without access to air-conditioning. Health issues will inevitably arise. And that's only one part of the problem. No matter how much the Greek government wants us to believe things are bound to get better, it does to little to help those who actually need it: the people. If only wishful thinking and PR could replace reality…

Follow Yiannis on twitter @YiannisBab

Greek finance minister Yiannis Stournaras. (Photo: Getty.)

Yiannis Baboulias is a Greek investigative journalist. His work on politics, economics and Greece, appears in the New Statesman, Vice UK and others.

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What Brussels can learn from the Italian referendum

Matteo Renzi's proposed reforms would have made it easier for eurosceptic forces within Italy to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

The Austrian presidential elections can justifiably be claimed as a victory for supporters of the European Union. But the Italian referendum is not the triumph for euroscepticism some have claimed.

In Austria, the victorious candidate Alexander van der Bellen ruthlessly put the EU centre stage in his campaign. “From the beginning I fought and argued for a pro-European Austria,” he said after a campaign that saw posters warning against “Öxit”.

Austrians have traditionally been eurosceptic, only joining the bloc in 1995, but Brexit changed all that.  Austrian voters saw the instability in the UK and support for EU membership soared. An overwhelming majority now back continued membership.

Van der Bellen’s opponent Norbert Hofer was at an immediate disadvantage. His far right Freedom Party has long pushed for an Öxit referendum.

The Freedom Party has claimed to have undergone a Damascene conversion but voters were not fooled.  They even blamed Nigel Farage for harming their chances with an interview he gave to Fox News claiming that the party would push to leave the EU.

The European Commission, as one would expect, hailed the result. “Europe was central in the campaign that led to the election of a new president and the final result speaks for itself,” chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas said today in Brussels.

“We think the referendum in Italy was about a change to the Italian constitution and not about Europe,” Schinas added.

Brussels has a history of sticking its head in the sand when it gets political results it doesn’t like.

When asked what lessons the Commission could learn from Brexit, Schinas had said the lessons to be learnt were for the government that called the referendum.

But in this case, the commission is right. The EU was a peripheral issue compared to domestic politics in the Italian referendum.

Alberto Alemanno is Jean Monnet Professor of EU Law and an Italian. He said the reforms would have been vital to modernise Italy but rejected any idea it would lead to an Italian Brexit.

“While anti-establishment and eurosceptic actors are likely to emerge emboldened from the vote, interpreting the outcome of the Italian referendum as the next stage of Europe’s populist, anti-establishment movement – as many mainstream journalists have done – is not only factually wrong, but also far-fetched.”

Renzi was very popular in Brussels after coming to power in a palace coup in February 2014. He was a pro-EU reformer, who seemed keen to engage in European politics.

After the Brexit vote, he was photographed with Merkel and Hollande on the Italian island of Ventotene, where a landmark manifesto by the EU’s founding fathers was written.

This staged communion with the past was swiftly forgotten as Renzi indulged in increasingly virulent Brussels-bashing over EU budget flexibility in a bid to shore up his plummeting popularity. 

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker even publicly reprimanded Renzi for demonising the EU.

Renzi’s vow to resign personalised the referendum. He gave voters a chance to give him a bloody nose when his popularity was at an all-time low.

Some of the reforms he wanted were marked “to be confirmed”.  The referendum question was astonishingly verbose and complex. He was asking for a blank cheque from the voters.

Ironically Renzi’s reforms to the constitution and senate would have made it easier for the eurosceptic Five Star Movement to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

For reasons best known to themselves, they campaigned against the changes to their own disadvantage.

Thanks to the reforms, a Five Star government would have found it far easier to push through a “Quitaly” referendum, which now seems very distant.  

As things stand, Five Star has said it would push for an advisory vote on membership of the euro but not necessarily the EU.

The Italian constitution bans the overruling of international treaties by popular vote, so Five Star would need to amend the constitution. That would require a two thirds majority in both houses of parliament and then another referendum on euro membership. Even that could be blocked by one of the country’s supreme courts.

The Italian referendum was closely watched in Brussels. It was hailed as another triumph for euroscepticism by the likes of Farage and Marine Le Pen. But Italians are far more likely to be concerned about the possibility of financial turbulence, which has so far been mildly volatile, than any prospect of leaving the EU in the near future.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv.com.