People wait to withdraw cash from an ATM in downtown Athens. Photo: Iakovos Hatzistavrou/AFP/Getty
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From taxi drivers to surgeons, everyone in Greece is now an expert on the country’s debt

The strange thing has been how few Greeks, whether politicians, business people, journalists or whoever, took the idea that their country might leave the euro seriously.

Greece is at the centre of the economic crisis: the worst-hit and longest-suffering part of the dev­eloped world. Five (or, depending on how you count it, seven) years of crisis have produced a country inured to grim financial news and plugged in to repercussions in the eurozone.

Social media – and especially Twitter – is everywhere. Hour by hour over the past few weeks, people have been following the latest developments in Brussels and Frankfurt in real time. Recently, I interviewed a neurosurgeon just after he’d removed a benign tumour. In between operations, he and his colleagues chatted about what the blogs were saying and showed each other tweets from eastern European finance ministers. A taxi driver, in broken English and with no prompting, recommended that I follow the FT’s Brussels bureau chief, Peter Spiegel, on Twitter. “He points out [Jean-Claude] Juncker’s lies,” he told me.

I could very happily make a Newsnight film in Athens speaking only to local taxi drivers. I’ve met former centre-right New Democracy voters who went for Syriza – “They promised ten things but if they do only two, I’ll be happy” – and taxi drivers with a better understanding of debt dynamics (the relationship between debt, interest rates and growth) than many politicians. I have also been reminded of the scale of the disaster that has hit the country. When someone tells you that they’re just glad they don’t have any children growing up in Greece, it’s hard to know how to respond.

 

Protest politics

Protests, demonstrations and marches have been near-nightly events in central Athens. I’ve seen Syntagma Square filled with anti-austerity campaigners, communists and pro-Europeans.

The last of these aren’t your usual demo-going suspects. Better-dressed and slightly older, they occasionally seem at a loss what to do with their hours in the square. Some of them choose to fill the time by offering “helpful” advice on the piece to camera I’ve just recorded, in order to “better reflect” what has been happening.

The crowds got very big some nights in the week, enough to overwhelm the mobile-phone networks. But they were never large enough to pass a good friend’s definition of a “huge” Greek rally: the McDonald’s in Syntagma has always stayed open.

 

Interesting times

While I’ve been here, I have spoken to a lot of Greek businesses, large and small. I’ve heard a huge list of everything that is wrong with the economy, from broken, illiquid (and now closed) banks, to over-regulation, plus the shortage of demand and spending power. Not a single business has mentioned the issue the government has made its main red line – the level of government debt.

That sort of makes sense. The level of Greece’s government debt is very high, yet the burden of servicing it is very low. Interest payments as a share of GDP are among the lowest in Europe. The debt has already been rescheduled, restructured and reduced. It’s still far too high and another write-down will be needed in the future, but on the ground it doesn’t feel like a pressing short-term problem.

 

The final countdown

Each day after filming and editing, the finished package had to be sent back to London before I headed to the BBC “live point” to appear on the show. The broadcast packages are sent via the internet and the BBC’s system provides a helpful timer showing how long it will take to send each file.

I noticed over this past week that the timer has an unhelpful habit of resetting itself. It will say there are four minutes to go – and then suddenly jump back up to nine. That is what this crisis has felt like over these few months: a timetable that keeps getting reset, with “final” deadlines that keep slipping.

As long as both sides are talking, a way will always be found to keep the clock running. Most of the supposed “hard” deadlines have been based around dates when payment is due on Greece’s debts, but to take that seriously is to impose a financial logic on a political problem. The debt is now almost entirely to “official creditors” – the IMF, the ECB, and other eurozone governments – so missing a payment is as much about international relations as economics.

 

Wolf at the door

The strange thing has been how few Greeks, whether politicians, business people, journalists or whoever, took the idea that their country might leave the euro seriously. Most seemed to expect a deal at some point and thought that any talk of a Grexit was scaremongering. The Yes campaign argued that a No vote could lead to exit, but many No voters just didn’t believe them. Perhaps this is because they’ve been here before. There is an element of “the boy who cried wolf” at play. But it is often forgotten that the fable did end with the arrival of a wolf.

 

Wrong call

The referendum was a huge moment for Greece, for the eurozone and for the EU. But there is still some debate, in Greece and outside, over why it happened and what it represents. Was it a strategic masterstroke from Syriza which united the Greek people and bought concessions from Europe? Or a desperate gamble by a government that had run out of options?

Syriza’s negotiating strategy with Europe since January had sought to win concessions based on three assumptions: that a Greek threat to leave the euro would cause severe market jitters and pressure Europe into a deal; that the Greek economy was in a strong enough position to weather uncertainty while the European Central Bank would keep funding the banks; and that left-leaning governments in Italy and France would provide support.

All three of these assumptions were reasonable. All three turned out to be wrong.

Duncan Weldon is economics correspondent for BBC2’s “Newsnight”. @DuncanWeldon

Duncan Weldon is a senior policy officer at the Trades Union Congress. He blogs for them at Touchstone.

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The austerity war

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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.