People wait to withdraw cash from an ATM in downtown Athens. Photo: Iakovos Hatzistavrou/AFP/Getty
Show Hide image

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

Daily Mail
Show Hide image

Who "speaks for England" - and for that matter, what is "England"?

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones.

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones. It trotted out Leo Amery’s House of Commons call from September 1939, “Speak for England”, for the headline on a deranged leader that filled a picture-free front page on David Cameron’s “deal” to keep Britain in the EU.

Demands that somebody or other speak for England have followed thick and fast ever since Amery addressed his call to Labour’s Arthur Greenwood when Neville Chamberlain was still dithering over war with Hitler. Tory MPs shouted, “Speak for England!” when Michael Foot, the then Labour leader, rose in the Commons in 1982 after Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands. The Mail columnist Andrew Alexander called on Clare Short to “speak for England” over the Iraq War in 2003. “Can [Ed] Miliband speak for England?” Anthony Barnett asked in this very magazine in 2013. (Judging by the 2015 election result, one would say not.) “I speak for England,” claimed John Redwood last year. “Labour must speak for England,” countered Frank Field soon afterwards.

The Mail’s invocation of Amery was misconceived for two reasons. First, Amery wanted us to wage war in Europe in support of Hitler’s victims in Poland and elsewhere and in alliance with France, not to isolate ourselves from the continent. Second, “speak for England” in recent years has been used in support of “English votes for English laws”, following proposals for further devolution to Scotland. As the Mail was among the most adamant in demanding that Scots keep their noses out of English affairs, it’s a bit rich of it now to state “of course, by ‘England’. . . we mean the whole of the United Kingdom”.

 

EU immemorial

The Mail is also wrong in arguing that “we are at a crossroads in our island history”. The suggestion that the choice is between “submitting to a statist, unelected bureaucracy in Brussels” and reclaiming our ancient island liberties is pure nonsense. In the long run, withdrawing from the EU will make little difference. Levels of immigration will be determined, as they always have been, mainly by employers’ demands for labour and the difficulties of policing the borders of a country that has become a leading international transport hub. The terms on which we continue to trade with EU members will be determined largely by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels after discussions with unelected bureaucrats in London.

The British are bored by the EU and the interminable Westminster arguments. If voters support Brexit, it will probably be because they then expect to hear no more on the subject. They will be sadly mistaken. The withdrawal negotiations will take years, with the Farages and Duncan Smiths still foaming at the mouth, Cameron still claiming phoney victories and Angela Merkel, François Hollande and the dreaded Jean-Claude Juncker playing a bigger part in our lives than ever.

 

An empty cabinet

Meanwhile, one wonders what has become of Jeremy Corbyn or, indeed, the rest of the shadow cabinet. The Mail’s “speak for England” leader excoriated him for not mentioning “the Number One subject of the hour” at PM’s Questions but instead asking about a shortage of therapeutic radiographers in the NHS. In fact, the NHS’s problems – almost wholly caused by Tory “reforms” and spending cuts – would concern more people than does our future in the EU. But radiographers are hardly headline news, and Corbyn and his team seem unable to get anything into the nation’s “any other business”, never mind to the top of its agenda.

Public services deteriorate by the day, George Osborne’s fiscal plans look increasingly awry, and attempts to wring tax receipts out of big corporations appear hopelessly inadequate. Yet since Christmas I have hardly seen a shadow minister featured in the papers or spotted one on TV, except to say something about Trident, another subject that most voters don’t care about.

 

Incurable prose

According to the Guardian’s admirable but (let’s be honest) rather tedious series celeb­rating the NHS, a US health-care firm has advised investors that “privatisation of the UK marketplace . . . should create organic and de novo opportunities”. I have no idea what this means, though it sounds ominous. But I am quite certain I don’t want my local hospital or GP practice run by people who write prose like that.

 

Fashionable Foxes

My home-town football team, Leicester City, are normally so unfashionable that they’re not even fashionable in Leicester, where the smart set mostly watch the rugby union team Leicester Tigers. Even when they installed themselves near the top of the Premier League before Christmas, newspapers scarcely noticed them.

Now, with the Foxes five points clear at the top and 7-4 favourites for their first title, that mistake is corrected and the sports pages are running out of superlatives, a comparison with Barcelona being the most improbable. Even I, not a football enthusiast, have watched a few matches. If more football were played as Leicester play it – moving at speed towards their opponents’ goal rather than aimlessly weaving pretty patterns in midfield – I would watch the game more.

Nevertheless, I recall 1963, when Leicester headed the old First Division with five games to play. They picked up only one more point and finished fourth, nine points adrift of the league winners, Everton.

 

Gum unstuck

No, I don’t chew toothpaste to stop me smoking, as the last week’s column strangely suggested. I chew Nicorette gum, a reference written at some stage but somehow lost (probably by me) before it reached print.

Editor: The chief sub apologises for this mistake, which was hers

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle