by Ingeborg Beugel
Everyone who talks about Greece these days — even well-intentioned liberals — seems to assume a priori that Greece is somehow “opposing the reforms” and “refusing to stick to the agreements”. With Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the forefront, of course. Greece does not deserve respite, not a second of extra time and not a single penny more, simply because “the country keeps breaking its promises.”
First of all, the problem is that it’s impossible for a country as a whole to stick to any agreement whatsoever as if it’s some kind of ‘person’. In Greece there are countless people — the majority of the population — who have been struck by austerity measures that have been forced down their throats as if they were some kind of natural disaster; measures that are the result of those aforementioned “agreements”: a 40 to 50 percent reduction of salaries and pensions, an unbearable series of extra taxes, layoffs on a gigantic scale, a massive increase in unemployment and poverty, the destruction of labor rights, the implosion of healthcare. All these things are utterly unthinkable in a country like Germany or the Netherlands, yet nobody seems to give the Greeks who bravely carry this burden any credit whatsoever.
And then there is obviously the minority, a substantial part of Greece’s rich and corrupt political and industrial elite, which does dodge taxes on a grand scale by funneling money away to foreign countries, but which still gets away unscathed. The majority of Greeks who are bending over backwards to serve the Brussels diktat cannot help that. The middle class, the incredibly hard-working and impossible-tax-paying Greek, cannot be held responsible for that. Try to convince those people that, simply because a tiny minority keeps behaving scandalously, their country is somehow “refusing to stick to the agreements”.
Mind you, it’s exactly that “virtueless” minority of Greeks that Berlin and The Hague were happily doing business with and that could comfortably continue its corrupt ways under the watching gaze of Brussels. For decades, journalists wrote blisters onto their fingers about all the things that were going wrong in Greece, how the people suffered as a result of this, and how sooner or later things were bound to go wrong — but EU politicians didn’t even budge. I would like to see Dutch Prime Minister Rutte explain to my elderly Greek neighbor, who now has to find a way to survive on a miniscule pension of 300 euros, that she is somehow “refusing to stick to the agreements” and “opposing the reforms” when she recounts, crying, that she can’t (and hence won’t) pay her electricity bills.
Secondly, this is not about “agreements” at all. Somehow, that word presupposes that we are talking about two equal parties agreeing on a mutual course of action. Nothing could be further from the truth. Greece has been humbled, mangled and castigated, forced to accept the various IMF demands and Merkel’s austerity measures in a profoundly unequal “like it or lump it” type of situation. The word “agreements” itself is just as deceptive as the words “support” or “reform”. In the case of Greece, “agreements” refer to demands made at knifepoint. Support does not consist of gifts, subsidies or investments, but of big fat loans at disastrous, sky-high interest rates that squeezed Greece will never be able to repay. And the reforms are really just absurd budget cuts that would be utterly impracticable in Northern Europe, including the prospect of a total annihilation of minimum labor rights — something for which Europeans, including the Greeks, have fought for centuries.
Thirdly, contrary to what Merkel and Rutte unjustifiably keep claiming, ad nauseam, the Greek government is making unbelievable, superhuman efforts to fulfill those impossible demands from Brussels. It does so in spite of the inevitable social unrest and understandable resistance of the Greek people, who are naturally rebelling against all this injustice. Whoever still claims that the Greek government is “once again” falling behind on its commitments and, as a result of slacking and bad governance, fails to pursue the right measures and reforms in the timeframe imposed by Brussels, is simply lying. Merkel is lying. Rutte is lying. Nobel Prize-winning economists and commentators like Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman have already been predicting for two years, also ad nauseam, that Merkel’s current austerity policies are not only failing to work, but are actually driving the Greek economy ever deeper into the abyss.
And behold, they were right. The fact that Merkel and Rutte seem to believe that the targets of their much-revered but ultimately disastrous austerity policies are not being met has nothing to do with the fact that the Greeks are “failing once again”, but is simply the result of a stupid and unworkable set of policies. Back in the Netherlands, Prime Minister Rutte keeps complaining that Greece isn’t privatizing fast enough. This is completely unjustified. Something else is going on: the time Greece has been granted to privatize is simply surreal. Not a single government could comply with that. It’s simply demagoguery to go on and claim that the “Greeks are falling behind again”.
Moreover, the pressure of this “Mission Impossible” pushes the Greek government into an unworkable situation. Partly because of Brussels, it finds itself with its back against the wall, in an in extremely weak position to privatize. It is being forced to sell off large state assets at firesale prices. Foreign buyers and vulture investors smell weakness — and blood. No surprise, then, that government revenues are disappointing; something which can subsequently be used by Rutte and Merkel to claim that “Greece is not honoring its promises”. The same goes for the disappointing revenue from all those extra new taxes: the austerity measures have pushed the Greek economy into a diabolical recession, as a result of which all those EU and IMF calculations about expected revenues turn out to be wrong. That’s not the fault of the Greeks.
One of the most extreme pronunciations came from Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte in a recent pre-election debate with Labour leader Diederik Samsom. Samsom openly asked Rutte whether, in order to save Greece and the euro, he would be willing to cough up the money for another bailout. (Obviously, it’s not about “giving” this money, it’s about expensive loans. But let’s leave that aside). No, Rutte yelled. Why not? Because it would be extremely unwise to say that now, for the Greeks would immediately slow down, sit back and stop privatizing and reforming. After all, they would count their blessings in advance, knowing full well that “someone would pay for them” again and therefore refuse to do anything whatsoever. And so Samsom had to be careful with his words, because the Greeks were listening along — and they would “now receive a completely perverse incentive” from the Labour leader.
Rutte: “we have to keep them on a tight leash.”
As if Greece were a dog. As if the Greeks were shitty little kids grabbing every opportunity to skirt their responsibilities. What an idiotic way of doing international politics. What an arrogant attitude toward people who are bending over backwards to stay inside of “Europe”. Rutte apparently has such a deep distrust and such a profound contempt for our fellow EU member state that we — from the point of view of Ruttian pedagogy — have to actively deceive them and, above all, should not let them know that they can count on any further bailouts if needed. As Prime Minister, Rutte has already made it known that he has “nothing to do with the Greeks”. Such a person, who just like the right-wing extremist Geert Wilders likes to play with the gut feelings of ill-informed citizens to win their votes, should never be allowed to become PM in the first place.
Last but not least: in my own environment and extensive circle of acquaintances in Greece, I do not know a single Greek who does not want to see reform — in the pure sense of the word — from the government; not a single Greek who does not want to put an end to the old and corrupt Greek political establishment, and who does not believe that the debt, for which they themselves are not responsible, should ultimately be paid back (should it?). These people deserve our support and encouragement; not to be treated arrogantly, mercilessly and unjustly, like second-class citizens — or even worse, like a dog.
Ingeborg Beugel is a Dutch journalist and was formerly based in Athens as a foreign correspondent for various Dutch media. She regularly appears on Dutch television to comment on the Greek debt crisis.