Beware of Greeks accepting gifts
Brussels-based Scottish writer Paul Morris finds it "astonishing that it has taken European leaders so long to find out where the panic button is, far less press it."
The ancient Greek people were the true masters of the poisoned gift. In Virgil's iconic tale the Trojans ignore the suspicions of the wise priest Laocoön who warned them all: Timeo Danaos* et dona ferentis! (Beware of Greeks bearing gifts). But the Trojans, numbed by the prospect of their success in battle, ignored his advice and the rest is a tidy little nugget of history.
When the eurozone came into the lives of the Greeks in 2001, they, in turn, could not look a gift horse in the mouth. Immediately they went on a bit of a spending spree-salaries for some were even doubled on the spot. And who in their right mind would say ‘όχι' to that-though how many of the EU's great thinkers were in a similar state of mental preparedness is another question altogether. The BBC stated at the time: "Some investors have said they are worried the decision to allow Greece to join the euro will send out the wrong signal to financial markets - suggesting that in future other, weaker economies may be allowed in without complying fully with membership conditions." And so the good and the great welcomed in a country that was a late bloomer in the modern European political arena-emerging from years of civil war and military dictatorship. Rather than looking a little more closely into how the country operated the union became Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy rolled into one.
So, for decades, drachmas (the word means "a fistful") then, later, Euros have been sloshing around the Greek mainland and islands-this is a method that is surely recommended in the Little Book of Recipes For Economic Growth. Except that the one missing ingredient was a pinch of taxes (if you'll excuse the expression). I'm not one to overplay the classical themes here but what was supposed to be rendered unto Caesar was not being, well, rendered anywhere. For decades Greece has suffered from chronic tax evasion and general mismanagement. The Greeks are not alone in this but they have somehow let themselves become the bad boy of the class and are currently the holders of the big coned hat marked with a ‘D'.
At the heart of this lies a sense across Europe that there is a lack of transparency and little trust in the how, the why and the wherefore in EU affairs. As emergency summits breed faster than awful reality shows, there are promises of reengineering the euro, of closer monitoring of how member states control their national budgets and tests of how effective their economic policies are likely to be-which basically means that, if this to be feasible, further integration of the union is an absolute necessity. It is astonishing that it has taken European leaders so long to find out where the panic button is, far less press it.
Greek-debt wise, France is currently most out of pocket (EUR 41.1bn), with Germany a close second (EUR 24.5bn). No sign of China on the list, but envious European eyes are currently casting a glance eastwards as financial wizards attempt to conjure up a party trick similar to that of Chinese magician Liu Qian who can seemingly make coins pass through a glass table.
Let Greece be the starting point for a cleanup process, a return (or first time visit) to some sort of financial reality in Europe. Otherwise we are simply flogging a dead horse.
*The term for mainland Greeks.
Paul Morris is a Scottish writer, novelist and artist, based in Brussels.