Greece’s Herculean economic task

The answer to the Greek financial crisis remains in the hands of the gods.

It’s easy to be confused over Greece’s economic situation.

On the day that Dutch Finance Minister  Jeroen Dijsselbloem  warned Europe was “running out of patience” with Greece for its failure to implement reforms, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Athens’ progress had been “remarkable”.

Greece predicts the economy will return to growth in 2014 after six years of recession, but economists believe it will continue until 2015. Reality has invariably turned out to be worse than the forecast.

When I visited Athens last week, I found most Greeks felt they were still sinking downwards, with unemployment relentlessly high and many people worried about loosing their jobs.

About 30 cleaners staging a noisy protest outside the finance ministry said they expected to be fired because government spending cuts.

“They think they can just throw us out,” Evangelika said.

“But if we lose our jobs now, who will hire us? We are all 50 or 60 years old. Even our children can’t find work, so what chance do we have?”

Evangelika said her husband’s pension had halved in value. Her wages are holding her family together.

Technology firm thrives

But the nearby Taxibeat IT company, which has developed an application for hailing taxis, like several other Greek technology companies, is doing well.

The Taxibeat App is popular in Athens, and is being introduced in Brazil, Mexico and France.

Spyros Dovas, who helped set up the company in 2011, believes the crisis has brought opportunities to start new businesses.

“We have too much human capital, people are out of jobs …. or probably fear they’re going to loose their jobs,” he said.

“Rents are down, you have all the ingredients available, and it’s easier than ever for someone to make this step.”

Meanwhile, talks between the Troika – the IMF, the European Union and the European Central Bank – and the Greek government are at a standstill.

The Troika is worried about a shortfall of some $2bn in the 2014 budget, and frustrated by the government’s resistance to more job cuts in the public sector.

The government says the shortfall is more like $1bn and can be made good with more efficient tax collection and increased revenues that it believes will accrue from eventual economic growth.

Ministers have warned that democracy is in danger as social cohesion frays.

This is true, although given how much the Greek people have put up with in recent years, I’m not sure how anyone can be confident of what the breaking point is.

The cynic inside me says it is a self-serving argument that enables the Greek government to avoid tackling the vested interests that have come through the recession relatively unscathed. In effect, the government is trying to scare its European partners – and creditors – by raising the spectre of a left-wing SYRIZA government, or further gains for the extreme-right Golden Dawn.

The Greek newspapers are full of details about the generous pay and expense packages of MPs.

Perhaps the only smiles I saw in Athens were when Greece qualified for the World Cup. The team is not going to win in Brazil, but like the rest of us they are at least entitled to dream. And as another dark winter sets in, who can begrudge them that? 

Follow Barnaby Phillips on Twitter: @barnabyphillips

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