Monday, July 13, 2015

Greece and the EU: Can This Marriage Be Saved?

I'm almost embarrassed to admit it, but the Greek bailout crisis, and the prospect of that nation being booted out of the European Union, popularly known as "Grexit" has me in a chokehold and won't let go.  My head bobbles up and down as the news updates are refreshed on my computer, although I've never even been to Greece. And I would have to admit that the European Union (EU) is not a sexy subject unless some official or another is caught soliciting poor African maids as prostitutes.  Oops, that was the International Monetary Fund (IMF). My bad! In any case,  I've never felt any emotional draw or fascination with Europe (except for an enchantment with Paris, of course). That is, until now. And I'm stuttering to find the words to express what I am feeling.

It's hope, fear, and bearing witness to the transcendent power of love. In a marriage it is two people struggling to grow beyond the boundaries of their narcissistic egos, to learn to see and accept one another unconditionally.  In the case of a continent, the process is actually the same. In Europe's case, love defines an idea, the European Union.  Most observers and pundits have for years been saying that the enterprise will fail.  Launching it made no sense to anyone but a bunch of folk, who believed that the continent that incubated two world wars could re-configure itself so that unbridled nationalisms never again ripped the world apart.  Embrace of an idea doesn't have to make sense if enough people come to honor it.

But I had never given the EU a moments thought before now. Or to the degree that I did, it wasn't organic, alive, breathing.  It was just a bunch of technocrats with rules and money.  What grabbed my attention at first was the sheer craziness of what was going on.  A week ago, the left wing government of Greek Prime Minister (PM)Tsipras held a referendum asking the public whether or not they wanted to suffer the austerity and sheer inconvenience of paying back the $240 billion they owed the EU from previous bailouts.  Tsipras campaigned for a "NO" vote, which won 61% support of the electorate. But wait a minute. After reading more details of the referendum it turned out, that the PM was actually saying that a "NO" vote would be used as leverage to help them stay in the EU. That assertion wasn't true and of course the referendum proved counter-productive.  It enraged the Germans, who held most of the debt and a number of other EU countries, signaling that the Greeks had no intention of paying them their money back. Greece ran out of money and had to close the banks. People could withdraw $67 a day from ATMs, that is, after waiting in line in the summer heat for three hours, if the ATM machine hadn't run out of cash. 
Greek man weeping outside closed Bank

Just because you think people are doing something idiotic or suicidal, doesn't mean that you don't have basic human feelings for their plight.  In short, I made the blunder of glancing at a news photo of an elderly man, sitting on the sidewalk next to a closed bank, weeping. I couldn't expel that image from my heart.   To make matters worse,  I read somewhere but can't find it now about a little girl sitting in class drawing Euros (EU dollars) with crayons on pieces of paper and passing them out to her friends. I broke down in tears. What touched me so deeply was the anxiety these families with young mouths to feed must be feeling and inadvertently passing on to their children.

Yes, Greece is a mess, with most of its problems self-inflicted. It has borrowed $240 billion from the EU, with most of the funds coming from Germany and now is broke.  As for where all the money went, the Greeks blame the greedy EU bankers for making speculative loans that the country had no way of paying, ever. Of course, the Greeks cooked the books in order to get into the EU in the first place, conveying its financial status in more solid terms than was the case. The EU does recognize serious structural problems within the Greek economy. The political structure operates on "clienteleism," whereby people are given comfortable civil service jobs, with age 50 retirements at 80% of salary, for supporting the political parties. Eighty percent of the population works in the civil service.   Government pensions eat up much of the money.  Tax evasion is a deeply-embedded cultural practice. There is no industry and most food is imported. Entrepreneurial Greeks leave the country because of the onerous bureaucracy involved in gettng anything done   

Even so, I don't want for its economy to collapse and have the country further humiliated by being tossed out of the EU. The BBC has an informative article: Can Grexit Be Avoided?    Economist Paul Krugman insists that Europe is strangling Greece.   And some intellectuals insist that the Greeks would be better off going back to printing their own money as a way of getting out of this depression.  This may be true.  But Greece is the fountainhead  of western civilization.  I don't want to see her tossed aside because she is having to learn through trial and error how a healthy marriage works. Of course the same should be said of the EU as well. 
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