Simon’s first call in my continued review of his two part series about Greece is The Palace of Knossos which is a Minoan temple and part of a civilisation that was in it’s peak about 4000 years ago. The whole area was home to one hundred thousand people lived there . The Minoan s were living one thousand years before what we term classical Greece. This is acknowledged as the very first European Civilisation and it is because the land is so steeped in History that Greece was courted so hard to join the European Union.
The fact that the EU symbol , is almost a letter in the Greek alphabet is no coincidence. It was to show the evolution of Europe as a civilised continent, despite the fact that Greece had not been economically robust enough or politically stable enough,they did not even meet the fiscal requirement to join the single currency, things seemingly fudged over when Greece joined the Euro in 2001 and it has meant Financial chaos and radical shake up in the Greek Government as a result.
The trouble began in 2002, when 12 European Union nations threw away their national currencies in exchange for the euro. Collectively known as the “eurozone,” some of these countries, like Germany, had much stronger economies than others, like Greece. But because of shared currency, their economies were (and continue to be) tied together. To keep any one country in the group from jeopardising the economic strength of the others, they all agreed to meet certain economic criteria.
For Greece, this was in the money!. Suddenly, investors were much more willing to lend the country money — and on better financial terms. Those investors were no longer thinking “I’m lending to Greece,” but rather “I’m lending to a eurozone country, backed up by all the other eurozone countries.”
In 2008 global financial crisis hit which hit Greece’s economy particularly hard. The crisis was created from poor management of the Public Purse. It was a revelation that the Greek government had, for years, lied to other eurozone countries about its economic indicators. Its 2009 deficit — which, according to eurozone rules, was supposed to be under 3% of its GDP — was actually 16%. The total government debt was also much higher than had been reported. Greece no longer looked so good in the eyes of its international creditors, and loan offers began to dry up.
Borrowing within the Euro zone had been easy, huge sums were sent on refreshing the infrastructure.
One excellent example is the Athens Subway system, given a costly makeover for the 2004 Olympic Games. It seems to be run on an honesty system as there are no ticket turnstiles and travellers are supposed to validate tickets for travel, but Simon makes the observation that many people do not appear to buy ticket.
The Public Sector wage bill had doubled. As Greece’s economy continued to shrink, its bills kept piling up. And, that’s essentially where the country has been since 2009: struggling to pay back the money it borrowed and living under very tight conditions.
A pensions loophole had been furiously utilised to create a massive overspend on the retired. A number of (frankly dubious) professions were designated as "Arduous", such as barbers and hairdressers, waiters and even more amusingly, TV presenters! This designation gave them access to a final salary pension and enabled great swathes of the population to retire early and the cost of maintaining this level of provision had become a time bomb waiting to blow.
Tax Dodging by the rich was also rife so that ultimately in 2009 when the true extent of the Greek debt was revealed to be hundreds of billions of Euros, stinging austerity was demanded by the creditors in order to produce a bail out package to assist. In reply pensions and benefits for the poorest were cut and unemployment rose to 25% of the population with Youth unemployment being even higher. A fifth of the population now live below the poverty line.
Simon visits a dwelling area where homes (such as they are) have been constructed out of discarded tanker containers. It is a very strange sight within Europe, you expect these kinds of shanty areas to exist in Africa or maybe the Indian Subcontinent, not in the cultured and prosperous Europe a stones throw away from Holidayers in yachts and on cruise liners. Donations of bread are sometimes all residents can rely on to survive and the man Simon speaks to there suggests that things are only getting worse!
Irini and Petros Show Simon about their home which is a shipping container modified to suit their need, they live there with their children. They have built a lean to against the side of the container but it is an exceptionally cramped space with the smaller children sleeping on a blanket on the floor. Petros says the winter is exceptionally hard. The roof leaks and there is no heating and as is the age old problem; the poor and vulnerable suffer because of the actions of those who are tasked with their wellbeing, Government actions and tacit, even complicit ignorance by the other member states have left these poor people living in a tin box.
Equality consists in the same treatment of similar persons.
Aristotle (384 BC-322 BC) Greek philosopher
The affect of the Crisis for the Rich is totally removed from the experience of Irini and Petros. They live in gated communities in wealthy suburbs while the budget for the City of Athens has been slashed and essential services are now woefully underfunded. A short visit to a local landmark is a vivid example of the rotten state of Greece's administrative elite, It is the local landfill tip, so huge that Simon has to drive for several minutes to reach the summit 6000 tonnes of rubbish are dumped here every day. There is no recycling or Environmental work done with refuse. Lowest rate of recycling in Europe, 80% of all rubbish goes to Landfill.
As trucks bring more, the ground underneath the tires shudders as it is not earth at all but layer upon layer of refuse, said to be up to 1/2 a kilometre deep. Rubbish pickers here often die from accidental burial under heaps of rubbish. Simon is shocked to see tiny children picking through the detritus. Illegal dumps are common and a lucrative business write off. Toxic, medical and even radioactive waste finds its way here that are carcinogenic to humans to humans in the surrounding areas.
With Austerity biting deep and Government mismanagement so prevalent, it is understandable that the collective tempers of the nation are fraying. Simon investigations take him into the heart of the anti austerity Movement in Athens where anger is high and trust in any authority is short in supply. People feel cheated and let down and tensions are like a constant mist around the disgruntled that spill out in reaction against anyone seen to have privilege, including a British TV crew!
Exarcheia and meets activist named anthonis. In a situation where Hundreds of privileged civil servants are deciding for millions, unrest is becoming more aggressive and vocal. Riots and clashes anarchists are centred in the area and whilst they chat about the historical significance of this area in change in Modern Greece, a young man approaches and angrily demands to know why they are filming here and when the camera pan pans around to see him his rage intensifies.
Media here in Greek is owned by a small group of the ultra rich and so animosity towards any media cameras is common, the man is incandescent with rage, he threatens to smack the remonstrating camera man in the mouth and then says if he does not delete the video, he will shoot him! In a situation that was escalating Simon and crew fall back. These men are repellent and scary but this is endemic in the youngest citizens of Greece, frustration is manifesting itself as threat and ultimately in violence.
Simon returns to another area at night, young male demonstrators in masks with petrol bombs are setting fires in tandem with normal Greek life, cafes and bars are open. Ultimately these groups thclash with police, bottles are thrown chaos and lawlessness ensues. Unemployment in young Greek men is 50% so you can see why they might be lashing out. These youths are highly Politicised, are angry at the Older generation for bringing the country to it's knees. Sirens ring out and Riot police cuff tonights's suspects
On the other side of the issue, the Wealthy Elite have been hardly touched .Greece currently has the highest income inequality in Europe. Discrete wealth is hidden behind fences and high bushes. CCTv and security booths indicate that opulence may be found within.
Simon gets a drone operator to assist him. Tassos is able to show him quite an extraordinary view of the neighbourhood in any given frame there are huge houses with opulent pools. Taxation on swimming pools was one way the government tried to recoup money from the ultra rich. In this area 300 households declared a pool and paid the requisite taxation fee, just this minor sample randomly taken suggests there are considerably more. Records suggest there might be up to 20,000 in the area in reality.
The rich took an evasive course of action it seems, as the crisis hit, they began heavily investing in property in other European cities including London or squirreled away funds in Tax Havens when the crisis hit and those incriminating pools? Covered by temporary plywood or turf covers to disguise them. Not really Cricket is it?? The great Philosophers must be turning in their graves like Goats on a spit!!
The beginning of reform is not so much to equalize property as to train the noble sort of natures not to desire more, and to prevent the lower from getting more.
Aristotle (384 BC-322 BC) Greek philosopher
That about sums it up really. To help to rehabilitate Greece, the Rich need to loosen their grips on their own wealth and the way the country is administered has to evolve. Thankfully this seems to be happening. The ruling parties have been thrown out of power . In January 2015 the radical left-wing Syriza party gained a majority in the Greek Parliament, and its leader Alexis Tsipras, became prime minister.
Syriza opposed the terms of the second bailout deal, and rose to power on a promise to refuse the deal and renegotiate. And that’s really why Greece starting popping up in the news again this spring: because the new government has been going back and forth with the troika, trying to change the terms of the 2012 deal Greece is on the mend but only just.