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Sunday, February 1, 2015

Why Europe will listen to Greece and the European South


As of the 26th of January 2015, Greece has elected a new Government,  which seems to strike a cord with the very heart of the European administration. Many were quick to point out that the new Greek Government is an anti-European one and came into power due to the fact that Greeks voted with a sentiment of anger. This may be true for a good portion of its voters, who felt betrayed by the two older traditional political parties (New Democracy and PASOK). However, there is a certain truth behind the reason Greek voters selected SYRIZA and that has nothing to do with sentiments against Europe. It has to do simply with the fact that Europe has mistreated Greece and many Greek people felt abandoned, been unable to make a living and look after their families.

As the Greek Government vows to re-negotiate the Greek debt on a European basis inside Europe, many key European politicians dismiss this need and refuse to listen to the Greek case, despite a wider European sentiment against the European policies that dictate austerity. In this article, I will prove why the reaction of the European administration is the wrong one. I shall present numbers that show why the Greek debt is not the problem of Europe. Europe faces an existential crisis and is currently unable to convince its member states about the sustainability of the collective European debt. Greece has of course been a problematic country, with systemic corruption and tax evasion. However, the worsening of the financial indicators in Greece and other problematic Eurozone members has very little to do with these factors and can be attributed more to the application of widespread austerity practices. These practices deprive the European South of vital abilities to restructure and develop their economies. This situation is not sustainable and its solution is not related on whether Greece remains or exits the Eurozone.

For the record, I claim no political affiliation or financial interest in the way I express my opinions. I would like to remain objective, and I welcome your comments.

The Greek Debt and its comparison to other Eurozone member debts

The Greek debt is best understood in comparison to other 'problematic' European countries. Throughout the article, I use the term 'problematic' to refer to Eurozone member states that have seen substantial worsening of their financial indicators. This worsening is of course due to the over application of austerity policies, which had the completely opposite effect than the intended one.  I used the Google public data platform to fetch relevant data from Eurostat and the World Bank, in order to increase the verification of these results. 

Graph 1: Government debt as percent of GDP - Source Eurostat

Graph 1 shows clearly that Greece has the highest Government debt as percent of GDP. However, Graph 1 also indicates two easily verifiable facts.

The first fact is that the problem is worsening not only for Greece, but for all other countries since the beginning of the Eurocrisis (starting from 2008). Despite the austerity measures suggested by the Troika 'experts',  Spain, Italy and Portugal see their GDP debt ratios increase consistently and substantially, a sign of their worsening economies. In addition, other members of the Eurozone that are not displayed in Graph 1, have also seen notable increases of the debt/GDP ratio. A few notable examples include Ireland whose ratio jumped from 44.2% in 2008 to 124.2% in 2013 and Belgium that went from 89.2% (2008) to 102.4% in 2013. All of these countries have seen austerity measures decided by the Troika or various national governments imposing a policy dictated by Brussels.

For Greece in particular, one should note two key dates. The year 2001, when Greece started using the Euro and the year 2008, when Greece started entering the spiral of the financial crisis. Systemic corruption and tax evasion in Greece were present before these dates. However, the severe worsening of the financial indicators occurred after the year 2008 and spiraled out of control after the application of the Troika policies. A classic example of the application of too much medicine on a patient that needed it, but not in that quantity.

What did the austerity measures do for the national economies of these countries?  To answer this question, we have to come to the second fact that reveals the complete picture of what happened to Greece and to some extent the rest of the problematic European economies. Graph 1 displays a clear economic deterioration, but what exactly has caused that deterioration. There are a lot of opinions about the South of Europe tied to stereotypes of lazy people, corrupt politicians. I dismiss these theories, because lazy people exist all over the world. Corruption is systemic in many South European countries. However, corruption itself is not enough to cause this type of economic deterioration. The answer lies in what happened to the GDP of these countries for the same period of time, as displayed in Graph 2 below.

Graph 2: GDP reduction for the lossy Eurozone economies- Source World Bank

Graph 2 shows the notable GDP reduction in various Eurozone countries. There is an important detail that is not easily shown in Graph 2. Starting in 2008, the Greek GDP went from 350 Billion Euros to 242 Billion Euros in 2013. In five years, 30% of the GDP disappeared from the pockets of the Greek citizens. We have rarely seen such a rapid GDP reduction in the global financial history, which displays clearly the weight Greek citizens had to lift on their shoulders, as a result of the austerity. In comparison, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Italy lost approximately 8%, 10%, 10.4% and 5% of their GDP respectively, during the same period of time. 

The ostricism of the Troika and Brussels has to do with the fact that everybody is talking about Greece, like it is the largest problem of Europe. I am afraid this is a very flawed attitude. Brussels (and Germany in particular) hide their head in the sand and avoid to see the wider picture, which consists of the the actual number of Euros owed by each one of these countries. The next graph indicates the actual amount of Euros owed by each of the problem countries, because not everyone can actually appreciate the effect of the GDP debt ratio in a common currency (unless of course you are an economist).

Graph 3: General government debt in Euros - Source Eurostat

Graph 3 shows clearly that Greece is not really the factor that could derail the Eurozone train. Italy and Spain owe collectively more than 3 Trillion Euros, a staggering amount of money that cannot be absorbed by any corrective measures. These 3 Trillion Euros exclude the extra 2 Trillion Euros of France, a large part of the European economy that is also start becoming problematic.  

Let's assume that Europe does not find an agreement with the SYRIZA government and develops the legal/procedural framework to oust Greece from the EU, in order to demonstrate what happens to the bad boys that do not keep their promises. It is true that Europe can today catch the 250 billion Euro bullet owed by Greece. However, Europe will be fooling itself. Because although it may absorb the shock waves of the comparatively small Greek debt, it will not be able to absorb the trillions of Euros owed by the rest of the stagnant national economies of the Eurozone. The reasons are simple and evident.

Graph 4: Eurozone Unemployment rate - Source Eurostat

First of all, despite a buffer of 1.1 Trillion Euros that the ECB can dedicate to kickstart the economies, Europe does not have policies, mechanisms and a clear plan to make that kind of money work, because the North and South are divided in theory, practice and culture. For more than seven years now, Eurozone officials have failed to tackle vital issues such as the unemployment issue (Graph 4), more evident in the European South. The lack of developmental capital and vision to help the  South retain young people in Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal has led to massive migration of the productive workforce to Germany, the UK, the Scandinavia and even outside the European continent. How these countries can build a tax base to fund functioning states is a good question. As far as I know, nobody has built successful tax systems out of pensioners, students and people who have partial or no employment at all. 

As the elections in Spain are nearing and the size of the Spanish debt is much higher than the Greek one, I am sure that these data can convince even the greatest hardliners in Europe to listen to the Greek case. I am certain that the voice of reasoning in Europe will win. Greece, even battered, will eventually exist with or without the Euro (my preference is within the Euro). I am not sure that the Euro will exist without a change of policy. Greek citizens have already lost a lot (some have nothing to loose any more) and Europe should listen very carefully this time.

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