Young educated Greeks are facing an insurmountable wall of unemployment. With little chance of finding a job in their field, they’re competing for any kind of job. Wages have plummeted. Benefits have disappeared. The economy has shriveled by 19.4% from the third quarter of 2007. Promises that education would open doors to a better future have evaporated.
Yet, Parliament passed another austerity plan that the Troika, the bailout gang from the EU, the ECB, and the IMF, is now loudly praising. It includes a provision to cut public sector employees by 80,000 over the next few years, starting with 2,000 employees this year. And it has to please the Germans who will foot a big chunk of the bill.
In the spirit of helping Greece improve the productivity of its public service, Hans-Joachim Fuchtel, German Deputy Labor Minister and special envoy to Greece, shared some Teutonic thoughts. “Studies have shown that 1000 workers in Germany perform the same amount of work as 3,000 workers in Greece,” he explained. “The partner countries that finance this Greek practice want to hear answers on how the efficiency of public sector workers in Greece can be raised.”
That was on Wednesday. Municipal workers were already furious; apparently, local authorities had been asked to come up with a list of redundant positions to be axed. On Thursday, they were ready for Fuchtel.
A German delegation that included him was supposed to arrive for a propitious conference of German and Greek mayors in Thessaloniki. Starting early morning, protesters gathered by the entrance of the conference center. As they waited for Fuchtel, they shouted, “Throw the Nazis out,” or more generically, “Capitalists should pay for the crisis.” They held up mock grave stones. “Fight to the end” was written on some banners.
But Fuchtel wasn’t born yesterday. He entered through a side entrance. So when Wolfgang Hoelscher-Obermaier, the German Consul in Thessaloniki, showed up at the conference center, all heck broke lose. Perhaps on the basis that all Germans looked alike, the protesters pushed and shoved him, ripped off his glasses, and threw cups of coffee and bottles of water on him. He was able to escape to the inside under police escort—shook-up, coffee-stained, and bedraggled but otherwise uninjured.
So the conference commenced. Outside, anger boiled over. Protesters pried open some shutters, stormed the conference center, and tried to force their way into the conference hall where the meeting was taking place, though they were stopped by riot police.
Inside the conference hall, the atmosphere was warm and friendly, once again pointing at the undercurrent of all “bailouts” anywhere: the people on the street suffer the consequence of decisions made in cushy conference rooms by privileged participants who take care of their own and tighten the belts of other people.
Yet Germany has become a Promised Land for young Greeks. Net migration to Germany (those moving in, minus those moving out) during the first half of 2012 jumped 35% over last year. Particularly strong were the movements from the southern austerity belt where the vision of a future has become a mirage: 53% more Portuguese, 53% more Spaniards, and 78% more Greeks moved to Germany.
Before the euro debt crisis, there was little tension between Germany and Greece. The gravy train of cheap euro debt dramatically elevated the Greek standard of living. But the money is now gone, some of it in offshore bank accounts. Germany, at the time “the sick man of Europe,” restructured. Real wages sank, benefits and pensions were cut, housing stagnated. In 2005, fed-up Germans kicked out Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, the architect of these reforms.
But with the debt crisis came the absurdities. Now a bunch of empowered Germans march around Greece, telling Greeks how to run their country down to the last municipal detail. And the Greek government is demanding hundreds of billions of euros from taxpayers in Germany (and elsewhere). Instead of being able to spend it on its citizenry, the government has to send most of it back to the ECB and the national central banks that had bought its old debt from the banks to bail them out.
This is playing out across the Eurozone. In their effort to keep the Eurozone intact, politicians, elected or not, are beginning to sacrifice the fabric of the European Union, the colorful family of 27 nations that used to wage war on each other. The euro is creating artificial problems between peoples. And by being “irreversible,” as ECB President Mario Draghi had said, it has become a curse—and a religious dictum that must not be questioned regardless of how much havoc it may ultimately wreak.