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Greeks seek good authority in EU

Greece intends to use EU presidency to remind powerful states that it can still influence the debate on Europe's future.
Last modified: 9 Jan 2014 22:48

The Greeks had said that theirs will be an austere presidency, and they showed from day one that they mean it: EU press rooms are normally lavishly catered, but Greece produced canteens of black coffee and a number of sandwiches so small that their reputation traveled much further than they did.

The EU presidency may not be the grand institution it was when Greece last held it in 2003, ushering in a massive expansion into Eastern Europe; heads of government and foreign ministers now have permanent chairs to their councils, sparing the traveling circus the EU's biggest decisions.

But it is still, by virtue of its rotation through member states, the greatest symbol of democracy and institutional equality federal Europe has after the European Parliament.

Greece means to use it to remind powerful states like Germany that it can still influence the debate on Europe's future, even if it is a disgraced member of the club.

It helps that Greece now seems to be rounding the corner of the deepest and longest recession suffered by a Western economy since World War II. The government is keen to tie its own expected recovery this year, however feeble, to a new era in which Europe will prioritise growth and jobs over austerity.

It is gradually feeling its way to a narrative that suggests a phoenix rising from the ashes (though politicians have consciously avoided that analogy: the phoenix was the logo adopted by a colonels' dictatorship that ruled Greece for seven years until 1974 and many people here feel that Germany's dictation of economic and fiscal policy has been an even greater blow to sovereign democracy than the colonels).

Economic turnaround

Greece has, without a doubt, achieved one of the greatest fiscal adjustments the world has seen. In 2009, it borrowed 36 billion euros above tax revenues. Last year, if the finance ministry's estimate proves right, it made a primary surplus of almost a billion.

The human cost of that adjustment has been appalling - a million jobs lost during the crisis, meaning that according to figures released on Thursday, 3.6 million people are supporting 4.7 million.

Not surprisingly, Greece wants to turn its back on that period, willing the nightmare to end. If its 2013 performance is confirmed in April, Greece is expected to seek a drastic restructuring of its unsustainable debt, now at 175 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), possibly by asking for a massive extension of its maturity.

The problem is that while greater fiscal health may buy back some lost respect in Europe, economists agree that its benefits won't be felt by the man and woman on the street for another year or two.

A slow, jobless recovery carries the risk of political instability long before the next general election is officially due in 2016.

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras faces a European Parliamentary election in May, which is widely expected to bring Eurosceptic powers to the Strasbourg legislature. He was bullish when asked by the Financial Times whether he can remain in power long enough to see the EU presidency out.

"I understand that some people like to show anger for those huge sacrifices they had to go through," he said. "However, I have full trust to the Greek people that when they vote, they also vote for their children and they also vote for the future ... and that means more and better Europe."

EU check

A little more than a year ago Greece stood on the verge of what has been called the Iphigenia scenario - being kicked out of the Eurozone as a cathartic sacrifice to preserve the membership of other weak members.

Greeks have for the mostpart supported the difficult decision to remain within the Eurozone largely for one reason: they see Brussels as a necessary check to national politicians they feel very little instinctive trust or respect for.

Since the turn of the millennium, politicians and the media have scored very low marks in opinion polls here, while Eurobarometer polls have almost always found Greeks willing to cede competences to Brussels.

When the state finally bankrupted itself in 2010, Greeks grasped a distant, desperate and hard-hearted authority to escape an incompetent one. Embracing the EU presidency may turn out to be one of the few popular things Samaras has been able to do during his brief tenure.