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A Greek tragedy

So, we are in Greece. For about three months!

I first visited Greece in the mid-1980s and I’ve been coming back regularly since.

When Susan and I met in 1995, we quickly discovered a shared love for the country.

Together, we’ve been to some of the best known islands – Crete, Kefalonia, Santorini and  Mykonos – some lesser known ones – notably our beloved Thassos, the most northerly island – and many towns and cities on the mainland.

I don’t think we’ve ever found a part of the country we didn’t like.

The light is fabulous, the colour of the sea is amazing, the retsina and Samos dessert wine go down a treat, and the people are hospitable to a fault.

But the country has had a bad time since 2008. A really bad time.

Over the last eight years, the country’s economy – and peoples’ incomes – have dropped by a quarter.

The unemployment rate is 23%, the highest of any EU country. It is the equivalent of 7.5 million people being out of work in the UK, compared to our current total of 1.6 million.

Youth unemployment reached a high of 60% in 2013, and is still over 40%. Not surprisingly, the country is losing many of its youngest and brightest – over 400,000 people have emigrated since 2008.

Taxes have been raised, pensions reduced for many and public services cut back.

How did Greece end up in this position?

I’m sure Greek governments over the decades have made many mistakes and the country could have been run better – but they are hardly alone in that!

For me, the key mistake was probably made when Greece joined the Eurozone in 2001. This was a decision where politics completely overrode economic facts.

Greece badly wanted to be part of the modern European project – remember that it only overthrew its military dictatorship in 1974.

And Germany was equally desperate to have them join to show that the single currency was not just for a few rich countries in northern Europe.

So all sides ignored the weaknesses in the Greek economy and the unsuitability of the euro for its long term wellbeing.

After years of cheap borrowing to keep up with the rest of Europe, it was hardly a surprise that Greece’s banks went bust after the great crash, yet the EU imposed draconian conditions in return for help to bail out its banks. Mistake number two.

As a result of this misguided approach, Greece’s national debt has got bigger, not smaller, the opposite of what was intended by EU policy-makers.

Belatedly, even the International Monetary Fund, usually the most hardline of bodies, has now realised that Greece cannot move forward without some of its debts being written off.

Commentators think that the EU will eventually see the logic of this position, but it might take another year or two to translate this into an agreement.

So the country faces a decade or more of going backwards economically. A decade of unnecessary suffering for the great majority of its people who do not deserve to pay the price for the mistakes of an elite in Athens, Berlin and Brussels.

I love Greece every bit as much as I did 20 or 30 years ago. But the feelings are now bitter-sweet, tinged with sadness and anger at the suffering imposed from outside on this great people.

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