On the op-ed pages of Dutch newspapers, concerned citizens, often with personal ties to Greece or Greeks, have been discussing among each other whether one can trust the Greek promises to correct past mistakes and improve on their policies and behavior. Most contributors to the debate have little faith in Greece’s capacity to radically embark on a new course and make the calculation that it will take at least one generation to catch up with the rest of Europe on issues like productivity and fiscal discipline. They refer to a revealing interview with the head of the Greek tax authority who recently calculated that the Greek state misses out on 45 billon euros of tax incomes annually. If only half of that money were paid, Greece would not have to ask the rest of the eurozone for help.
Many critics are afraid that Greece will not be able to stick to the tough financial rules imposed by the EU and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and will soon have to leave the eurozone and start from scratch with a new drachma. They fear Athens’ inability to reform in the short rum will cost the Netherlands and other major lenders billons of euros in lost loans. A minority of positive-minded Europeans feel that the Greeks are being judged too harshly and that a lot of the criticism is based on prejudices about lazy southerners and Mediterranean culture.
To be honest, much of the debate on the capacity of the Greeks to change their mentality and way of organizing things is not very stimulating. The skeptics tend to focus solely on the enormity of the challenges facing the Greeks; the optimists often look a bit naïve, believing almost desperately in the possibilities of a radical and rapid Greek metamorphosis.
In the end it will, of course, mainly depend on what the Greeks themselves think and do. For that reason I was happy to read a blog post by Judy Dempsey last week on the website of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Dempsey is a seasoned reporter who worked as the diplomatic correspondent for the Financial Times in Brussels and is now a columnist for the International Herald Tribune and editor-in-chief of Strategic Europe, one of the most interesting blogs on Europe and the EU.
In her article, Dempsey highlights an initiative by Theodor Pangalos, a former deputy prime minister of Greece and a life-long controversial politician. Pangalos has set up a special website called “Mazi ta Fagami,” literally translated as “We ate up everything together.” On the website he calls on Greeks to stop blaming others for their problems. It was the Greeks, Pangalos claims, who squandered billions of EU money and it was the Greek politicians and civil servants who got Greece into this catastrophic financial mess.
The website is a huge success. Many Greeks use it to tell their own personal stories about the bribes they had to pay for almost every service. As Dempsey puts it: “It’s an astonishing account about what Greeks have tolerated over the decades. It also gives a fascinating and depressing picture into the level of systematic corruption and fraud within the civil service.”
Despite all the examples of deceit and swindling that probably present only the tip of the iceberg, Dempsey concludes on a positive note: “Pangolos’ website is rendering the country a tremendously important service: It is helping to encourage a grass roots movement of citizens who, burdened by the austerity measures, are no longer prepared to remain silent over the bribery and corruption. The IMF and the EU have also put pressure on several ministries to conduct scrupulous audits. So if a strong civil society movement can emerge as a result of ‘Mazi ta Fagami,’ then perhaps Greece has a real chance in making a break with the past. … If Pangalos’ website takes off, maybe even a country like Greece can change.”