Thursday, 02 July 2015 08:27

A Modern Greek Tragedy

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The Greek Tragedies are one of the oldest forms of written drama in the world, penned and then performed in the amphitheatres of Ancient Greece and the Mediterranean. They had a number of common characteristics. The main characters were introduced early on in the narrative, and hints were given of their weaknesses and character flaws. The story line provided for the inevitable end drama and climax, in which those flaws were brutally exposed. Death and tragedy were usually the outcome. The audience were made aware of what was brewing, but it appeared that nothing could be done to prevent the sadness and loss. Simple little comments and the odd rash decision bring on the fate destined by the gods. There seems to be no escape, like a fly straying too close to the web of a spider. Today, psychological disorders are named after some of the characters, have you heard of the Oedipus Complex? This is but one example.

There is something all too familiar with the current Greek tragedy, not played out in an ancient amphitheatre, but in the nation itself today. And the sad part about this Greek tragedy is that like so many of the ancient tales, it could so easily have been avoided with a bit more wisdom and forethought. Now the lives of several million people are being deeply impacted in a very negative and destructive manner. Suicides will increase, people will loose their jobs and livelihoods, and things may well get a lot worse before they get better.

It would be good to remind ourselves how the nation of Greece got into this predicament. Until relatively recently Greece was ruled by a military junta. As the European Union only accepts democratic states into its club of nations, the military government was replaced, and an open democracy established. However the democratic culture of the nation was not strong, despite it being the birthplace of democratic thinking and practice all those centuries ago. State officials had always been corrupt, and fiscal and monetary policy both week and complex and confusing.

When Greece joined the European Union (EU) and the European Monetary Union (EMU) it immediately began to enjoy the privileges which come from a stable currency, a strong economy in the wider EU, and trusted financial institutions backed by the European Central Bank. The weaknesses of its own financial institutions were in many ways overlooked as it was now supported by the strong economies of Northern Europe, Germany and France in particular. The Greek government was able to borrow money in a manner that would have never been possible before. Some of this was for the nations growth and economic development, however some too was to compensate for its own inefficiencies. At the moment the Greek nation owes international creditors nearly two times its Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This is the value of the total production of the Greek economy in a year.

Following the financial crisis in 2008, the frailties of the Greek banking system and its sovereign debt liabilities were exposed, and it had borrow money from several international creditors to survive the crisis. These included the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank. They were willing to lend Greece the funds they needed only if the Greek government made substantial reductions to government spending, and implemented other measures to improve efficiency and fiscal control.

The Greek government made the decision at the beginning of this year to hold a snap general election in the hope that they could gain popular approval for a number of additional measures to reduce expenditure and improve efficiency. However the party then in power lost the elections and a more populist left wing party was elected into office. This party won the popular vote largely as reaction against the austerity measures which had been imposed previously. A new day was promised with an easing of past financial restrictions, and a lifting of the painful austerity measures which had caused considerable financial hardship, unemployment, and struggle.

The new left leaning government had no political experience at all. The minister of finance was a university lecturer having taught at a couple of UK universities as well as in Greece. He had no experience of managing the economic affairs of any institution or business before accepting his appointment to the post of managing the nations finances. He was a theorist rather than a practitioner. The present Greek government's lack of the necessary experience to manage such a challenging economic environment became very obvious. The words Jesus used for this state of affairs was the blind leading the blind. Personally, I thought there was little chance of a settlement, as I was not at all sure that the two negotiating parties were speaking the same language, and neither were they really understanding one another in the negotiations as they progressed.

Events of the last weekend may have surprised the European team of negotiators but it really did not surprise me. There will now be a referendum for the Greek nation on Sunday July 5th, were the people will effectively be asked to decide whether they are willing to accept the conditions set by the international creditors or not. I see the only hope going forward is for the Greek people to accept the conditions recommended by the creditors in order to receive the funds the nation needs so desperately. Hopefully the present government in Greece will then resign, and a more conciliatory political approach adopted by their successor.

There are a number of lessons we can learn from this drama.

  1. Whether we are an individual, a city, a business, or even a nation, if we continue to live beyond our means and spend money we don't have, there are direct consequences. These are usually painful, unpleasant, and last longer than we would hope or originally anticipate.
  2. It is evident that neither party in these negotiations had anticipated the actions of the other. Assumptions have been made, and false hopes expressed. Five months is a long time to try to find an agreement in a single set of negotiations. Respected international leaders evidently lacked the clarity and genuine understanding needed to steer this process to a reasonable conclusion one way or another.
  3. Sometimes democracy is not the best form of government as the common man in the street often does not know how to think through complex issues to make a rational and reasonable judgment. We can all be emotionally swayed at times. Just because something is promised in an election, and the people say they want it by the votes cast, doesn't mean that they should or will always receive it. The present Greek government naively believed it did.
  4. We can be led astray by our own hopes and vision. The European leaders clearly want to keep Greece within the EU, and its monetary union. This possibly blinded them to the some of the polarised differences in the negotiating position of the Greek government.
  5. Having the right theory is never enough. Ideas must be proven in the discipline and rigour of life and its struggles, whether in interpersonal relationships or treaties between nations. Find the man who has lived it in practice, or the company that has consistently applied the principle.
  6. Don't always trust the words coming out of another person's mouth. They may sound the same, but they may also convey a different meaning or expectation in the other parties mind.
  7. When an individual or party suddenly comes into wealth or privilege, they most frequently squander and abuse it. This can be seen in the habits of lottery winners, young men who suddenly receive an inheritance upon the unexpected death of their parents or the previous leaders of the Greek nation.

I haven't had to think very hard to come up with this list, in part because some of them seem very familiar. I have made the same mistakes myself in times past. The really sad thing about this Greek tragedy is that it isn't a play, it's real; and the ones who suffer the most are the vulnerable and marginalised, people who will suffer through no fault of their own. Their only 'crime' so to speak is being Greek.

As I write this Greek government officials are still saying the referendum is not about whether or not Greece will leave the Euro Zone. Clearly the message still has not sunk in or simply they do not want to hear it. Jesus words come to mind again, this time quoting from Isaiah, 'while hearing they may not understand'. It would certainly seem to me that there has been a great deal of misunderstanding between these two parties in the months that have passed, and that does not seem to have changed now either. 

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