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Athens, Friday 23 January 2015
We got a first-hand taster of the economic basket-case that is Greece when we forsook the icy north and hightailed it to Athens, rocking up in the gloaming on Wednesday 21 January 2015.
Oh, yes, the dusk temperature that welcomed us as we stepped out on to the tarmac in Europe’s deep south was certainly everything we expected – a mild 18° C reflected in the ripe fruit on the city’s orange trees – but Eleftherios Venizelos airport initially brought us up sharp.
Wikipedia says that, with up to 16 million passengers using it per annum, Athens airport is the 31st busiest airport in the world.
Not on Wednesday night it wasn’t.
Think rather the airports at Bangui or Nouakchott.
The vast sleek ultra-modern aerodrome opened in 2001 three months after Greece was admitted to the eurozone on 1 January 2001 when there was hardly a cloud on the economic horizon.
[It was only later that it emerged that the strict economic criteria theoretically required for admission to the eurozone were tweaked in Greece’s favour by collusion between the Greek finance ministry and expansionist Eurocrats in Brussels. If the rules had been correctly applied, it seems that Greece would not have been admitted – and all the trouble that has ensued as a result might well not have been!]
After leaving our Aegean Airlines aircraft, we walked along silent corridor after silent corridor and through empty hall after empty hall. The airport was like a giant public building in a ghost town. We encountered no other travellers and hardly any officials. The carousels in baggage-reclaim were still and the public concourse on the national side of customs was virtually deserted.
This was not the thronged and bustling Athens airport we had known as recently as 2012 – even though the recession had started four years earlier – when we came to Greece for the last parliamentary election.
Then, despite their troubles, the Greeks had been biting chins-up on the bullet. Now, if the plight of the airport can be taken as a metaphor for the Greek economy, it seems that any attempt to give keep up appearances has been abandoned.
Another anecdotal sign of the times came when we pitched up for dinner later that evening at Vlassis, our favourite Athens restaurant, in the inner-city district of Ilissia. Whenever we have been there in the past, it has always been well-nigh full of diners. On Wednesday night it was only one quarter full.
We asked the owner how he had fared over the two years of non-stop austerity that Greece has suffered since the last election.
Two years ago, as we reported at the time, like the airport, he had been doing fine, his well-heeled bourgeois clientele having braved the early years of recession without undue discomfort. However, you can only take so much. Now things were different. “They still come to eat,” he said. “But instead of spending 50 or 60 euros on a meal, they now spend only 30.”
And it is not only small businesses that are feeling the pinch. An employee at the Grande Bretagne hotel, the Grande Dame of the Athenian hospitality industry, admitted to us last night that, unsurprisingly, its business had taken a hit during the downturn. That seemed obvious as we cast our eyes around the eighth floor rooftop restaurant in city-centre Syndagma Square overlooking the apricot-coloured parliament building (the “Bouli”) and enjoying an unrivalled view of the illuminated Acropolis outcrop nearby. Hitherto, as with Vlassis, this classy watering-hole has always been packed to the gills with customers, but when we rolled up on Thursday night there were only a handful of clients.
However, these are just personal impressions and the statistics – if they can be believed – are beginning to show a different story.
According to yesterday’s edition of Kathimerini, a leading national daily, “Greek tourism enjoyed a golden year in 2014, as both arrivals and revenues reached an all-time high.” This conclusion is based on provisional figures released by the Bank of Greece for the first eleven months of the year.
According to other official statistics, the Greek economy is said to have grown by 0.7 % in 2014 – the first annual increase since the recession began. In 2015 it is claimed that the growth will be nearly 3 % . However, this has to be seen against the perspective that economic output fell by a quarter during the recession.
The total percentage of the workforce without jobs is 25 %. However, unemployment has hit young people hardest, with almost 60 % of the workforce aged between 18 and 25 lacking a job. The average wage is only € 600 a month (the equivalent of £450 or $690).
Greek public debt is € 300 billion or 175 % of GDP. By comparison, in 2001 the ratio was 102 %. That was the year in which Greece adopted the euro. Much good did it do them!
With the economy on the ropes and tax revenues consequently inadequate to meet the country’s spending requirements, in recent years Greece has had to go cap in hand to a triad of international usurers – the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund – to secure a series of bail-out loans totalling € 240 billion. In exchange, the triad got the Greek government to agree to slash public spending (eg on pensions), raise taxes (eg on property) and privatise huge swathes of state assets (eg part of the Port of Piraeus, which was flogged off to the Chinese). Hardly surprisingly, instead of returning the Greek economy to health, the result was to intensify the recession. The final € 7.2 billion tranche of the bail-out is on hold pending agreement on funding conditions between the triad and whatever government emerges from the general election on Sunday.
Maybe there is now a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. However, with a close-fought parliamentary election round the corner, one should perhaps be wary of official data promising jam tomorrow.
So much for a skimpy impressionistic sketch of the economic climate in which the election will be fought on Sunday 25 January 2015. Our next blog will deal with the politics.
You might perhaps care to view some of our earlier posts. For instance:
- Why? or How? That is the question (3 Jan 2012)
- Partitocracy v. Democracy (20 July 2012)
- The shoddiest possible goods at the highest possible prices (2 Feb 2012)
- Capitalism in practice (4 July 2012)
- Ladder (21 June 2012)
- A tale of two cities (1) (6 June 2012)
- A tale of two cities (2) (7 June 2012)
- Where’s the beef? Ontology and tinned meat (31 Jan 2012)
Every so often we shall change this sample of previously published posts.