Hey Merkel, leave the Greeks alone

A year ago, a month ago, perhaps even a week ago, German Chancellor Angela Merkel?s comments about Greeks needing to work more would have gone down as badly in Athens as a joke about room service in the Strauss-Kahn household. They would have sparked another exchange of barbed comments between Athens and Berlin and further histrionics from the more rabid elements of the media in the two countries. This time, Merkel?s words landed quietly on a pile of other comments made about Greece over the last few days.

Greeks have been hit this week by a barrage of opinions on debt restructuring, new loan agreements and even political consensus. And at the end of it, they are none the wiser. Restructure now, say some economists and European officials. It is too early, others say. Only soft restructuring should be discussed, argue some experts. Substantial haircuts are required if Greece is to survive, say others. Greece will need new loans to stay afloat, say the whispers in the corridors of power in Brussels and Washington. We are not applying for any more emergency funding, say those who hold power in Athens. Get your political parties to agree, says a European commissioner. It is our democratic right to disagree, says the leader of the Greek opposition.

It would be heartening to think that even the most skeptical German might have some sympathy for the average Greek who has been inundated with these conflicting messages. Keep in mind that over the last 18 months this Greek has been taxed more, probably seen his or her wages reduced, had to watch friends or relatives lose their jobs and learned to live with a growing uncertainty about what tomorrow will bring.

While Europe focuses on what debt and deficit figures Greece is producing — and the numbers are not good (the public deficit was at 10.5 percent of gross domestic product for 2010 while public debt reached 142.8 percent of GDP) — Greeks are concentrating on other types of figures, such as unemployment, which rose to 15.9 percent in February (40 percent among those up to the age of 24), along with the number of stores that are shutting in their neighborhoods (about 65,000 shops are estimated to have closed down in 2010), and on their dwindling purchasing power (retail trade was down more than 12 percent in 2010).

It is just over a year since Greece signed its 110-billion-euro bailout agreement. As the country continues to teeter on the edge of economic collapse and doubts about the viability of the euro persist, it is easy to forget that within this bigger picture there are little people paying the price. They are paying for the failures of their leaders, the shortcomings of politicians they elected, the institutional weaknesses of a single currency still in its infancy but also for the greediness and laziness of some of their countrymen. An opinion poll conducted this week by Public Issue for Skai TV and Radio indicated that 33 percent of Greeks see politicians as the chief culprits for the country?s debt and deficit problems but 11 percent say that Greek citizens themselves must accept the biggest share of the blame.

However, in a time of crisis, the lines of distinction between the innocent and guilty are often blurred. Greeks who work hard, who spend wisely, who abide by the law and who pay their taxes — yes, such people do exist — have had to endure months of generalizations and stereotyping. They have had to develop thick skins as a growing number of comments indiscriminately refer to all Greeks as feckless, lazy and corrupt. In some cases these epithets are deserved, but in many cases they are a complete distortion of reality, bordering on racism. Unfortunately, Merkel?s latest claims fall into the latter category.

?It is also important that people in countries like Greece, Spain and Portugal are not able to retire earlier than in Germany — that everyone exerts themselves more or less equally,? she said in a speech at a meeting of her party, the Christian Democratic Union, in Meschede on Tuesday.

There was nothing wrong with her statement in terms of policy. After all, if we want a Europe where we can all rely on one another, our policies have to be more integrated. But Merkel undermined her position by disregarding the facts. Giving the impression that Greeks retire on fat pensions in their 50s may be useful in addressing a domestic audience that is skeptical about the EU?s bailouts, but it is a disservice to the truth.

According to figures compiled by Eurostat, the EU?s statistics office, the minimum retirement age in Greece last year was 61.4. In Germany it was 62. Of course there have been some exceptions to the rule in Greece but they have been exactly that: exceptions. The discrepancy in retirement ages between Greece and Germany is marginal. In fact, the pension reform bill voted through the German parliament in 2007 aims to raise the minimum retirement age to 63 by 2029. The pension law passed in Greece last year will raise the retirement age to 63.5 by 2015.

In her speech, Merkel also suggested that Greeks take too much time off work. But a study by Mercer Human Resource Consulting found that while there are big variations between holiday entitlements in the EU, the differences between Greece and Germany are not that great. The report indicated that an employee in Greece with 10 years? service will have a total of 37 days? leave each year (12 of them public holidays) while his or her colleague in Germany will receive 33 days off (13 of them public holidays). Four days a year difference hardly seems like the greatest injustice within the eurozone, nor is it the cause of the downfall of the Greek economy.

The image of the undisciplined Greek loafer who fritters away the day doing nothing is proving useful for a number of European politicians, not just Merkel, but it is difficult to criticize them when the government in Athens is doing nothing to combat this image. If anything, it is allowing it to be cultivated — perhaps because Greece?s politicians feel that this way they have an alibi when they are unable to meet the targets set by the EU and the IMF. It is easier to blame economic and political shortcomings on social inadequacies or cultural traits rather than accept your own failure.

If the last year has taught us anything, it is that millions of Greeks, who want to be part of a modern, efficient country and a progressive EU, are trapped. They are caught between austerity measures that are choking the economy, politicians at a national and European level that lack courage and a state apparatus that is not fit for the 21st century. These people are crying out for a helping hand. Comments like those from Chancellor Merkel simply serve to beat them down.

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