Greece and the four month window of opportunity

As the dust begins to settle after the Eurogroup agreement extending the loan facility to Greece by four months, it is a good moment to have a look at where we should go from here.

Much has been said about how negotiations could have been better carried out, about possible spats between ministers, about a never ending amount of hypothetical scenarios. In short the press the world over had a field day. What few however have bothered to deal with is the here and now. What is to be done with the four months that have been won? Indeed, columnists and analysts seem to be more interested in looking at what drama could possibly unfold in four months from now.

This is fundamentally worrying because if there is one thing that the agreement has delivered on it is that of providing time. Not a breathing space of time, but time to constructively build trust and concrete measures to resolve the impasse. It would therefore be irresponsible to consider this time simply as a short pause before the next bloody charge of the brigades.

Political forces need to all seize the urgency of using every minute of this window. Not to recriminate on who said what, not to grandstand and try to row back on commitments, nor to threaten Armageddon in the near future. Instead, they need to do something less headline grabbing but infinitely more useful for citizens. On this the onus is squarely in the camp of the Greek government.

It is time to bury any hatchets that still linger, fulfil the commitments undertaken through the Eurogroup agreement and develop concrete measures which will get investments flowing, raise tax revenues by tightening the net on tax evasion, improve administrative efficiency, and maintain a suitable privatisation programme. This is the message I have continually taken to Athens, Berlin, and in all my meetings with other European leaders.

This is a programme which could occupy a whole legislature so it is clear that there is more than enough work for the next four months!

Taken together, all the work which needs to be carried out will serve to deliver trust. A factor that has been remarkably lacking and without which lasting solutions become very difficult.

Many may prefer focussing on the drama and speculation, after all this will always sell more newspapers and attract more audience. Others may say that there is no hope for achieving the important tax and administrative reforms needed and creating an investment friendly environment.

I believe that all politicians now have a very serious moral obligation to rise above the squabbling rabble that some of the press would like to depict them as. And, I also believe that a number of new factors are now in the mix which could, if used wisely, give a serious boost to putting Greece on a new path.

What are these new elements?

Firstly, Greeks have elected a government which seems particularly keen on cracking down on areas which have systematically evaded previous legislators, notably when it comes to fighting tax evasion and fraud. The fact that the new governing class comes with a clean record should also lend credibility to the task. It will now be up to the Greek government to deliver. The government must most urgently realise who are the prime responsible actors for the trouble Greece is in – tax evaders and corruption. Until now the government seems to have diagnosed the problems correctly but has chosen its lenders as the scapegoat. This may go down well with some of the Greek electorate but it fails to capture the complex factors for the problems.

Secondly, the EU is coming around to a smarter understanding of fiscal consolidation and its effects. We have come a long way from even one year ago when the only mantra seemed to be cuts and more cuts. Now healthy public budgets remain crucial because without that economies are unstable, but on the other hand there is a much stronger awareness of the need for growth and investment friendly measures.

Thirdly, the EU now has on the table a very concrete and consequential investment plan. Of course the scaremongers will say that the European Investment Bank will only invest the money it borrows in safe projects and these will all be in the already well performing economies. I call on all EU member states and the EIB to rise to the challenge and ensure that the plan works for everyone. If Greece creates an economic structure, free of endemic corruption, with a stable legal environment, it can become a very interesting investment proposition in solar and wind energy for example. With the launch of the energy union, the importance in tapping all EU energy sources becomes even more interesting.

The scope for opportunity is therefore immense. But much of it will depend on how constructively the next few months are used. I will therefore certainly not be joining the speculative or the recriminatory trains and I will be inviting all other political forces to do likewise, while engaging substantially and constructively. There is far too much to be done in the very present.

* Martin Schulz is the president of the European Parliament

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