Awaiting the storm ahead

It’s interesting that just a few months after his re-election, Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis chose the international economy as the framework for his New Year’s address, in order to stress his government’s accomplishments and the challenges of the coming year. The prime minister used the international context to make Greece look better, instead of pointing out the difficulties that the country must deal with. «The economies of the entire developed world experienced turmoil, because of the unprecedented surge in the price of oil and the turbulence on international stock markets,» Karamanlis said. «In this difficult conjuncture and in an uncertain international environment, Greece proved to be one of the few countries that achieved especially positive results.» In other words, while the United States, Britain and other major economies, along with giants of international finance, are reeling from the credit crunch and other consequences of the subprime loan crisis in the United States, Greece remained tranquil. Summing up his message, the prime minister said, «Despite the important things we achieved, there is much to do,» so that «together, over an extended period, with gradual changes, we can create a framework of security for all.» The prime minister noted that since his party’s election in 2004, the government has managed to reduce deficits, have the European Commission’s excessive deficit procedure lifted, curb unemployment and increase investment, exports and tourism traffic. But, apart from his opening statement regarding the price of oil, Karamanlis did not refer to the major challenges that the economy, and, by extension, society, are facing. National Economy Minister Giorgos Alogoskoufis may say that the economy is «armor-plated» and development «guaranteed,» but the current account deficit keeps growing (since we buy more than we produce and import more than we export), and inflation is rearing is ugly head, threatening to undermine whatever relief economic policy might have had in store for the lowest income groups. Furthermore, the price of oil affects us far more than it should because Greece, this land of sun and wind, remains highly dependent on fuel imports. Our economy, in other words, is not competitive, and we do not appear capable of exploiting the opportunities afforded by new technologies in the economy and the energy sector, or in the development of organic agricultural products which so suit our country. In this and in dealing with a number of vital issues, such as social security, successive governments’ fears of the «political cost» – in other words, the ire of specific groups – keeps the country bogged down in a morass of inefficiency and self-delusion. What are we waiting for? The answer is both difficult and simple: inspiration – and confidence. There are many reasons for the Greek malaise, for this fear of today and tomorrow. The Greeks’ biggest problem, though, is the lack of confidence they have in those who govern, but also in their compatriots. That is why we remain transfixed, scared of any change that involves risk or sacrifice. This social inertia is the basis of resistance to any meaningful reform. When people have not been persuaded of the gravity of the situation (either because they have become immune to exaggeration or are misinformed – or because they see governments continually backtracking on whatever they say they’ll do) each person feels that it is they who will bear the cost of reform, they who will be suffering an injustice – because all around they see people doing whatever they like with impunity. That is why addresses such as the prime minister’s New Year message, which simply reiterate pre-election promises but do not convince the people as to the seriousness of the situation nor to the necessity of the proposed changes, go largely unnoticed. We see the message as merely a very old custom, devoid of meaning, rather than a guide for the difficult days ahead. And though we know what’s coming, we do not demand the necessary action that will save us.