Greece: As quiet as a Eurocrat in Athens
9 April 2012
Their mission: to bring the Greeks onto the path of budgetary virtue. Their method: to shake up established practice and insist on sacrifices. The risk: they may be targeted by anyone with a gripe against the EU.
On one side of the room, a window gives onto the ruins of the Acropolis and the scaffolding assembled by the team of archaeologists with a brief to watch over this crucible of European civilisation. On the other, the two screens Yannis Siatras uses to monitor the stock market, one of which is intermittently displaying the front cover published by German magazine Focus in February 2010. It shows Vénus de Milo giving the finger and is accompanied by a headline that announces, "Cheats in the EU family": a highly symbolic image that is associated with EU diktats and contempt.
"Show that! And then try to explain that the Union is on our side", complains Yannis, a former financial editor, who is tempted to run for a seat at the next general election in May.
Silence as a first line of defence
We had already been warned by Kostas Pappas, a spokesman for the permanent representation of Greece in Brussels, "Beware of clichés that poison the atmosphere", so it was no surprise to hear the same view expressed at the the European Commission delegation in Athens, which is located just behind the parliament building. On the other side of the street, the Evzones, soldiers in the traditional partisans uniform of white tights and pom-pommed hobnailed boots, were changing the guard, watched by handful of tourists. One of them, a Greek American, was incensed by the display of the blue and gold-starred flag of the EU. "They have no place in the country of Socrates,” he says. “They are immoral servants of banks." Panos Carvounis is no longer bothered by this type of accusation. The genteel 50-year-old head of the European Commission Representation in Greece is well used to criticism. "I live at home. I go to the cinema without any fuss, while Greek politicians who have had bad press are afraid to leave their homes. I am often questioned, but never vilified", he says. In contrast, other members of the contingent of Eurocrats, who have been posted in Athens since the beginning of the crisis in the spring of 2010, have made silence their first line of defence. Some 15 experts are deployed in the Greek capital as part of the Commission’s tasks force to help the country take advantage of EU funds [Greece has only managed to tap less than a third of the funds made available to it as part of the EU’s 2007-2013 budget]. A further 30 work for the EU delegation, and also serve as a secretariat for the troika, the tripartite agency (Commission, International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank) with a brief to implement the agreement that was finally accepted by Greek leaders in mid-March. This latter group are charged with supervising the second €130 billion European bailout that will finance Athens until the end of 2014: a sum that has been made available in addition to the first €110 billion lent by the 27-member EU in 2010, and the €107 billion of debt that the country’s private creditors accepted to write off within the framework of a bond swap which will be completed by 18 April.
Officials under police protection
In view of their mission to provide assistance in the release of funds, the members of the task force, which is soon to be doubled in size, are largely popular. In contrast, the brief for officials working for the troika is to supervise, verify and audit. As such they offer an ideal target for sections of the population that have become the enemies of Europe: redundant civil servants who have been laid off in waves, entrepreneurs whose businesses have been stifled by ailing banks, populist politicians with a gift for exploiting anti-German sentiment, extreme right nationalists and hard left anti-capitalists. Not surprisingly, the lifestyles of both groups are radically different. The task force staff, who liaise with civil society and meet with social partners, live in private apartments or downtown hotel rooms rented by the month. The troika officials, who come and go to negotiate with government ministers, generally stay under police protection in suites at the Athens Hilton. For the Greek media, the Eurocrats are personified by three names: Matthias Mors the Commission representative to the troika, Horst Reichenbach the leader of the task force and Georgette Lalis, who is in charge of the task force in Athens. A major issue is that the German nationality of two of the trio is grist to the mill for caricatures in the "Bismarck meets Socrates" genre. For proof that this can be a problem, consider the awkwardness prompted by the fact that the fiscal expert expedited by the Commission just happens to be a Greek speaking German. "Don’t mention it too often", suggest his colleagues, who are clearly pleased to have already recovered 500 million euros in unpaid taxes in 2011. Georgette Lalis, a Greek, senior European civil servant appointed by Brussels to run the task force in Athens is the key link in the chain. The affable, plain speaking 50-year-old has her offices on the seventh floor of a mournful tower block in the residential neighbourhood of Panormou. Her boss, Horst Reichenbach, travels with a bodyguard. She does without. He tends to be evasive when answering questions. She prefers to be direct. From 2001 to 2004, she was given leave of absence by the EU to take up a post at the head of the Land Registry in Athens, an institution whose labyrinthine records were implicated in massive tax evasion which is now being reformed under the leadership of officials from the Netherlands: "In Greece, Europe has run up against problems between the Greek state and its citizens", she explains. One of her team chimes in: "No one ever told the people that three generations would have to pay for the sudden increase in wealth in the 1990s and the noughties. We are the ones who have to present the bill." The other difficulty for the Eurocrats charged with the financial clean-up is that they have to contend with the consequences of the Commission’s failings: in particular its reluctance to mobilise member states to "discipline" Greece when its public spending went overboard in the wake of the 2004 Olympics.
Behaving like politicians
Then there is the gullibility of the EU statistics agency, Eurostat, which was beguiled by shameful Greek tricks to the point where conspiracy theories have emerged to explain its behaviour, and the silence of European Court of Justice President Vassilios Skouris, who at one point was tipped to lead the current coalition government instead of former ECB President Lucas Papademos. It is details like these that lent credence to allegations of passive complicity. Achilleas Mitsos is reluctant to take a position on this issue. In his handsome apartment in Kolonaki, a neighbourhood of Athens that used to be favoured by the wealthy before the nouveaux riches opted to live close to the area’s beaches, the retired Director-General of Research skirts around the issues that have been problematic for Greece since its inclusion in the EU in 1981, and more controversially since its adoption of the euro. "It is all very complicated,” remarks our host, who speaks perfect French. “At meetings in Brussels, I often said that Greece should be subject to more supervision but… in other fields, Greece was definitely making progress," he intones, hesitating whenever he appears about to breach an unstated law of silence. Buoyed by the money received from Brussels and cheap loans from from financial markets, the Greek “bubble” brought wealth to a certain section of the population, and boosted the careers of the Greek elite. "The Greek Eurocrats were the worst,” complains shoe importer Andreas. “They knew what was happening but they didn’t dare speak out. Worse still, many of them were proud to see little Greece make a fool of Europe. They behaved like politicians, while our politicians behaved like crooks." And now? "We would love to see a Jacques Delors with the courage to say to the Greeks: ‘ Your borders are the borders of Europe. You are the Europe, in which your elected leaders do not deserve to participate’", remarks an EU official. But the Delors era is over. And José Manuel Barroso, the current President of the European Commission, has not set foot in Athens since the start of the crisis.