Glezos

Monday, 9 October 2017

How to become a Greek Oligarch in 7 Easy Steps...


ATHENS, GREECE — Greece is a country that is famously known for its strong tradition in the maritime sector, and for its many wealthy shipowners. Names such as Onassis and Latsis have become globally known and are synonymous with great wealth and with a playboy lifestyle of mingling with the rich and famous.

Greece is also a country whose language boasts a particularly rich and diverse vocabulary. There is seemingly a Greek word for anything and everything, and one such word is “diaploki.” A uniquely Greek word, diaploki neatly sums up the specific relationship and interplay that has developed in Greece among successive governments, politicians, and big-business and media magnates.

Prior to the initial election of the purportedly “radical leftist” SYRIZA party in Greece’s parliamentary elections of January 2015, one of the party’s main campaign promises was that it would “crush” Greece’s oligarchs, who hold preeminent positions in the country’s media landscape and in such key sectors as energy, infrastructure, insurance, and of course shipping.




After SYRIZA’s election, though, an about-face quickly followed across multiple fronts, including its stance towards Greece’s oligarchs. Today, instead of “crushing” them, it is actively favoring them. Following last year’s botched television licensing attempt, in which SYRIZA was apparently going to “crush” the oligarchs by auctioning off an artificially limited number of television licenses to the very deepest pockets — in other words, those of the oligarchs — SYRIZA is trying again. It is now planning to auction off television as well as radio licenses to the highest bidders — with no provision for any non-profit, non-commercial or community broadcasters of any kind.



A new breed of corruption and “diaploki”
CEO of media conglomerate 24 Media, Dimitris Maris (left) and Soviet-born businessman and former United Russia MP, Ivan Savvidis. (Right)
CEO of media conglomerate 24 Media, Dimitris Maris (left) and Soviet-born businessman and former United Russia MP, Ivan Savvidis. (Right)
Amongst those who are flourishing under the reign of the SYRIZA-led coalition government, however, are not just the “old guard” of shipowner-oligarchs, such as Giannis Alafouzos (owner of Skai TV and Radio and Greece’s neoliberal newspaper of record, Kathimerini), the Kyriakou family (owners of the Antenna Media Group, including national broadcaster ANT1 Television), or the Vardinogiannis family (owners of national broadcaster Star Channel and extensive media and publishing interests). Now there is a new breed of businessmen-oligarchs who have risen to prominence under the SYRIZA regime, oligarchs who have quickly amassed holdings in the mass media and other industries, and who have access to and the ear of the current government and its personnel.

Two of Greece’s most notorious nouveau-oligarchs are Dimitris Maris and Ivan Savvidis. Maris is the CEO of one of Greece’s fastest-growing media conglomerates, 24 Media, which boasts a portfolio of numerous print, radio, and online properties. Savvidis is a Soviet-born businessman and former member of the Russian parliament, who has turned his sights on his purported country of origin, Greece — amassing there, in recent years, significant business holdings across several sectors.

Using these two nouveau-oligarchs as examples, the following steps will describe exactly how one can become a Greek oligarch — and obtain the privileges and power that this position of status affords.



Step one: Build a business profile

In order to gain a foothold in the country’s political and economic system, the first decisive step for any budding oligarch-to-be is to construct a profile as a seemingly legitimate — or successful, at any rate — businessman.

In the case of Dimitris Maris, this successful — even if its legitimacy is arguable — business is none other than online gambling, as he is a shareholder in stoiximan.gr, one of Greece’s and Europe’s largest online gambling and sports betting operations. Founded in 2007 and based in Malta under the corporate umbrella of “Gambling Malta Ltd.,” stoiximan.gr is said to be operating in Greece with a “temporary” license (not unlike the country’s television and radio broadcast stations).

At the same time that the SYRIZA-led government is going as far as to confiscate pocket change from the already decimated bank accounts of newly impoverished Greek citizens, seizing monies owed in “back taxes,” stoiximan.gr and a few dozen other online gambling services operate in Greece with “temporary” licenses issued to offshore corporations, generating over 1 billion euros in revenue that is entirely tax-free. Indeed, in late 2016, allegations emerged that stoiximan.gr was being probed by prosecutors in Greece for tax evasion totaling over 35 million euros.

Nevertheless, stoiximan.gr continues to operate — and, as will be seen, Maris’ business empire has expanded beyond online gambling to the online- and mass-media landscape.

Ivan Savvidis took a somewhat different route to the top: he first became a Russian oligarch, before spreading his business and financial empire to Greece. Born in the former Soviet Union in what is now Georgia, Savvidis was employed in the Don State Tobacco Company in various positions. Following the collapse of the USSR, the company was privatized and Savvidis somehow emerged as its general manager. By 2012, he had entered the Forbes list of the wealthiest Russians in the world.

It was around this time that Savvidis expanded his business activity to crisis-hit Greece – a peculiar choice at face value, in light of the country’s economic instability and uncertain future, and also because there is some doubt as to whether Savvidis had ever visited or spent much time in Greece prior to this decade. As will be detailed below, his current business holdings in Greece – all acquired within the past few years – include media outlets, major infrastructural assets, tourist properties, tobacco, and soft drinks.



Step two: Purchase a sports team

Sports is politics and, in Greece, owning a sports club is a surefire way to snag power, influence, and a legion of fanatic supporters. All of Greece’s major football and basketball teams are owned by wealthy oligarchs, competing with each other both on and off the playing field.

Much more so than in North America, one’s affiliation with a sports team in Greece is treated with an almost religious fervor. This degree of support typically extends to the team’s management, ownership, and president, particularly when the team is playing well. In Greece, each major team is also affiliated with one or more sports newspapers (which have lost less of their circulation than the political press) and websites. These outlets provide not only “partisan” reporting of the team’s doings, but also full coverage of all of the owner’s other business activities. In this way, through ownership of these teams, the oligarchs in control inherit a ready-made “fan” base that will identify with and support all of the owner’s activities – support that is blindly reinforced in the athletic press.

Maris is the founder of 24 Media, which is the umbrella corporation of his various media endeavors and whose corporate website is only in English. One of Maris’ first media properties was the online portal sport24.gr, a site that — despite having been established later than other such websites in Greece, and lacking the “name brand” of the existing sports media outlets — has nevertheless managed in a short time to become perhaps the preeminent sports news website in the country.

Maris’ sports media holdings are buffered by contra.gr, a sports and lifestyle website that was bought out by 24 Media, and by radio station Sport 24 Radio, broadcasting in Athens and networked with stations throughout Greece. This, of course, is in addition to his aforementioned activity in the sports betting sector.

Savvidis followed the more traditional route, beginning in Russia, where between 2002 and 2005 he was the chairman of the FC Rostov football club, and since 2005 has been chairman of FC SKA Rostov-on-Don. In 2012 his presence in the sports world expanded to Greece, following the purchase of one of Greece’s major football clubs, PAOK FC. Having paid off the previously struggling club’s debts and enjoying the support of the pro-PAOK sports media of Thessaloniki, the city where the team is based, Savvidis inherited an immediate and automatically loyal fan base through his takeover of PAOK.

More recently, Savvidis has forayed into the world of Greece’s sports media, purchasing sports portal SDNA, while it is rumored that he is in the market to purchase another, more prominent sports website.

An additional bonus that comes from having control of or influence over the sports media is this: in Greece, such media outlets are well aware that their target audience, primarily younger adult males, are often unemployed or underemployed and wholly miserable and dissatisfied with their lives amidst the economic crisis. Largely apolitical, and wholly awestruck by the glitzy stadiums and high priced superstars of the foreign football leagues that they invariably follow, they do not miss an opportunity to put down Greece for all of its real or perceived shortcomings.

Related | Greece: A (Basket) Case Study In Savage Globalization

In turn, the sports media caters to this sentiment. For instance, one of 24 Media’s properties is the website oneman.gr, which exclusively targets young men with glamorous stories about life in “civilized” countries and heaps of sensationalist “only in Greece” stories — which are invariably negative. These stories are then heavily cross-promoted across 24 Media’s sports portals.



Step three: Establish or purchase media outlets

Once you’ve become a nationally known and perhaps notorious figure through your activity in the sports world, the next step is to enter the day-to-day lives of all Greeks through the purchase of or establishment of one or more mass media outlets. Having already inherited a base of popular support via the ownership of a sports club, the next step – ownership of mainstream, general-interest media and news outlets – affords oligarchs even more power and influence.

“Diaploki,” as mentioned earlier, refers to the corrupt interplay of politicians and the owners of major industries and the media. In Greece, a country that boasts a plethora of media outlets, most newspapers and broadcast stations are not profitable. Indeed, they are not necessarily intended to be profitable. The real value that they provide to their oligarch owners stems from the influence that these channels afford them. This encompasses influence over public opinion, cross-promotion of their own business and sporting activities and holdings, and, perhaps most significantly of all, influence over and pressure on politicians and the government of the day.

An old adage of those seeking or exerting influence in Greece was (and largely remains) “give me a [public works] contract or I’ll open a newspaper” – insinuating that the “dirty laundry” of the government or specific political figures would then “leak.” With most oligarchs entrenched in the construction sector, their co-owned media outlets have traditionally been employed for the purposes of pressuring governments for lucrative public contracts of all sorts. This tactic has been successful and continues to the present day, even with the supposedly left-wing SYRIZA-led government that at one time was pledging to keep the oligarchs in check.

In a sense, Maris breaks with this tradition. He did not develop, and as of yet has not turned to, holdings in sectors such as construction, banking, insurance, or heavy industry. His media properties began to grow largely in parallel with his activity in the sports gambling sector. Starting small, with a small number of online outlets such as sport24.gr and news247.gr, the 24 Media empire has dramatically grown during the years of SYRIZA’s governance of Greece.

In part, 24 Media’s strategy has been to import brand names from the United States, including launching the Greek versions of the Huffington Post, Dailymotion, and NBA.com. Following these intermediate footsteps, though, 24 Media has recently taken the big leap into radio — first through its launch of Sport 24 Radio and then, earlier this year, through the launch of news radio station “Radiofono 24/7” in the cities of Athens, Thessaloniki, Patra and Volos, with a network of affiliated stations in other parts of Greece.

Maris also expanded into the world of print in a rather peculiar fashion, through his ownership and management of the “populist-right” newspaper Dimokratia. Though, as will be shown below, Maris’ media outlets are staunchly pro-SYRIZA, Dimokratia maintains a populist-right facade while “protecting” SYRIZA and attacking its main parliamentary opposition.

In turn, SYRIZA, which at one time campaigned for social justice, looks the other way while 24 Media has earned a reputation among journalists for not insuring employees and for forcing unpaid overtime.

Aside from his influence over pro-PAOK sports media outlets, Savvidis’ first somewhat clumsy foray into the media landscape came through his participation in last year’s unconstitutional television licensing bid, touted by SYRIZA as a centerpiece in its “fight” against the oligarchs, but in which an artificially low (four) number of nationwide television licenses was auctioned off to the very highest bidders — oligarchs, in other words.

Related | Syriza Sells Greece Out To The Highest Bidders

This licensing bid was struck down in late 2016 by Greece’s Council of State, the country’s highest administrative court, while Greece’s existing television stations are on the air under a regime of temporary legality.

In this bidding process, Savvidis did not initially emerge as one of the four highest bidders, but after one of the winning bidders was disqualified, Savvidis inherited that license with the fifth-highest bid. Savvidis, however, did not actually own or operate a television station, television studios, or any other similar media property. This detail temporarily became moot when the bidding process for these licenses was overturned.

Savvidis re-emerged into the media forefront in Greece this year, initially through his purchase of 19 percent of the shares of the heavily indebted and struggling Mega Channel, formerly a powerhouse in Greece’s television landscape. Along with this purchase, Savvidis also obtained the Ethnos tabloid newspaper and the Imerisia financial newspaper. This buying spree concluded – for now at least – with the purchase of 100 percent of national television broadcaster Epsilon TV in August.

In turn, management of Savvidis’ new press holdings, Ethnos and Imerisia, was quickly handed over to — who else? — Maris’ 24 Media, a coming full circle of sorts for these two budding oligarchs.



Step four: Use these media outlets as partisan propaganda organs

Savvidis and Maris have more in common than just their management deal regarding the Ethnos and Imerisia newspapers. Both of these oligarchs are unabashedly and fanatically pro-SYRIZA, as evidenced by the political stance maintained by their respective media properties.

This was apparent, for instance, upon the return of Ethnos to newsstands on September 16, following an absence of many months and under the new management of Savvidis and 24 Media.

Ethnos front page on the day of its relaunch - September 16, 2017.
The Ethnos front page on relaunch day, September 16, 2017.
The main front page headline of the relaunched Ethnos boasted, in large letters, of Greece’s “RETURN” to normality and its emergence out of the economic crisis under the stewardship of SYRIZA. This return to normalcy, crowed Ethnos, will be accompanied by foreign investments and by social benefits.

This banner headline was further accompanied by a front page editorial touting Greece’s turn “from fear to hope.” These headlines are, of course, laughable in light of the continued crisis Greece finds itself in and the austerity commitments the SYRIZA-led government has signed up for all the way through to 2060.

Indeed, all the outlets operated by 24 Media are notorious in Greece for their largely pro-SYRIZA tilt. On September 14 — with the SYRIZA-led government basking in the aftermath of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ triumphant State of the Union speech in Thessaloniki and French President Emmanuel Macron’s official visit to Greece — news of a “relatively small” oil spill in the Saronic Gulf, off the Athenian coastline, finally made its way into the news — even though the spill had occurred on September 10 — as the oil from the spill finally began to wash up on Athens’ shores.

For news247.gr, though, this environmental disaster played second-fiddle to an exultant story about the SYRIZA government’s fruitful efforts to bolster relations with Italy and form a “southern European front.” On the front page of the relaunched Ethnos, the oil spill story was buried in the bottom right corner, accompanied by a headline that was a play on a famous Greek proverb insinuating that the uproar over the spill was an overreaction.

The News247.gr front page on the afternoon of September 14, 2017. The story of the oil spill in the Saronic Gulf is downplayed, the headline concerns the SYRIZA-led government’s efforts to bolster relations with Italy and create a “Southern European front.”
The News247.gr front page on the afternoon of September 14, 2017. The story of the oil spill in the Saronic Gulf is downplayed, the headline concerns the SYRIZA-led government’s efforts to bolster relations with Italy and create a “Southern European front.”
Such is the traditional modus operandi of media outlets in Greece: aside from exerting pressure upon governments and politicians for economic favors, these outlets are also used to shamelessly promote specific parties and particular political figures. Media outlets that “play ball” with the government of the day accordingly are afforded favors that go beyond lucrative contracts for their owners. For instance, state advertising expenditures traditionally were generously doled out not on the basis of circulation figures and audience size, but based on partisan favoritism. This practice continues today, even if outlays have dropped as a result of the crisis.

Therefore, it should come as no shock that Dimitris Maris is the founder and newly re-elected president of the Union of Online Publishers of Greece. Why is this significant? One of the highly touted initiatives of the current SYRIZA-led government is the formation of a “registry of online media outlets.” Maris, via the aforementioned Union, lobbied hard for the establishment of this registry, the primary purpose of which seems to be none other than establishing a formal structure for the allocation of state advertising monies to the online media. Those online outlets most favorable to the current government (such as 24 Media) stand to benefit the most, at least in the short term. Once again, diaploki comes full circle in Greece.



Step five: Leverage your influence to further expand your business empire


So you’ve gotten past your “entrepreneurial” stage. You’ve entered the sports world and made your presence felt in the media industry. And thanks to all of this, you have the government and key politicians in your pocket. What now? It’s time to put all that sweat and hard work to good use by leveraging your existing holdings and, even more so, your influence over the political system and over public opinion, to fatten up your business empire.

Maris has, for now at least, largely focused on feeding his online gambling operation, stoiximan.gr, which has begun sponsoring sports teams and entire leagues. For instance, stoiximan.gr is this season’s sponsor for Greece’s professional basketball league, one of the top leagues in Europe and home to perennial European powerhouses Olympiacos and Panathinaikos. And once again coming full circle, Maris’ stoiximan.gr is this season’s sponsor for Savvidis’ PAOK football club.

Savvidis, however, is quite the seasoned business figure. He got his start in the tobacco industry of the former Soviet Union – “taking over” a state-owned company that was privatized following the USSR’s collapse. This company then bought out Greek tobacco firm SEKAP, based in the northern Greek city of Xanthi, in 2013. That same year, Savvidis also took over management of the historic Macedonia Palace Hotel, with a prime location on the Thessaloniki waterfront. Earlier this year, Savvidis also took a controlling ownership share in Greek mineral water bottler Souroti. In another confluence of business and sports, Souroti is this season’s sponsor for the Greek soccer league, in which PAOK participates. And as reported by Maris’ sport24.gr, Savvidis launched a private aviation firm, Northern Wings, earlier in 2017.

Perhaps the centerpiece of Savvidis’ recent “investments” in Greece, however, derived from the privatization of the port of Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest port. Thessaloniki serves as a strategic gateway to the Balkans, Eastern Europe and the Black Sea region, via the port’s road and rail connections to the north and the coast-to-coast Egnatia motorway linking Italy (via a ferry terminal) with Turkey.

The sell-off of Thessaloniki’s port is part of a package of privatizations imposed by Greece’s lenders in the “troika”—consisting of the European Commission, European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund—as part of their so-called “bailout” packages for Greece. These privatizations are faithfully being implemented by the SYRIZA-led government, which prior to its election had campaigned against the selling off of publicly-owned assets, infrastructure, services, and utilities.

And who purchased the port of Thessaloniki? You can probably see where this is going. The port’s new owner is a consortium consisting of the German private-equity firm Deutsche Invest Equity Partners, Terminal Link of France, and Belterra Investments, owned by none other than … Ivan Savvidis. In other words, Savvidis, openly a SYRIZA supporter, is one of the main buyers of a critical piece of national infrastructure being privatized by the SYRIZA-led government at the behest of its European and international lenders – despite pre-election promises to abolish such privatizations!

Put differently, it pays to cozy up to the government in charge — which will ensure that leveraging the assets you’ve worked so hard as an oligarch to attain pays dividends, in more ways than one. “Radical leftist” rhetoric is merely for the consumption of the gullible voting public. Privatizations (now euphemistically referred to as “investments”) and business deals are for the big boys in suits (with or without ties).



Step six: Cultivate a public image

Now that you, as a full-fledged Greek oligarch, have established firm footing in the business world, it’s time to cultivate that public image. Ownership of a sports team and control over major media outlets is no longer enough. Positive public relations and a sterling public image are absolute necessities at this point to keep the whole operation running smoothly.

In building his profile, Savvidis has sought to tug at the hearts and emotions of the community of Pontic Greeks, whose roots hail from the Black Sea region. Among his other positions, Savvidis is president of the Federation of Greek Communities of Russia, president of the Association of Greeks of Russia, coordinator of the World Council of Hellenes Abroad of the Former Soviet Union, deeply involved with the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches, and a regular visitor to the autonomous Orthodox monastic community of Agion Oros.

For his apparent contributions to the cause of the Pontic Greeks, a community that faced genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Turks between 1914 and 1922, Savvidis was named grand marshal of New York City’s Greek Independence Day Parade in March 2017. More significantly, while Savvidis is no longer a member of the Russian parliament, since 2012 he has been a member of Presidential Council on International Relations of the Russian Federation. A promotion, one could say, for his exemplary work. It doesn’t hurt that Vladimir Putin had long been eyeing investments for Russian firms in Greece.

Maris, like Savvidis, has also looked outward. For instance, Maris and 24 Media have sought to foster “synergies” with the Hellenic Initiative, a Greek-American organization based in New York City, one of many non-profits that developed, around the time the economic crisis began in Greece, to “assist” in Greece’s “recovery.”

Former president Bill Clinton spoke at the Hellenic Initiative’s October 2013 banquet, while Maris and other executives and journalists from 24 Media and its outlets spoke at the 2017 Delphi Economic Forum, a mind-numbing conclave with a speaker list reading like a globalist Who’s Who. Included were the Hellenic Initiative’s executive director, Mark Arey, as well as countless politicians, journalists, academics, business figures and representatives of establishment “think tanks,” every last one of which could accurately be described as pro-EU, pro-euro, pro-austerity — in a word: neoliberal.

To be more specific, what kind of crowd can you mingle with once you’ve made your way up the stepladder and established yourself as a bona fide Greek oligarch? A review of the Delphi speaker list reveals the many possibilities. These include:

High-ranking members of the current SYRIZA-led government that once claimed to be “anti-establishment.”
Politicians from former Greek governments who were largely responsible for laying the foundations for the present-day economic crisis (and some of whom have gone on to lofty posts in the EU or international NGOs).
Politicians from almost every “opposition” party represented in the Greek Parliament — all of whom though, notwithstanding their “opposition,” maintain the same pro-EU, pro-euro, pro-austerity stance.
Academics and representatives of various think tanks, whose body of work also belies a definite pro-EU, pro-euro, pro-austerity stance.
Representatives from such institutions as NATO, the World Bank, the European Central Bank, the Trilateral Commission, and Stratfor.
Executives from state-owned utilities, which are purportedly fiercely resisting privatization but mingling with those who wish to privatize.
Scandal-ridden current and former members of Greece’s regulatory body for broadcasters, as well as the government ministers overseeing this “independent” body.
EU favorites such as the former non-elected prime minister of Greece, Lucas Papademos, and the former non-elected prime minister of Italy, Mario Monti; central bankers from various countries; and representatives from various well-connected NGOs.
And, last but not least, establishment journalists at media outlets that (surprise!) are also pro-austerity, pro-euro and pro-EU in their entirety. This impounds a full slate of journalists and executives from 24 Media, including a former government minister with the “center-left” Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK), Petros Efthimiou, who is now acting as executive adviser for 24 Media.

Many of these same speakers were also present at the 2017 Thessaloniki Forum. Also present? Ivan Savvidis. Who else? Representatives of, you guessed it, 24 Media! In turn, Maris attended the Northern Lights Summit in Finland (covered here by the Greek edition of the Huffington Post) earlier this year, a conclave with a stated agenda of “saving open societies and free markets” and featuring a full slate of current and past politicians, central bankers, prominent journalists, and corporate CEOs.

As is painfully (or pleasantly, depending on your point of view) evident, membership in the club of Greek oligarchs has many perks and benefits!



Step seven: Hold down the fort

You’ve made it. You’re mingling with politicians, foreign ambassadors, representatives of the EU and World Bank and NATO, and prominent journalists who gladly will do your bidding. What’s next for a Greek oligarch?

Toe the line. Hold down the fort. Don’t make waves. And make sure to strike the perfect balance between keeping the government of the day in check, and being favorable and even deferential towards it when necessary.

One way to accomplish this is to bring them on board with you, as with the previously noted example of Petros Efthimiou, formerly of PASOK (as is much of SYRIZA’s cabinet). Laudatory headlines, as seen in the aforementioned examples of Ethnos and news247.gr, are sure to score some brownie points as well.

Another way to accomplish this is through fluff interviews and profile pieces where no difficult or remotely controversial questions are posed, as seen in this recent example where Greece’s general secretary of press and communication, Lefteris Kretsos, batted softball questions, about the government’s renewed efforts to move ahead with the auctioning of television and radio licenses, out of the park. The interview, broadcast on the Maris-owned radio station Radiofono 24/7 — itself operating in violation of Greek law (unjust as it is) prohibiting news programming on a registered non-news station — was hosted by Kostas Arvanitis, formerly general manager of the SYRIZA-owned radio station Sto Kokkino.

As seen before with the issue of 24 Media’s uninsured workers and questionable labor practices, obeying the law is optional once you’ve reached this stage. It should further be noted that Radiofono 24/7’s sister station in Thessaloniki, also classified as a non-news station, went on the air on an FM frequency previously owned by SYRIZA.

On the flip side, as a self-respecting oligarch with a media empire at your disposal, you won’t waste all your airtime, column inches, or pixels only on promoting favorable governments and politicians. You now have in your hands a virtually unlimited opportunity for unchecked self-promotion without any worries about criticism or formalities such as objectivity.

Looking for a media outlet to write up a profile of yourself describing you as a “game changer” in the media sector? Look no further than your very own media outlets. Need to promote your football team’s superstar? Simply prominently emblazon the interview on the front page of your own newspaper, Ethnos. True, this is an unusual move for an Athens-based paper, as PAOK’s fan base is largely in Thessaloniki and northern Greece — and in constant rivalry with the “Athens-centric” establishment — but who cares? You’re the boss!

Need to promote your newly-purchased newspaper, as in the case of Ethnos? Look no further than a friend and partner, as seen in this sport24.gr write-up for the aforementioned Ethnos interview. After all, what are friends and business partners for?

There you have it, easy as pie. Just follow these seven simple steps and you, too, can become a Greek oligarch!

Top photo | Ivan Savvidis poses for an Instagram photo.

By Mihalis Nevradakis

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Putting Grexit On The Table: How A Greek Exit From The EU Would Work


Putting Grexit On The Table: How A Greek Exit From The EU Would Work
There is no shortage of viable plans for a departure from the eurozone or, in some instances, the EU. All require a measure of fortitude and adaptability–a willingness to step beyond what is, in fact, a very uncomfortable comfort zone. The question is whether the Greek ethos can rise to this challenge.

by Michael Nevradakis

Existing plans for departure



A pedestrian passes anti-austerity graffiti in front of Athens Academy. (AP/Thanassis Stavrakis)
Proposal “A”: Perhaps the most well-known of these EU/eurozone departure plans has been presented by British economist Roger Bootle, of Capital Economics in London. The plan developed by Bootle and his team, titled “Leaving the euro: A practical guide,” was awarded the 2012 Wolfson Prize in Economics, the second most prestigious prize in that field.

Bootle’s plan calls for preparations for a eurozone exit to be undertaken initially in secret and to be implemented swiftly. Debt would be redenominated into the new currency and would fall under the jurisdiction of domestic law. All bank deposits and loans would also be redenominated into the new currency.
Capital controls would be imposed to prevent capital flight resulting from a possible initial panic or bank run. The transition period until the new currency circulates would be mitigated by allowing continued use of the euro and by promoting non-cash transactions. Devaluations of the new currency would occur and a moratorium on government debt service be imposed under this plan, which would also include a potential for a haircut of the public debt and debt relief for private firms with substantial foreign exposure. The option of bank nationalization would be on the table if necessary. Bootle also makes recommendations for how the ECB and the EU can, in turn, manage the departure of a eurozone member.
Bootle’s plan is essentially what has been put forth by CNBC economist John Carney, who points out something seemingly obvious, yet apparently lost on Greek and EU politicians as well as eurozone supporters: that there is no realistic way to get around austerity within the eurozone. Similarly, bestselling author Greg Palast, trained as an economist, has described SYRIZA’s idea of ending austerity within the eurozone as “fantasy.”
Proposal “B”: Economist Warren Mosler, a known proponent of modern monetary theory (MMT), describes larger deficits as a solution for the economic depression in Greece. It follows that if the EU is unwilling to relax its deficit rules—a refusal that seems a virtual certainty in light of the agreement between Greece and the EU for the maintenance of budget surpluses through 2060—then exiting is Greece’s best, next, and only option.
Mosler’s plan calls for the introduction of the new currency via taxing and spending, meaning that taxes would be levied in the new currency and spending would occur in the new currency as well, including payment of public-sector salaries. The denomination of the new currency would follow that of the euro: i.e., one euro would become one drachma.

Initially though, the currency would exist only in electronic form. Euro notes and coins would remain in circulation. However, a process Mosler describes as a “short squeeze” would follow: with tax obligations due in the new currency and accepted only in the new currency, individuals and businesses will have to sell euro notes to purchase the new currency.

This will actually place upward pressure on the new currency, alleviating fears of a devaluation and the loss of value of deposits. Gradually, this process will lead to the withdrawal of euros from circulation. The supply of euros would essentially become a foreign reserve currency for the country, while the new domestic currency would gradually make its way into circulation.

Notably, even Yanis Varoufakis, famous for his opposition to Grexit or the abolition of the eurozone, presents essentially this very plan for leaving the euro, essentially as a “last resort” for fleeing “a sinking ship.” It is therefore interesting that Varoufakis refused to consider raising the prospect of “Grexit,” even as a “Plan B,” in his negotiations with the troika during his tenure as Greece’s finance minister. Instead, he agreed to continue 100 percent of the previous austerity agreements before putting on a final show of “defiance.”

Proposal “C”: An academic paper written by Yiannis Athanasiadis of the Erasmus University of Rotterdam puts forth yet another course of action for departing from the eurozone. This plan analyzes the breakup of several currency unions, including the cases of the problematic breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the somewhat more optimistic examples of the breakup of the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia. It also highlights the examples of Iceland and Argentina as being more similar to the Greek case—and points to the more propitious outcome experienced by those countries as a further reason for optimism.

In his proposal, Athanasiadis calls for the suspension of debt payments, along with an audit of the debt and outstanding liabilities; introducing the new currency at a 1:1 conversion rate (meaning no devaluation); and introducing capital controls to prevent capital outflows.
Proposal “D”: A team of Finnish economists and mathematicians has also put forth a plan for eurozone departure. They highlight the many challenges that would face a country seeking to depart from the common-currency bloc–problems that nevertheless are not deemed to be insurmountable. The need for secrecy before the transition is also emphasized, as well as the necessity for maintaining a functioning system of payments. They also leave open the possibility of the devaluation of the new currency and the potential conversion of loans to the new currency.

Proposal “E”: Greek economist Spiros Lavdiotis, a former analyst with the Central Bank of Canada, recently presented his own departure plan. He highlights a six-month transition period during which a country like Greece would remain in the eurozone while negotiations are held with EU officials and creditors. He points out that putting the very real threat of an exit on the table would encourage creditors and EU officials to negotiate a deal beneficial for both sides in order to prevent an uncontrolled exit.
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During this initial period, a stoppage of payments on debt and interest would be imposed. The money saved during this period would be utilized to finance an initial growth plan for the economy post-exit. The new currency would be ready to circulate after a few months, and a law would be implemented making it the exclusive legal tender. The exchange rate would remain at a 1:1 parity between the euro and the new currency. Loans would be redenominated but deposits would remain in euros while withdrawals would be in the new currency. Exiting the eurozone would also be accompanied by a departure from the EU.
Proposal “F”: Another Greek economist, Dimitris Karousos, has presented a blueprint for departing the eurozone. This twelve-step plan includes the immediate declaration of a stoppage of payments; disputing the legality of the public debt; canceling all existing memoranda and austerity agreements, and repealing associated legislation; and nationalization of the central bank and liquidation of existing commercial banks.

Imposition of capital controls would follow, as well as the development of a payment system to allow transactions to take place until the new currency is in circulation; maintaining some level of price controls to prevent gouging and abuse; restoring wages and pensions to pre-crisis levels; and debt forgiveness for households and small- and medium-sized businesses, mirroring debt forgiveness that actually was implemented in Iceland. This plan would also entail a departure from the EU.

Proposal “G”: Finally, in the United Kingdom, the Leave Alliance presented its blueprint for departure from the EU in the absence of any such plan from the country’s political parties. This plan identifies six phases of departure, covering such ground as trade negotiations, regularization of immigration policy and controls, breaking with Brussels-centric trade regimes, developing wider global relations, and implementing some degree of direct democracy for future decision-making.

What should be evident and obvious from this analysis of a small sample of the proposals that have been put forth is that, contrary to a common anti-exit argument that no one has actually developed a plan for how such a transition can take place, many such plans exist and have been developed by credible economists, based on reasonable economic assumptions as well as historical precedent and experience.

How to depart: some further thoughts and considerations

A tourist makes his way as youths make a transaction at an automated teller machine (ATM) of a Eurobank Bank branch in Athens, Greece. (AP/Yorgos Karahalis)
In order to better understand the intricacies surrounding a departure from the eurozone in particular, certain additional issues require examination. This analysis will demonstrate that a departure from the common currency is indeed feasible based on current conditions while introducing some additional thoughts and proposals to the discussion.

Foreign reserve assets: As mentioned in Part Two of this series, in the pre-euro days, European countries with weaker economies, including Greece, paid for imports of vital goods such as oil and medicine with foreign currency reserves. This is also how other countries without a “hard” currency import goods today.
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It, therefore, should be noted that, according to official data from the Bank of Greece, the country’s reserve assets total 6.378 billion euros, including 1.731 billion euros in foreign exchange. However, to this figure we can add the outstanding loans of Greek banks to external borrowers (approximately 27.4 billion euros as of 2015); the long-term bond portfolio of the Greek banking system, exceeding 55 billion euros; and the foreign stocks and securities held by the Greek banking system, exceeding 9 billion euros as of 2015.

Furthermore, the total circulation of euro banknotes in Greece (an estimated 27.4 billion euros in 2015) would essentially be converted to foreign exchange, as these notes cannot be canceled. In all, this creates a supply of foreign reserve assets that, according to Karousos, can cover Greece’s needs for the next five years, even if no further foreign reserves were to enter the system.

Balance of payments and trade: As pointed out by both Lavdiotis and Karousos, Greece continues to maintain a trade deficit, totaling approximately 15 billion euros. However, the difference is covered by services, specifically shipping and tourism, which generate foreign reserve and income for Greece. In short, Greece has achieved a balance of payments and services.

What this means is that Greece will continue to be in a position to import necessary goods and services during and after a transition to a domestic currency.

To float or not to float: One of the fears that is often expressed regarding a eurozone exit is a potentially catastrophic or uncontrolled currency devaluation that may follow–though this presumes that the new currency will be floated on the international markets.
Flotation, however, is not a necessity, and an excellent example exists: China. Between the late 1940s and the late 1970s, with a gradual rollback that spanned until relatively recently, China maintained its currency at an artificially overvalued level instead of allowing it to be freely floated in the global markets.

What this did was allow China to import technology relatively inexpensively with a strong currency–using this technology to promote the country’s domestic industrial base and to promote domestic consumption at the expense of exports. Once China’s industrial machine was ready to take the next step, this import-substitution model began to be carefully rolled back, opening up Chinese products to the world and eventually anchoring China as a global export powerhouse.

Conversely, in adherence with the aforementioned proposal put forth by Mosler, it would be possible to allow the new currency to float on the international markets. The domestic “short squeeze” would then be likely to counterbalance any downward, speculatory pressures on the new currency from the international markets. Furthermore, Greece could threaten to redenominate its debt into its new currency. This could act as a check against devaluatory pressures on the new currency, as the debt would, in turn, be devalued.

To devalue or not to devalue, to peg or not to peg: There are pros and cons to both options that bear examination. There are pros and cons to both options that bear examination.

One option is to maintain a peg with another currency, such as the euro or the U.S. dollar. There are actually two separate issues here: the initial conversion rate of the euro to the new currency, and a possible peg of the new currency to another currency, whether the euro or something else.
Here I will argue that setting the initial rate of exchange between the old and new currency is simply a conversion–essentially an arbitrary arithmetic choice without objective (i.e., non-psychological) monetary implications. Therefore, it actually should not matter whether the conversion rate is, say, one euro to one drachma, or one euro to one hundred drachmas. Either denomination would still be equal to the initial one euro. This relates to an old economic idea, that of money illusion, coined in the early 20th century by economist Irving Fisher, who pointed out the tendency to confuse the nominal value of currency with its real value.

Here, I will posit that large denominations, such as those that Greece and Italy had pre-euro with the drachma and lira, actually are beneficial to weaker economies, as they serve as a check of sorts upon inflation. It’s much easier, for instance, to raise a price from, say, one euro to 1.50 euros (a 50 percent increase) than to, for instance, raise a price from 10,000 drachmas to 15,000 drachmas (an equivalent percent increase). The psychology of money should never be downplayed and, psychologically, a hypothetical 5,000 drachma increase has a greater impact than a seemingly minor 50 cent increase. So, following this view, the drachma could be redenominated back at the original exchange rate of 340.75 drachmas to one euro.

This line of thinking is similar to the ideas proposed by professors Priya Raghubir and Joydeep Srivastava. Their 2009 paper titled “Denomination Effect” found that people are less likely to spend larger units of currency than their equivalent amount in smaller units; while their 2002 papertitled “Effect of Face Value on Product Valuation in Foreign Currencies” found that tourists underspent when the face value of foreign currency was a multiple of the equivalent amount in their home currency, and vice versa. This rule, of course, is applicable not just to tourists: psychologically, one is less likely to spend, say, 1000 drachmas than the equivalent amount of less than 3 euros.

These rules of economic behavior were evident in Greece and some other countries immediately after the transition to the euro. Amounts that previously seemed significant, such as 500 or 1000 drachmas (denominations represented by banknotes), were the equivalent of loose change with the euro, with amounts up to 2 euros minted as coins. Furthermore, businesses across the economic spectrum took advantage of this psychological effect to round up prices while seemingly still keeping them low. For instance, a 100 drachma (0.29 euro) bottle of water was “rounded up” to 1.00 euros (340.75 drachmas). Inevitably, purchasing power diminished almost overnight.

A post-conversion peg can take place independent of the currency conversion rate. Here though, it is important to consider that a peg will tie the new currency to the fiscal policy being implemented for the foreign currency to which it is pegged. This was the case in Argentina, which led to the country’s economic collapse in 1999.

Pegging the new currency to, say, the euro, might have negative consequences: the euro itself might begin a downward spiral in the markets if one or more of its members depart. On the other hand, a peg could allow a country like Greece to essentially do what China did: maintain an artificial value of the currency for a period of time until the initial difficulties of the transition to a new economy have been surmounted.

Capital controls: In Greece, capital controls have been in place since June 2015, just prior to the July 2015 referendum. These restrictions have essentially limited withdrawals to an average of 60 euros per day–having changed during this period from a daily withdrawal limit, to weekly, to biweekly, to monthly, without significantly changing the bottom line rate.
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The truth is that these capital controls have posed tremendous difficulties to Greek businesses in particular. However, in a post-transition period they might be a necessary evil until economic jitters have been overcome. If this is the case, what will be imperative is for a clear and reasonable capital control plan to be developed and to be communicated to the public, free of the uncertainty that exists with the current controls that are in effect in Greece, and with a clear forecast of when they will be loosened and/or eliminated.

Taxes: In a country like Greece, and with the economy in the condition its in, less is more when it comes to taxation. Greece’s sky-high tax rates have stifled consumer spending and have placed a chokehold on small- and mid-sized businesses, freelancers, and independent contractors. They have imposed a great burden on households and, ironically, they have encouraged the practice of which Greeks are stereotypically accused: tax evasion. For many in Greece today, it’s a simple choice between paying taxes or paying for bare necessities in order to survive.

Post-transition, a new tax regime must be ready to be enforced. One that is simple and easy to understand and fair to citizens and households, the self-employed, and to the small- and medium-sized businesses that have been a cornerstone of the Greek economy for decades.

Stability is key: in Greece, tax laws invariably change every year or even every few months, and retroactive taxation is often imposed! This makes it practically impossible for households and businesses alike to plan ahead or to make investments.

Furthermore, the Greek tax system unfairly presumes a certain level of income simply by virtue of owning a house or property (which may have been inherited), or owning a car or some other valuable asset—even if one is currently unemployed. This blatantly unfair practice must immediately be eliminated.
The value-added tax on goods–particularly vital necessities such as food, clothing, medicine, and heating oil–must also be abolished. Incentives could also be offered to lure back emigrants and businesses that have fled the country during the crisis.

Privatizations: The vast majority—perhaps all—of the privatizations that have taken place in Greece, particularly during the crisis, have been on blatantly unfair, vulture-like terms that have been completely unfavorable for the Greek state. Furthermore, many of the assets that were sold off, such as regional airports or the national lottery, were profitable—meaning that they provided income to public coffers each and every year. Many of these assets, such as airports and harbors, are also of high strategic importance.

Greece should, therefore, consider following the example of many other countries by re-nationalizing assets of vital national importance and assets that were profitable for the public sector. Other privatizations for non-vital and underutilized assets can and should be audited and reviewed–and canceled if need be. These assets can then be retained by the state as part of a public redevelopment plan, or tendered again at terms more favorable to the state, perhaps even as a long-term lease instead of an outright sale.

Red tape and bureaucracy: No matter what currency you use, your economy will be stymied if it is drowned in red tape and bureaucracy. Traditionally in Greece, this endless bureaucracy has been employed as a weapon to curtail any entrepreneurial initiative, such as the many attempts to develop an automotive industry in Greece.

Simply starting a business or forming a corporation in Greece can take months or years. In turn, the judicial system is, to put it mildly, slow as molasses. Simple “open and shut” legal cases are not “open and shut” in Greece, and almost invariably last a decade or more. This is not an environment within which businesses—particularly small businesses—or entrepreneurs can operate in an optimal fashion.
In other words, a change of currency is not enough. A change in public policy is also in order.

Legal changes: European Union membership meant that domestic law had to be “harmonized” with EU law. In order for an exit from the eurozone and the EU to be a true exit, these laws must be repealed.

But what about human rights? That’s a question that is often hysterically asked in Britain regarding Brexit. This is based on the silly assumption that human rights cannot exist without a supranational guarantor such as the EU. It also presupposes that the EU itself protects human rights. As has been determined by the UN and other bodies, this has not been the case in crisis-stricken Greece. Domestic law and international treaties are perfectly suitable for protecting human rights.

In the case of Greece in particular, what must be repealed are any and all laws pertaining to the memorandum agreements and austerity measures that have been imposed. A “clean break” cannot be considered to have been accomplished barring this. And if it is, for instance, determined that the economy is not in a position to immediately sustain a rollback to pre-crisis salaries and pensions, a clear road map for the process must be presented and communicated openly and clearly to the public.

Trade: No one is arguing that a country such as Greece should isolate itself from the world. But it is clear that EU-style “free trade” has not benefited the country, with agriculture being a case in point.

Outside of the eurozone and EU, countries are free to pursue trade agreements and partnerships with any other country in the world, without the need for approval from some other institution. Greece, which maintained strong agricultural trade with Russia, for instance, would no longer be hindered by EU sanctions, as it would be free to repeal them. Greece would be free to pursue trade relations with the BRICS nations, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, North America, and indeed even Europe. But it would have the ability to negotiate terms more favorable to its economic needs, rather than being covered by blanket EU trade rules.

One word of warning here: the BRICS, often touted as saviors, are themselves proponents of the neoliberal tenets of so-called “free” trade, including opposition to “protectionism,” which in the realm of economics has attained the same derogatory status as “nationalism” has in the political context. But what is protectionism? It’s merely the practice of defending domestic industries of vital or strategic significance from foreign competition. Especially for a vulnerable economy, the ability to protect key industries is indispensable.

Protectionism does not mean isolationism: While these two concepts are increasingly conflated, there is no argument for a country like Greece to isolate itself from Europe or the rest of the world post-exit. For instance, visa-free travel regimes can and do exist outside of a supranational context. International trade can continue. Tourism would still be welcome. And indeed foreign investment would be welcome, provided that it was on terms favorable to the local economy and domestic workers.

Protectionism can also be viewed as a means of protecting local culture from the homogenizing forces of economic and cultural globalization. Diversity and heterogeneity of course neither cause nor imply isolation.

Banking: This may be the stickiest issue of all. It is likely that, as part of a eurozone exit, commercial banks may need to be nationalized. In a sense this has already happened, as Greek banks have been recapitalized three times with taxpayer monies during the economic depression. These banks are essentially bankrupt and have been kept afloat using the tried-and-true logic of “too big to fail.”

Then there is the issue of the central bank to contend with. Greece’s central bank, for instance, is largely a privately-owned entity and 94 percent of its shareholders are not publicly known. Reforming Greece’s central banking system would seem to be the trickiest issue of all and larger-scale economic changes on a global scale would likely be a prerequisite for this to occur.

Economic development: In Greece, a mantra uttered all too frequently is that “we are a poor country” that “doesn’t produce anything.” This is not true. Greece is a land blessed with an incredible amount of natural resources; energy resources (including great potential for solar and other “green” energy sources); a rich culture and history; a large shipping fleet; an educated population and an innovative younger generation; strong agricultural capabilities and an excellent climate; and an entrepreneurial spirit—despite the culture of red tape and a supposedly “bloated” public sector. Greece has much to offer the world, and much to offer its citizens—if only its potential were to be tapped into.

To take just the example of tourism’s and the possibilities it offers: despite record tourist numbers now visiting Greece, there are many types of tourism that remain largely undeveloped or underdeveloped, including conference tourism, winter tourism (Greece has numerous ski resorts and chalets, for instance), natural tourism and camping, medical tourism, gastronomy tourism, sports tourism and sporting events that would utilize the country’s underused athletic infrastructure, and much more.

There’s a lot of potential in Greece, but the country must be free to tap into it. As long as it is not in control of its own economic destiny, this will not be possible.

Challenges real and imaginary: the impact of fear

Pro-Euro demonstrators, wearing t-shirts depicting the one Euro coin, sit on a sidewalk during a rally at Syntagma square in Athens, Thursday, July 9, 2015. (AP/Emilio Morenatti)
An exit—and a post-exit transition—will not be easy. Nobody has claimed otherwise. But what Greece is currently experiencing–and what its government has committed to for the next four-plus decades–is also painful, with no realistic light at the end of the tunnel. Having committed to decades of austerity within the eurozone context and with no control over its fiscal or monetary policy or its economic destiny, it is hard to make a convincing argument that Greece’s economy can recover within the eurozone and the EU.

The main challenge though, as I see it, has nothing to do with the eurozone, the EU, or the obstacles that might be faced during the transition process. The primary difficulty Greece faces concerns its political class and the willingness of its people to move ahead with change—true change. To be perfectly frank, this author does not believe that any entity, any individual or any party or movement within the present-day political landscape–and particularly among those in parliament today–is competent or decisive enough to oversee a smooth transition to a post-euro and perhaps post-EU future, whether this transition were to happen by choice or involuntarily.

I do not believe a “Plan B” is in place even as a worst-case scenario, such as if there were to be a sudden collapse of the eurozone or Greece were to be forced out for other reasons. I also do not believe that the track record of Greece’s political class—replete with corruption, cronyism, irresponsibility and impunity—leaves much room for optimism. This is a political class that is most likely compromised as a result of its corrupt practices, and one that has proven that it places neoliberal interests and personal gain ahead of the public interest and well-being. And frankly, if such a transition were to be handled by a corrupt, compromised government with a poor track record, Greece might be better off standing pat for now.

It would not surprise this author, for instance, to see the current government or other so-called “leftist” forces like the DiEM25 movement of Yanis Varoufakis, if they were to ascend to power, introduce a parallel currency and sell it to the public and to the markets as “a return to a domestic currency.” The disastrous history of parallel currencies and bimetallism does not provide much hope that this would be a viable solution for Greece.
This means that it’s up to the citizenry of Greece to be the force that delivers change. This too seems something of a tall order, however. Learned helplessness and misery are deeply rooted in Greece, as has been demonstrated. It is not uncommon to hear, for instance, people react to suggestions not to vote for any of the existing political parties and to look instead to support new political forces or develop new political movements, by retorting “and who else is there to vote for?”

Another dangerously prevalent viewpoint is that Greece is “the worst in everything” and, by extension, that “Greeks are the worst people in the world,” a populace that brought economic disaster upon itself. In a climate of such helplessness, fear, misery and complacency, it’s hard to imagine any sort of motivation or clarion call that would allow the people to overcome these sentiments.
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Such expressions are usually accompanied by fears of the “external threats” Greece faces due to its geopolitical location. As this line of thinking goes, Greece cannot afford to leave the “umbrella of protection” provided by EU membership (and also by being part of NATO). It bears noting though that EU membership has done nothing to stop Turkish aggression in the Aegean, including violations of Greek territorial waters and airspace. This has not been a victimless activity: for example, in 2006, Greek air force pilot Konstantinos Iliakis was killed in an aerial exercise near the Greek island of Karpathos, while attempting to intercept Turkish fighter jets.

EU membership has also done nothing to put an end to the Turkish occupation of nearly 40 percent of Cyprus. Indeed, the EU supported the UN’s “Annan Plan,” which would have granted permanent status to the Turkish military presence and the illegal settlers from the Turkish mainland on the island. All of Greece’s major political parties openly supported this plan.

Indeed, while the EU has recently been posturing against Turkey, with threats to put a permanent end to its hopes for EU membership, it is the EU that succumbed to the bullying of autocratic Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan, his demands for EU money, and his threats to allow refugees and migrants to freely pass through Turkey into European territory. Turkey is the West’s favored son in the region (and increasingly Russia’s as well), and seemingly can do no wrong.

As for NATO, this author’s experience at NATO headquarters during an academic visit in 2013 sums up its arrogance and Greece’s second-class standing within the “alliance.” In a roundtable meeting with then-U.S. ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder, and in response to an audience question regarding which countries were candidates for NATO membership, he asked whether anybody in the room was of Greek descent. When I raised my hand, he arrogantly retorted that because I was present, he’d make a reference to the “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” instead of simply “Macedonia” — referencing Greece’s longstanding dispute with its northern neighbor over its usage and historical appropriation of the name “Macedonia.”

Greece’s geopolitical position and threats existed prior to eurozone and EU and NATO membership. Today, with membership in these institutions, these threats continue to exist. And yet the perception that Greece would be “destroyed,” not just economically but militarily, the moment it leaves the eurozone or EU, still persists.

Grexit a first step, not a cure-all

Credit: SOOC
Returning to a domestic currency isn’t a panacea or a cure-all. The right policies, and perhaps more importantly, the right attitudes must be in place. Corruption must be rooted out. The judicial system must be reformed and must work for its citizens for perhaps the first time in Greece’s modern history. Learned helplessness and dependency must be overcome. And the various banes of austerity, privatizations, and high taxation are all just as possible with your own currency as with the euro. To wit, privatizations in Greece began in earnest in the early 1990s, a decade before joining the eurozone.
Nevertheless, the debate must be opened. As evidenced by Varoufakis himself, even the staunchest pro-EU, pro-euro supporter would be foolish not to have a plan for a transition in place, for any number of scenarios that might make an exit inevitable. Even if ironically, Varoufakis himself excluded this “Plan B” from negotiations when he served as finance minister of Greece. Yet these plans have been systematically excluded from the public discourse in Greece and internationally, and have never been used as a negotiating tool by successive governments. It’s time this discussion was introduced into the public debate.
Top photo | Members of left wing parties shout slogans behind a burning European Union flag during an anti-EU protest in the northern Greek port city of Thessaloniki. (AP/Giannis Papanikos)
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Greece Could Leave The EU: Why The Grexit Option Deserves Consideration...


Greece Could Leave The EU: Why The Grexit Option Deserves Consideration
With the Greek psyche itself the victim of a relentless shaming campaign, the idea of Greece “going it alone” begins to seem outlandish and quixotic. It is not. But it is as much tied to a revival of spirit and self-esteem as to the nuts and bolts of economic transformation.

by Michael Nevradakis
Eight years into the deepest economic depression that an industrialized country has ever experienced, we are now being told that Greece is a “success story.” Having accepted the “bitter medicine” prescribed by the “troika”—the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund—the storyline today is that Greece is on the road to recovery, firmly within the European Union and the eurozone.

This narrative was recently echoed by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras in his annual speech at the Thessaloniki Trade Fair, Greece’s equivalent to the State of the Union address. In this speech, Tsipras triumphantly declared that talk of “Grexit”—or a Greek departure from the eurozone and the EU—has been replaced by that of “Grinvest.”

Within such a context, there is seemingly no room for discussions about whether it is in Greece’s best interest, even after so many years of implementing the troika’s austerity diktats, to consider a departure from the eurozone and the EU. Indeed, the narrative is that the people of Greece overwhelmingly have never supported the prospect of “Grexit.”




All throughout the economic crisis in Greece, it has been reported that polls have consistently shown clear majorities favoring the country’s “European trajectory” and rejecting the possibility of a departure from the eurozone and EU.

So the Greeks want the euro at all costs, even if it means more harsh austerity measures and cuts to wages, pensions and social services. Or so we are told. These claims would be believable if they were the product of robust public debate and deliberation on the respective pros and cons of remaining within the “European family” or departing. But in Greece, and in most of the global mainstream media, there is no such debate and never has been.

Instead, what has taken place in Greece during the economic crisis has been the complete elimination from public debate of opponents of the prevalent economic and political doctrines. Those who oppose the eurozone, the EU, or simply the austerity measures, are stamped with the “scarlet letter” of being “nationalists,” “xenophobes,” or “fascists.” Such rhetoric became even more polarized following the Brexit referendum result. The Brexit result and the rise of “populism” have themselves been demonized, while poll results that contradict the mainstream narrative are habitually buried by the supposedly “objective” major media outlets.

Following the first installment of this series –in which the less-than-democratic roots of the EU, the zeal with which the EU is lionized by the global media today, the EU’s present-day democratic deficit and hypocrisy, and the attempts to discredit opponents of the EU and neoliberalism were analyzed–this piece will focus on what has long been the “elephant in the room” in Europe: the possibility of departure from the eurozone and from the EU, and why it must, at the very least, be debated on equal terms in economically suffering countries such as Greece.



Fostering fear and lies
French president Emmanuel Macron, right, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, left, and Vlasia Pavlopoulou wife of the Greek President toast their drinks at the Presidential Palace in Athens, Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017. Standing at a Greek site where democracy was conceived, French President Emmanuel Macron called on members of the European Union to reboot the 60-year-old bloc with sweeping political reforms or risk a "slow disintegration. (AP/Charalambos Gikas)
French president Emmanuel Macron, right, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, left, and Vlasia Pavlopoulou wife of the Greek President toast their drinks at the Presidential Palace in Athens, Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017. Standing at a Greek site where democracy was conceived, French President Emmanuel Macron called on members of the European Union to reboot the 60-year-old bloc with sweeping political reforms or risk a “slow disintegration. (AP/Charalambos Gikas)
Throughout the crisis, the austerity measures that have been imposed on Greece, the arguments in favor of the necessity of remaining “in Europe,” the mythos surrounding the “European dream,” and the horror that would result from “Grexit” have been propped up by a series of lies and scare tactics that have been repeatedly propagated by politicians and media outlets alike.

This has fostered a form of learned helplessness in Greece, a belief that the country is incapable of surviving outside the eurozone and EU and therefore must remain, even if the preconditions for doing so are harsh.

One such myth pertains to the idea that Greece “doesn’t produce anything” and is therefore reliant on imports. These imports must, of course, be paid for with hard currency; therefore, the conventional line of thinking suggests that Greece would be unable to import vital necessities with its own “soft” currency.

Case in point: a 2012 Eurobarometer survey found that 94 percent of Greeks were concerned about national food security, the highest level in the EU. In addition, Greece was the only EU member-state where a majority (61 percent) expressed concern with national food production. Moreover, 79 percent of Greeks expressed the belief that Greece does not produce enough food to meet domestic needs. Again, this was the highest percentage recorded in the EU.

The claim that Greece doesn’t produce anything and is not nutritionally self-sufficient is constantly repeated by the media and used to justify remaining in the common market, but is it true? As of 2010, the most recent year for which complete statistics seem to be available, Greece met, exceeded, or came close to meeting domestic demand for staples such as eggs, meat and milk derived from sheep and goats, olive oil, several crops (including oranges, peaches, tomatoes, cucumbers, apricots, potatoes, and grapes), honey, whole grains, and poultry.

Furthermore, according to data from 2012, Greece is second worldwide in the production of sheep’s milk, third in olive and olive oil production, fourth in the production of pears, fifth in the production of peaches and nectarines, sixth in pistachio production, and in the top ten in goat’s milk, chestnuts, cantaloupes, cherries, and cotton. It is also just outside the top ten in the production of almonds, cottonseed, asparagus, figs, and other legumes. Greece is third in the world in the production of saffron and sixteenth in the world in the production of cheese products.

Outside of food production, Greece is a strong producer of such resources as aluminum and bauxite (first in Europe), magnesium (meeting 46 percent of Western Europe’s production), second in the world behind the United States in the production of smectite clay, and is the only European country with significant nickel deposits. Greece is also a significant producer of laterite and marble, as well as steel and cement.

Outside of production, Greece possesses one of the world’s largest shipping fleets, ranking second worldwide in total tonnage, while the Greek flag fleet and merchant fleet rank second in the EU and seventh globally. In addition, Greece is fourteenth in the world in tourist arrivals (but twenty-third in tourist revenue).

It is these three sectors — agriculture, shipping, and tourism — that have traditionally sustained the Greek economy, alongside domestic small businesses, which themselves have suffered during the crisis under the weight of decreased spending and increased taxation. Prior to the euro, the agricultural, shipping, and tourism sectors provided Greece with the hard currency with which it financed imports.

Related | Greece: A (Basket) Case Study In Savage Globalization

Indeed, it is membership in the EU that has led to a sharp decline in the domestic production of numerous staples in Greece. In 1961, twenty years before joining the EU, “impoverished” Greece produced 169,200 tons of figs, 6,374 tons of sesame, 52,000 tons of dry beans, 13,365 tons of chickpeas, and 19,246 tons of quince. In 2011, the respective figures were 9,400 tons of figs, 33 tons of sesame, 22,744 tons of dry beans, 2,200 tons of chickpeas, and 3,432 tons of quince.

In 1981, the year Greece joined the EU, production of fresh vegetables was at 123,298 tons, lemon production was at 216,874 tons, apple production was at 337,091 tons, almond production at 73,181 tons, tobacco production at 130,900 tons, tomato production at 1,884,600 tons, and potato production at 1,056,000 tons.

Thirty years later, the figures for each of these crops had sharply declined: 74,393 tons of fresh vegetables, 70,314 tons of lemons, 255,800 tons of apples, 29,800 tons of almonds, 20,287 tons of tobacco, 1,169,900 tons of tomatoes, and 757,820 tons of potatoes.

A major factor in this decline is the EU’s common agricultural policy, which sets production quotas for each country and each sector of production, and dictates to each country what to produce and which crop varieties to cultivate, what not to produce, where to export, where not to export, how much to export and at what price.

For example, until 2005 Greece’s sugar production sector was profitable and met a large part of domestic demand. In a 2006 deal with the EU, however, Greece agreed to reduce its domestic sugar production and increase imports. In 1980, the year before Greece ascended to the EU, pork meat production met 84 percent of domestic needs, while beef production met 66 percent of domestic demand. Those figures have declined to 38 and 13 percent, respectively.

The decline in beef production has also impacted the dairy sector. The EU’s influence is evident here as well: in 2000, Greece was fined 2.5 billion drachmas (over 7.3 million euros) for exceeding EU-imposed quotas for the production of cow’s milk.

And yet the myth persists: Greece “cannot survive” outside of the eurozone and EU. And while the lack of production—whether imagined or real—is one of the main arguments used by proponents of remaining in the EU, the lies do not stop there.



Greece wants to stay in the eurozone and EU — or does it?
A man walks past a graffiti made by street artist N_Grams that read ''NO'' in German but also ''YES, IN'' in Greek language in Athens, June 28, 2015. (AP/Petros Giannakouris)
A man walks past a graffiti made by street artist N_Grams that read ”NO” in German but also ”YES, IN” in Greek language in Athens, June 28, 2015. (AP/Petros Giannakouris)
One of the most prevalent and recurring myths to come out of crisis-stricken Greece is that despite the austerity measures and cuts that the Greek people have been faced with, the overwhelming majority wishes to remain in the EU “at all costs.”

This exact wording has been used in numerous public opinion polls, such as one published on July 5, 2015, the day of the Greek referendum on whether to accept or reject a new troika-backed austerity proposal. According to this poll, conducted by polling firm GPO on behalf of one of Greece’s most notoriously pro-austerity TV stations, Mega Channel, 74.1 percent of respondents wished to remain in the EU at all costs.

Is this really the case? It is worth considering that in Greece, there are no polling firms which conduct public opinion polls independently. Surveys are conducted on behalf of large media outlets which are, without exception, favorable to the policies of austerity and continued membership in the eurozone and the EU. The polling firms themselves also belong to similarly entrenched interests. The aforementioned GPO, for instance, was co-founded by construction and publishing magnate Christos Kalogritsas, who is said to still maintain a close friendship with GPO’s main shareholder, Takis Theodorikakos.

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Further limiting their independence, Greece’s major public opinion polling firms are all recipients of state funding. Between 2010-2013, Kapa Research received 3,126,900 euros, MRB received 877,423 euros, GPO received 395,003 euros, Metron Analysis received 273,574 euros, Marc received 82,650 euros, VPRC received 55,500 euros, and ALCO received 50,677 euros.

Despite this though, the question remains: are the polling results accurate? What has been evident throughout the crisis is that poll results have often been woefully inaccurate. For example, prior to the 2015 referendum, major public opinion polls showed “yes” and “no” in a statistical dead heat. In reality, over 61 percent of voters rejected the EU’s austerity proposal, even if this result was itself overturned by Greece’s subservient SYRIZA-led government, which itself seemingly wishes to keep Greece inside the eurozone and EU “at all costs.”

More evidence can be found from the results of the few relatively independent public opinion polls which have taken place in Greece in recent years. For example, in a pan-European survey conducted by the Gallup International polling firm in December 2014, 52 percent of Greeks favored a return to a domestic currency, while only 32 percent favored remaining in the eurozone. Notably, Gallup International’s respective 2016 end-of-year poll found less than overwhelming support in Greece for remaining in the EU: while 54 percent of respondents stated that in a hypothetical referendum they’d vote to remain, 46 percent would vote to leave.

Furthermore, a March 2015 poll by Bridging Europe—an upstart polling firm which has since openly and unabashedly supported SYRIZA—found that 53 percent of respondents favored a return to a domestic currency. Together, these results contradict polling results which claim that overwhelming majorities of Greeks wish to remain, and at all costs to boot. However, these poll results have never been reported by either the Greek or the international media.

What the mainstream public opinion survey results in Greece aim to accomplish is threefold. First, they seek to impact public opinion in Greece by making it seem like there is such an overwhelming majority in favor of continued EU and eurozone membership that resistance is futile—and the product of “fringe” elements of society. Secondly, it impacts the international media in their reporting on Greece and the crisis, as they regurgitate these poll results without question.

Third, it reinforces the pro-EU, pro-euro, pro-austerity politics enforced by Greece’s current and previous governments, and the respective pro-EU and pro-euro positions of the entirety of the political spectrum that is represented in parliament.



Varoufakis: more blatant lies and pro-EU propaganda
Former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis speaks during a parliamentary session in Athens, Friday, Aug. 14, 2015. (AP/Yannis Liakos)
Former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis speaks during a parliamentary session in Athens, Friday, Aug. 14, 2015. (AP/Yannis Liakos)
When concealing inconvenient public opinion survey results isn’t enough, more blatant lies are employed. A characteristic example comes from the statements made by former finance minister and “heroic” celebrity economist Yanis Varoufakis, who in an interview with ABC Radio in Australia in 2015 stated that even if Greece wanted to return to a domestic currency, its printing presses were destroyed in 2000 prior to joining the eurozone. In reality, Greece’s mint is still in operation in the Athens suburb of Holargos and prints euro banknotes today.

In the minds of many Greeks, the old drachma is also associated with crippling inflation and economic instability, a perspective which the major media outlets have done nothing to dispel. Listening to certain Greeks discussing the pre-2002 era, one would think that prior to the euro Greeks must have lived in caves, without electricity, automobiles, or running water—and that such days will swiftly return if Greece dares to depart from the common currency.

Particular fears are expressed about inflation. However, this ignores the fact that from the 1950s through the early 1970s, inflation in “impoverished” Greece hovered at or below 5 percent. In the late 1990s, as Greece prepared to meet Maastricht criteria to join the eurozone, inflation once again fell into the single digits. Throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, other southern European countries, such as Italy and Spain, also frequently attained double-digit inflation levels similar to those seen in Greece.

When all else fails, stereotypes and collective guilt are employed to great effect. Greece lied in order to enter the eurozone, we are told, and therefore is reaping its just rewards. But as was pointed out in the first installment of this series, other countries such as Spain and Italy performed similar accounting tricks, but no similar calls to “punish” these countries have been heard.

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What is heard though, by both the Greek and international media, is that the Greek people “lived beyond their means.” This viewpoint is consistent, whether you consult with the “leftist” Guardian, the right-wing Daily Telegraph, German finance minister-for-life Wolfgang Schäuble, or former EU economy commissioner Ollie Rehn. The head of the Eurogroup—the committee of eurozone finance ministers—and member of Holland’s Labour Party Jeroen Dijsselbloem stated earlier this year that Greeks spent their money on “drinks and women.” In turn, Dutch “eurosceptic” politician Geert Wilders claimed that Greeks spent their money “on souvlaki and ouzo.”

Never mind that Greece’s private sector debt has consistently ranked at the lowest levels among OECD countries and still does today. This has not stopped the Greek media and Greece’s politicians from repeating such claims, ascribing collective blame to the entire populace when it was a small cohort of politicians and crony capitalists who largely benefited from the public spending bonanza and augmentation of Greece’s public debt.

"Swindlers in the euro family:" A controversial cover has come back to haunt Germany's Focus magazine.
“Swindlers in the euro family:” The controversial cover of Germany’s Focus magazine.
Nevertheless, such statements are coupled with heavy doses of racism from Greece’s “European partners.” In 2010, the “reputable” German magazine Der Spiegel published, on its front cover, an image of the goddess Aphrodite, cloaked in a Greek flag, giving the finger to Europe, accompanied by the headline “Swindlers in the euro family.” Two studies, commissioned by the Hans Böckler Foundation and by the German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung, have found that German media coverage of Greece’s crisis has been rife with stereotypes, bias, and superficial reporting.

The Feb. 13, 2010 edition of the Wall Street Journal featured a parody of ancient Greek art—now well-concealed on the Internet—displaying an ancient god begging for change. The Telegraph has referred to the crisis in Greece as the “ouzo crisis” while referring to the suffering economies of southern Europe as “Club Med.”

One of the many end results of this constant barrage of disparagement and insults towards the Greek people is that they have become ingrained in the national psyche. A common refrain heard in Greece in reference to anything negative occurring within the country is that “this is who we are.” Greece lied and therefore it must be punished. Greeks lived beyond their means and are now getting their just dues. Greeks were corrupt and “ate it all together,” in the words of ex-politician Theodoros Pangalos, and therefore collectively must share the blame.

Herein lies a paradox: on the one hand, Greeks are consistently ranked as among the unhappiest people in the world. Greece ranked fourth in this year’s Bloomberg misery index, and has been found to be the unhappiest country in Europe by both the Eurobarometer survey and by Gallup International. In such a toxic environment, the prevailing policies of economic austerity, cuts, and privatization are therefore met with tacit acceptance.

Collective guilt has set in for Greece’s supposed sins, and these painful austerity measures—and the misery they bring—are considered an inevitable result of these “sins.” On the other hand, the actors in large part responsible for the austerity that has delivered such misery, such as the EU, continue to receive support from a significant percentage of the population.

As for those who dare to openly speak out against austerity and in opposition to the EU and the eurozone? They are swiftly labeled. A favorite retort in Greece concerns the supposed existence of a “conspiracy of the drachma” in which diaspora Greeks and wealthy Greeks who have moved their money offshore favor a return to the drachma. As this line of thinking goes, these individuals would then move their money back to Greece and take advantage of a sharply devalued local currency, getting wealthier in the process.

Other attacks are simpler, often branding opponents of the prevailing European order as “fascists,” “xenophobes,” “nationalists” and “populists”—the latter two, of course, being rather dirty words in the present-day context.

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When insults and labels don’t do the job, fear is effective. According to a European Commission adviser and as reported by Newsweek in 2015, Greece would promptly find itself out of oil and medical supplies once it leaves the eurozone and EU. In the lead-up to the 2015 referendum, both Greek and international media outlets, including the Washington Post—which later replaced the image on this article—circulated untrue and undated photos of supermarket shelves devoid of food. Greece’s Mega Channel broadcast images of senior citizens using ATMs in fear—images which actually were from South Africa.

Greek tabloid newspaper Press Star published a “heartbreaking” photo of an elderly man in tears while holding a solitary loaf of bread—even though the photo was actually from the aftermath of the Istanbul earthquake of 1999. The photo was shamelessly recycled one more time earlier this year, in the aftermath of an earthquake on the Greek island of Lesvos.


Another national TV broadcaster, Antenna TV, reported that in the 2015 referendum, Greeks were choosing between a future “as Europe” or “as Zimbabwe.” The same station, prior to the June 2012 parliamentary elections, circumvented a pre-election freeze on political broadcasts by airing, on the eve of the polls, a “documentary” on the (obviously adverse) impacts of “Grexit,” laughably insinuating that a SYRIZA victory would result in “Grexit.”

Never mind that Greek domestic production and industry have been decimated during the years of EU and eurozone membership. Never mind that the EU allowed for the debt of Greece’s national railway to be waived in order to facilitate its privatization—but refuses to allow the same for Greece’s national debt. Never mind that 92 percent of the “bailouts” (loans) Greece has received during the crisis have gone right back to its lenders. Never mind that even EU monies for major infrastructure projects often went right back to European contractors or consultants, in a process of crony capitalism described by former “economic hitman” John Perkins. Never mind that the austerity regime itself has been found to violate the fundamental human rights of the people of Greece. As the title of part one of this series suggested, for the Greek and international media and a substantial portion of the Greek populace, it is “EU über alles”—Europe or bust—even if Greece is the one that goes bust in the process.



The argument for leaving the eurozone and the EU
Pedestrians pass a poster depicting a map of Greece with the letter E being replaced by Euro symbols in Athens, Tuesday, May 2, 2017. (AP/Thanassis Stavrakis)
Pedestrians pass a poster depicting a map of Greece with the letter E being replaced by Euro symbols in Athens, Tuesday, May 2, 2017. (AP/Thanassis Stavrakis)
If we truly support and believe in open and robust public debate, then the discussion as to whether Greece (or any other EU member-state) will be better served by departing from the EU or eurozone must be a part of that dialogue. So far, however, it has largely been excluded from the public sphere and from anything resembling equal footing in public discourse—whether that discussion is occurring in the media, in academia, or in the political arena.

Even if one is not a proponent of leaving the eurozone or the EU, the fiscally and politically prudent thing to do would be to have a plan in place for such a possibility. If, for instance, there is a collapse of the Italian banking system—which is presently teetering on the edge—or some other large-scale economic disaster in the eurozone, it’s not outside the realm of possibility for a domino effect to impact the entirety of Europe, forcing out some eurozone member states or resulting in the collapse of the eurozone system itself.

If this sounds far-fetched, consider the following: there are several examples of currency unions breaking apart, such as that of the Austro-Hungarian empire, or more recently the cases of the breakup of the Czech-Slovak union or Latvia leaving what was essentially a currency union with Russia in 1992.

While not exactly like the eurozone today, in the 19th and early 20th century, the Latin Monetary Union and the Scandinavian Monetary Union attempted to create a currency peg across multiple countries—which also occurred more recently in the lead-up to the launch of the eurozone via the creation of the European Monetary Union. For different reasons, both monetary unions ended up dissolving, with member-states eliminating currency pegs between them.

More recently, the United Kingdom departed the EMU in 1992 amidst doom-and-gloom scenarios highly similar to those heard today about departing the eurozone. Instead, what followed was one of the strongest periods of economic growth in the UK’s history.

Further precedent exists in the well-known examples of Argentina, which repudiated the IMF’s austerity diktats and declared a stoppage of payments on its public debt in 1999. What followed was over a decade of economic growth which exceeded the global average, and indeed even the eventual repayment of much of its previous debt at new terms that it negotiated with most of its creditors.

Iceland, following its banking collapse in 2008 which was, proportionally, the largest collapse sustained by the banking sector in a developed country in history, enacted policies which were in direct opposition to those being recommended by the IMF. Banks were allowed to collapse, foreign creditors were initially not repaid, bankers were jailed. The economy soon boomed, with GDP growth exceeding EU and eurozone averages and Iceland’s GDP eventually eclipsing pre-collapse levels. Meanwhile, a devalued currency led to a tourism and export boom. Eventually, creditors were repaid as well.

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While Iceland and Argentina were not a part of a common currency bloc, their examples highlight how a nation can reject the austerity demands of institutions such as the IMF, can declare a stoppage of payments on its debt, roll back austerity, devalue its currency, and swiftly return to economic growth. Moreover, Argentina broke its 1:1 currency peg to the U.S. dollar — which, while not the equivalent to departing a currency union, had the result of restoring the Argentine government’s ability to enact monetary policy instead of being reliant on U.S. policy.

Therefore, even the most vociferous supporter of “remain” would be well advised to support the development of an exit plan in preparation for a worst-case scenario which may well emerge from outside the country’s borders. Unlike the “heroic” Yanis Varoufakis, who negotiated so fiercely as finance minister in 2015 that he openly stated he had no “plan B” and would not place “Grexit” on the table even as a negotiating tool, such a plan would be the most prudent option even for the most enthusiastically pro-EU regime.

The paragraphs which follow will outline why a country like Greece must consider leaving the eurozone and the EU, the various proposals which have been put forth as to how this could be accomplished, and how a departure could occur.



Why leave?
Protesting hospital staff sit in front of a wall that they built at the entrance of the Greek Finance Ministry with a banner depicting Greek Prime Minister Alexis Thipras , Deputy Health Minister Pavlos Polakis and Greek Finance Minister Euclid Tsakalotos wearing ties reading in Greek ''Ministry of broken promises" and " We drown in debt and bailouts" in central Athens. (AP/Petros Giannakouris)
Protesting hospital staff sit in front of a wall that they built at the entrance of the Greek Finance Ministry with a banner depicting Greek Prime Minister Alexis Thipras , Deputy Health Minister Pavlos Polakis and Greek Finance Minister Euclid Tsakalotos wearing ties reading in Greek ”Ministry of broken promises” and ” We drown in debt and bailouts” in central Athens, June 16, 2017. (AP/Petros Giannakouris)
The euro is essentially a debt instrument: According to economist and former central banker Spiros Lavdiotis, the European Central Bank does not lend directly to its members—i.e. the member states of the eurozone. It instead lends to the private sector, at interest. In turn, the private sector lends to states who seek to borrow money, at higher interest. This perpetuates the debt cycle, while the higher interest is often financed in the form of budget cuts or higher taxes.



Restoring monetary sovereignty – external devaluation instead of internal devaluation: What has taken place during the years of the economic crisis in Greece is essentially a process of “internal devaluation.” This means that the cost of labor in Greece—that is, wages, insurance contributions and the like—have been slashed, purportedly in an attempt to boost the country’s competitiveness.

Traditionally, however, many countries have employed a different remedy for responding to an economic downturn: external devaluation. Instead of cutting wages and pensions at home, the value of the national currency would be devalued, immediately making the country’s exports, services, and labor cheaper and more competitive on a global level, compared to other stronger currencies.

External devaluation also helped foster much-vaunted foreign investment (as the cost of investment would decrease) in economic sectors such as tourism, as the country proceeding with an external devaluation would automatically become cheaper for foreign visitors. With domestic wages, pensions, and social services unaffected, quality of life was largely not impacted by an external devaluation.

The main disadvantage with external devaluation is that the cost of imports rises. This, however, was traditionally offset in two ways: paying for imports with foreign hard currency reserves (which can indeed increase if foreign tourism and investment in the economy increases), and by increasing domestic production, where possible, to alleviate the need for imports. This promoted domestic industry and a policy of full employment.

But today, countries such as Greece are saddled with a hard currency that is overvalued for the needs of the domestic economy, and where there is no level of control on monetary policy. If this seems like a mere unfortunate consequence of the euro, think again: Roger Mundell, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and architect of the euro, foresaw precisely this eventuality.

In Mundell’s vision, as eurozone economies were squeezed with the first sign of an economic downturn, all of the traditional monetary policy tools would be unavailable in their policy-making toolkit. Unable to devalue the currency or to increase deficit spending due to EU rules, governments would be left with one choice: austerity. Cut wages, cut pensions, slash social services to the bone. It’s a neoliberal wet dream—and it is the European “dream” today.



Escaping stifling EU fiscal rules: Currently, EU member-states must abide to strict EU fiscal rules as part of its Stability and Growth Pact. The main rules are that total government debt must not be more than 60 percent of GDP, and government deficits must not exceed 3 percent of GDP.

At face value, this sounds reasonable and prudent. However, the problem with these rules is that they eliminate many of the traditional tools that were available in the fiscal policy toolkit during times of economic recession. Deficit spending, for instance, has enabled many sputtering economies to get back on track, as cash re-enters the economy, encouraging consumer and business spending and private lending. Limiting this ability handicaps countries which are stuck in a recession.

Indeed, one of the primary ideas behind such rules is, quite cynically, to reduce the political cost of what would otherwise be unpopular policies: cuts to social services and pensions and the like.

A man stands in front of a banner during an anti-austerity rally by workers in the health sector outside the Labour ministry in Athens, March 2, 2017. Monitors from Greece's European Union creditors and the International Monetary Fund re-launched talks in Athens on Tuesday on the country's stumbling bailout program. The banner reads : "Medical Association of Athens, We demand the immediate withdraw of the pension bill". (AP/Yorgos Karahalis)
A man stands in front of a banner during an anti-austerity rally by workers in the health sector outside the Labour ministry in Athens, March 2, 2017. The banner reads : “Medical Association of Athens, We demand the immediate withdraw of the pension bill”. (AP/Yorgos Karahalis)
It should be noted here that leaving the eurozone or even the EU does not mean an automatic green light to act recklessly. But it will afford a country like Greece the freedom to take control of its fiscal and economic policy. Notably, for Greece, the EU has determined that the aforementioned strict rules do not go far enough. Greece’s current “leftist” SYRIZA-led government, entirely subservient to Brussels and Berlin, agreed earlier this year to achieve a primary budget surplus of 3.5 percent annually each year through 2023, and primary budget surpluses of 2 percent annually through 2060.

This certainly contradicts Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ current rhetoric regarding the official end of the crisis coming sometime in 2018. A primary budget surplus means that the state spends less than it takes in. For a country with a stagnant or shrinking GDP such as Greece, this means spending an ever-shrinking amount of money. And as government revenues dry up, the surplus target is met by further cutting spending, creating a perpetual austerity death spiral. As of now, this is the economic future Greece faces, no matter what Tsipras, the EU, or the media claim.



Increased competitiveness on the global markets: Free of EU fiscal and monetary shackles, Greece will be free to enact its own policy, including future devaluations of its newly-restored domestic currency (more on devaluation in part three of this series).

When a country such as Greece is ready to take this step and devalue its domestic currency, it will be able to better compete globally in its three cornerstone economic sectors: tourism, agriculture, and shipping. Greece will be a less expensive destination for foreign tourists, while Greek agricultural products and Greek services will be comparatively less expensive. And this will take place via a process of external devaluation, rather than cutting domestic wages and reducing the quality of life.

Greece has an educated and multilingual workforce, as well as lots of untapped or deprecated (due to EU) agricultural potential. Tourism, while increasing in raw numbers, has a lot of potential for growth, especially since average spending per visitor is far less than other countries.

An increase in foreign trade, exports, and tourism will, in turn, ensure that Greece will maintain the necessary foreign hard currency reserves with which it will import vital goods that it cannot produce domestically. This is how the Greek economy operated prior to entering the eurozone in 2002, and it is how even the poorest of states are able to import oil, automobiles, medicine, or other necessities.



Rolling back austerity: Every sector of the Greek economy has been impacted by the austerity measures that have been imposed by Greece’s lenders in the troika since 2010.

Free of a requirement to sustain a primary budget surplus, Greece would have the ability to increase spending in vital social sectors such as healthcare and education, to at least partially restore pensions and salaries that have been repeatedly slashed, and to cut taxes, such as the heating oil tax which has resulted in most Greek households not being able to afford to heat their homes in the winter. Other cuts could be applied to the value-added tax (VAT), which even for many staple items is a hefty 24 percent, as well as high business taxes that are choking the life out of Greece’s traditional economic base of small businesses.

Even without funding coming from the EU, the ability to increase spending could also allow the state to jump-start infrastructure projects or to continue existing public works. Measures could also be financed to reverse the country’s “brain drain” and to attract some of the 600,000 Greeks who have emigrated, back to Greece.



Protecting and promoting industry: Free of the requirements of participating in the European common market, a country like Greece will be less exposed to unequal or unfair competition from industrial powerhouses such as Germany, which has flooded domestic markets with cheap imports, while domestic industries have been shuttered or bought out.

Furthermore, liberated from the requirement of enforcing production quotas under such policy frameworks as the EU’s common agricultural policy, Greece will be able to enact measures to return agricultural production to its much higher pre-EU levels, thereby alleviating many of the concerns regarding the country’s self-sufficiency and “dependence” on Europe for its survival.



Think people don’t want it? Think again: As was shown earlier, public opinion poll results which claim that overwhelming majorities of Greeks wish to remain in the eurozone and EU at all costs are likely “fake news”—meant to influence public opinion and marginalize opposition. What independent polls have indicated is that, at the very least, a departure from the EU and, in particular, the eurozone will not be nearly as unpopular as claimed—and may perhaps even enjoy the support of a small majority.



Leaving the “Hotel California”?
Yanis Varoufakis has famously uttered that the EU (and by extension, the eurozone) are like the Hotel California: you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. It’s one thing, of course, to understand why a country like Greece—and its economy—may be at a disadvantage within the eurozone and the EU. It’s another thing, however, to actually leave these institutions.

In the next and final installment of this piece, it is the very process of leaving that will be analyzed. Contrary to a commonly-expressed sentiment that no coherent plan for a country to depart from the eurozone has ever been presented, the third and final part of this series will present some of the proposals that have been developed by economists and scholars for an orderly departure from the eurozone–and how some of the challenges and obstacles, which will inevitably be faced, may be overcome.

Top photo | Protesters hold a banner during a rally in Athens, Thursday, Dec. 8, 2016. A nationwide 24-hour general strike called by unions against austerity measures disrupted public services across Greece, while thousands marched in protest in central Athens. (AP/Yorgos Karahalis)