Saving Greece from itself

FEATURE: The Greeks must take some of the blame for the tragic state of their country. But there is hope for redemption...

by Jeremy Hazlehurst
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

The day before I flew to Athens I went to have my hair cut. I told the barber, a Kosovan, about the trip. He told me that when the Balkans imploded in the early 1990s his parents had moved to England, and his aunt had gone to Greece. Now, however, he told me that 'things are so bad that she is thinking about going back'. No disrespect to Kosovo, but - Kosovo! This tipped me over into pessimism about Greece. The outlook for the country had been dealt a further blow by the coining of the horrifying, mutant word 'Grexit' - an ugly term for an ugly thing.

This was before the second round of elections and, according to the British press, Greece was almost certainly going to exit the euro, probably leading to the collapse of the single currency and the EU itself. This all had a whiff of wishful thinking about it. Eurosceptic economists and politicians were cheering for the death of the euro. Talk of Europe-wide banking regulation that would damage the City of London was giving bankers the willies. It looked suspiciously like the Europhobics were trying to destabilise things. So when I was invited to go and talk to the members of SETE, a Greek organisation representing the tourism industry - Greece's biggest single sector - it seemed a good chance to do something many of the saloon-bar economists and armchair doom-mongers had failed to do and actually talk to Greek businesspeople.

And so I found myself in Athens. I half-expected chaos in the streets: phalanxes of masked riot police baton-charging hordes of Molotov cocktail-hurling anarchists, old ladies scuttling about with wheelbarrows full of euros, people eating each other. Surely, the place was going to Hades in a handcart. But apart from a little turbulence as we approached the airport - the pilot flew us over Delphi a couple of times, maybe hoping to get some tips from the Oracle - things seemed normal. The cloud was just cloud, not the smoke from burning tyres or billowing teargas. Motor scooters buzzed past with plastic crates of produce roped to the back, stray dogs lolled outside parliament, and there was lots of graffiti. 'All you need is love' never seemed less plausible.

Down in the old town, the tourist attractions were still only open from 1pm to 3pm on the second Tuesday of months with R in the name. A sign pointed towards The Bath House of The Winds. Perhaps it was an ancient jacuzzi.

Everybody knows that Greece is a basketcase, and everybody has a favourite fact to prove it. There are more Porsche Cayennes in the country than people paying taxes on an income above EUR50,000. Tuba players and hairdressers are able to retire on a full pension aged 50 because those jobs are considered dangerous. Agriculture is in such a poor state that Greece, with all that land and sunshine, now imports lemons. Less amusingly, 22% of people are unemployed, and 50% of those aged under 24. Suicides increased by over a fifth between 2009 and 2011. The list goes on, and only gets grimmer.

The question is, how are the Greeks going to get out of this mess? This is really two questions: 'how are they going to get out of the immediate mess?' and 'how are they going to get out of the deep, structural, endemic, long-term mess?' The answer to the first depends on whether the new Greek government can renegotiate the terms of its loans to everybody's satisfaction, how long the so-called troika of the ECB, IMF and EC that is running Greece's finances keeps lending them money, and whether Spain and Italy implode. To answer the long-term question, you must understand what caused the debacle. According to the British press, the EU in general and the euro in particular are to blame. And there's no doubt that monetary union without fiscal union was a disastrous idea. Talk to Greeks and you'll hear grumbling about the 'political elite' who squandered the money, lied on their forms and cooked the books.

But the Greek people have to take some blame. The truth is that they are not very good at business. Of the money that was thrown at the country between 2000 and 2008, just 3% was invested; the rest was spent. Which explains why, as you duck down the lanes around The Bath House of The Winds, you have to keep jumping back onto the pavement as shiny German cars hurtle round blind corners. For a country that's bust, there's a lot of shiny German cars. The bad numbers go on. In 2007, Greek GDP per capita was 35% lower than in the US, largely because a Greek worker is 40% less productive than an American one. That's not through laziness; it's because the whole economic structure is inefficient.

Meltdown: a peaceful anti-austerity march in Thessalonika earlier this year ends in clashes with police

According to a report by the consultancy McKinsey, 30% of manufacturing jobs are in firms of nine employees or fewer - the figures for Italy and Germany are 15% and 5%. Such firms are 40% less efficient than firms of 250 people or more. Just 27% of manufacturing firms have over 250 employees; the number is twice as high in Germany. Why is this? 'Business in Greece is hindered by a cumbersome legal system,' says the report, 'which comprises a large number of laws, sometimes ambiguous, obsolete or contradictory ... and frequently revised.'

This is all indicative of a cultural problem. 'Other European countries have a social contract in which I pay taxes and you, the government, provide services,' George Papaconstantinou, the former Pasok finance minister, has said. 'We have a warped social contract in which I vote for you and you promise to hire my kids in the public sector and don't make me pay taxes.'

Greece needs a new business culture. So where will salvation come from? Tourism contributes between 16% and 20% of GDP. With all that sunshine and scenery, you'd think it would be easy to be good at tourism. But Greeks aren't. Amazingly, only 30% of the income from tourism comes from overseas visitors - the other 70% is domestic. The numbers in Portugal are almost exactly reversed. To be fair, the tourist industry knows it has to pull its socks up - which is why the bigwigs in the industry got together to form SETE (the Association of Greek Tourism Enterprises), an umbrella organisation of the country's 53,000 tourism businesses. You might ask why such a body had not existed before.

In a hotel meeting room in the old town of Plaka I met some of the association's members. It's headed by the silvery, twinkly Andreas Andreadis, who wanted to convince people who were thinking of booking holidays - those who had not been put off by TV news pictures resembling Les Miserables re-enacted by the cast of 2000AD - that there was no chance that the banks would run out of money. He was probably right. The ECB had just said that it would lend Greek banks another EUR18bn. Secondly, there was no need to worry that the country would go on strike, stranding you in an airport. As he said: 'There's no government to strike to.' It was all very reassuring (perhaps less so now there actually is a government).

SETE has big dreams. It wants to make Greece one of the world's top 10 tourism destinations by 2020 (it's 16th at the moment), to boost income from tourism by £50bn and add another million jobs in the sector. It plans to do this by rebranding the country and persuading the government to sweep away red tape. Bureaucracy is a big problem in Greece. According to McKinsey, 27 'tourism-related activities and responsibilities' are regulated by 13 different ministries. The tax system must be stabilised too. At the moment, it is notoriously complicated and changeable, making it hard for businesses to plan.

The recent doubling of the VAT rate on food served in restaurants to 24% led to business closures and job losses among waiters

So the tourism industry is doing its bit. But to succeed it will need to tap into a so far invisible Greek entrepreneurial spirit. It's notable that there is no Greek Silicon Valley, no Greek Canary Wharf, no Greek Dragons' Den. The country needs entrepreneurs. Where are they? Andreas Stefanidis, president of the Hellenic Association of Young Entrepreneurs of Athens, has been trying to foster entrepreneurialism since 2001. 'Greece has great potential,' he says, 'we have excellent universities, graduates are great and we have good researchers. But nobody has supported them to do something with their knowledge. The dream has been to go to university, to get two or three degrees, then, once they have a strong CV, to go and look for a job. They never think to go and set up their own business. Never.' Research has shown that Greece has the worst connection between education and business in the developed world.

Stefanidis thinks the big problem is a lack of ambition. 'We are not getting external investment coming in,' he says. He's right: foreign direct investment was just 4% of capital formation between 2000 and 2008; in northern Europe it was 25%. "We never saw the European market as one market of 500 million people,' he adds. 'We need that perspective.'

This is not helped by the lack of money for young businesses. Stefanidis says that there are no angel investors in Greece - 'none, zero'. A few years ago there were funds to support new businesses, but of 1,000 business plans submitted, just 66 were funded and only 10 were successful. Nowadays, investors look to buy established businesses rather than funding start-ups. There's also a lack of ambition among entrepreneurs. 'They are happy to start a restaurant or cafe, but that only helps the local economy; they have no vision larger than that. Market research for new businesses must be at least at European level,' he adds.

Greece has options. The McKinsey report suggests that it should go into the manufacture of generic pharmaceuticals; aquaculture (fish-farming); medical tourism; shipping and food export. Food is another area where Greece woefully underperforms. If you look at olive oil exports to the top 15 importing countries, Greece has 4% of the market, while Italy and Spain together have 96%. It should be relatively easy to improve.

But there's a big, wrinkly elephant in the room: the Grexit. It's odd after experiencing the British press's quivering excitement at the potential collapse of the single currency to see opinion polls showing that 80% of Greeks want to stay in - even the left-wing Syriza party. 'If we aren't in the euro, we are stuck with our neighbours, countries like Albania,' said one SETE businessman. 'It's cold out there. We want to look west, not east.' And the Germans don't want them to go back to the drachma, devalue it and then not pay back all that money.

That the Greek people are suffering is not in doubt. Free fruit is being handed out in Athens, and the medical insurance system is collapsing. But most people understand that pulling out of the euro would not help. 'We are two years into the course of treatment, why would we stop now? It would be madness,' said a hotelier. Another said that they couldn't leave because they had no paper to print drachmas on, but he winked afterwards so I think he was joking. Greece's future, everybody hopes, lies in the euro.

The pain is caused not by the euro per se, but the troika's incompetence, said one businessman, who accused it of 'behaving like an American CEO, measuring success in a time-frame of three months, when it should be looking at how to get Greece where it needs to be in 10 years'. For example, a recent rise in VAT on food in restaurants was designed to raise money quickly, but this inevitably led to restaurants closing and put waiting staff - many of them young people - out of work.

Those who think the euro will collapse say that it is an irrational, foolish, romantic creation. They point out that when the EU was deciding whether to allow Greece to join, the French reasoned that 'you cannot say no to the country of Plato'. JP Morgan recently released research showing that almost any bloc of countries would make a better economic union than the EU - the old countries of the Ottoman Empire, for example, or countries on the fifth parallel north of the Equator. That may be true, but the EU has something those other blocs don't: it wants to be a union. The European project is about more than having the same banknotes in Finland and Slovakia: it's about romance and solidarity. Emotion is what is holding the eurozone together.

Greece is in a pickle. The way out is tricky, but at least it's clear: stay in the euro and change. If the economics of the eurozone overwhelm the romance, then all bets are off. But if it holds together, Greece's future is in its own hands. As we flew out, we passed Delphi again. The Oracle still wasn't giving anything away.

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