The last time I visited Greece, I was caught in the middle of a tear-gas charge by police in Thessaloniki – a remarkably unpleasant experience, if you have not tried it. My eyes were in screaming pain for an hour.
Protesters smashed up the shops on the main drag, broke the windows of my hotel, and torched a few cars.
So the latest four-day episode in Athens and other Greek cities comes as no great surprise. The Greeks are a feisty people. This is meant as a compliment – broadly speaking – just in case any Greek readers should take it the wrong way. Hitler was so impressed by Greek bravery that he accorded Greek soldiers full military honours, almost the sole example among captive nations in the East – or at least professed to do so at first.
That said, these riots are roughly what eurosceptics expected to see, at some point, at the periphery of the euro-zone as the slow-burn effects (excuse the pun) of Europe’s monetary union begin to corrode the democratic legitimacy of governments.
By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard
The Telegraph (UK)
Protesters throw stones at police in the Greek city of Thessaloniki
Note two stories in Kathimerini (English Edition)
“Athens riots spin totally out of control”
And an editorial: “Greece has gone up in flames and the concept of democracy and law and order has been eliminated”
Without wanting to rehearse all the pros and cons of euro membership yet again, or debate whether EMU is a “optimal currency area”, there is obviously a problem for countries like Greece that were let into EMU for political reasons before their economies had been reformed enough to cope with the rigours of euro life – over the long run.
In the case of Greece, of course, Athens was found guilty by Eurostat of committing “statistical achemy” to get into the system – ie, they lied about their deficits.
Be that as it may. Greece’s euro membership has now led to a warped economy. The current account deficit is 15pc of GDP, the eurozone’s highest by far. Indeed, the deficit ($53bn) is the sixth biggest in the world in absolute terms — quite a feat for a country of 11m people.
Year after year of high inflation has eroded the competitive base of the economy. This is an insidious and slow effect, and very hard to reverse. Tourists are slipping away to Turkey, or Croatia. It will take a long time to lure them back.
The underlying rot was disguised by the global credit bubble, and by the Greek property boom. It is now being laid bare.
Greece has a public debt of 93 per cent of GDP, well above the Maastricht limit. This did not matter in 2007 when bond spreads over German Bunds were around 26 basis points, meaning that investors were willing to treat all eurozone debt as more or less equivalent.