By voting through another four years’ worth of austerity measures, the Greek parliament has made a further step on the painful road that the eurozone promises leads to salvation. Yet to Greece’s citizens, every move seems to push the goal further into the distance, as each new revision of the austerity programme adds to the burden. Meanwhile, the country’s official creditors have little patience left.
The smallest coalition partner, Democratic Left, abstained from the package. Prime Minister Antonis Samaras still managed to pass it, but with a majority so threadbare that no one should feel confident that Greece will see the programme through. If support for it is tenuous inside parliament, it is non-existent in the streets. The slide into poverty of large parts of the population is stretching the social fabric to breaking point.
Yet Greece cannot avoid painful reforms: without the emergency loans from the eurozone and the International Monetary Fund, Athens would have had to cut its deficits even more savagely. The old system, where insiders lived off the fat of inefficiencies and debts imposed on outsiders, created an illusion of wealth always destined to end badly. But that makes the political handling of economic necessities all the more important.
The Greek political class has dismally failed to convince the wider public of the necessity of the painful measures required to bring about the social and economic transformation of the country. Without these steps, the Greek people – for all their aspiration to live in a modern European country – will be relegated to a Balkan backwater. Every reform is presented as an act of self-flagellation exacted by Europe’s paymasters. No party has given Greeks a possible vision of what an improved society can look like. As the Baltics show today, and Finland and Sweden did in the 1990s, radical economic change need not mean political abdication.
It is still possible to salvage the process – if Athens passes a budget on Sunday, and eurozone capitals approve an interest-rate cut and a new tranche of rescue loans. That would permit a recapitalisation of Greek banks and end the insult of a credit crunch on top of the injury of austerity. Next year Athens should be in primary balance. The postponement of any scheduled debt service for the foreseeable future should force the politicians to do their real job. This is to sell to the Greek people the idea of a future lived within their means, and stop pretending to defend them against heartless foreigners.
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