Sunday 2 March 2008

A reality-based response to Napoleon Linardatos’ article: Modern Greece: Decadence Unbound

It’s difficult to understand what to make by Napoleon Linardatos’ article: Modern Greece: Decadence Unbound. It’s a mishmash of contrary thinking and nostalgia for an idealized, fictional past, which is logically incoherent and at odds with the reality in Greece, not to mention the European Union.

I note, for instance, his statement that

The Athens underground was supposed to solve the city’s traffic problems, the Olympic Games were supposed to revitalize tourism, and the Egnatia Motorway is supposed to make Greece the economic tiger of the region.

Actually, the Athens underground was never supposed to solve Athenian traffic problems, but it has been very successful in alleviating them, and contributing to a solution. Passenger traffic currently far above the business plan projections, and passenger satisfaction at record highs. The service has opened up new horizons for people living in the northern and southern suburbs, where previous access to public transport was very limited. Traffic problems continue, but this is as much due to the fact that over 300,000 new cars are registered in the Attica region each year.

In any case, what does Mr. Linardatos suggest? Eliminate the Metro? It’s doing far better by any standards – customer satisfaction, delivered trips, passenger traffic and income – than any equivalent metro in a private-sector heaven such as the UK, where the rail and Underground privatisations have become a model of how not to implement public-private partnerships, and where the concept of good service is a distant dream.

The Olympic Games have certainly contributed to a tourism revitalisation. The centre of Athens and other cities has been renovated and changed. New sports and administrative facilities exist which did not exist before, the majority of which have now been leased or tendered to the private sector, and are bringing in income. The Games have contributed to a new self-confidence on the part of many Greek people, and certainly among Greek companies. There’s been a significant increase in tourism arrivals, particularly from “new” markets such as Asia and America. Hotels in Athens, Thessaloniki and a number of other destinations have been renovated and have higher occupancy. The tourism industry is hardly ideal, but on the other hand it’s certainly doing better than that of many other countries.

Finally, I’ve driven over and past sections of the Egnatia Motorway over the years. This road is an engineering marvel, particularly the sections that go from Igoumenitsa to Ioannina and further east over the mountains. The difficulty of the terrain and the need for seismic strengthening have led to a project which is really world class, and I don’t say this lightly. Yes, there have been delays and cost-overruns, but again, passenger and freight traffic is increasing, and the Egnatia Motorway is becoming the major transit link for fruits & vegetables and merchandise between Greece and Europe, as well as its neighbouring countries, notably Turkey.

The article is also full of misleading exagerations. For instance, one sentence states that European assistance has been to Greece what oil has been to the Middle East; the lifeline of poor government, mischievous habits and exasperated hopes. At another point, the article states that in some years, EU assistance equalled up to 3.7% of GDP. Let’s set aside the fact that the energy sector in Saudi Arabia, for instance, is far higher than 3.7% of GDP: according to Wikipedia, the petroleum sector accounts for “75% of budget revenues, 45% of GDP, and 90% of export earnings.”

In fact, EU assistance has totally changed the way the Greek government works. When Greece joined the EU in 1981, it was an economy with a high reliance on low-value-adding sectors such as agriculture, tourism and natural resources, recovering from a disastrous military dictatorship. Its industry was inefficient and protected by tarriffs and opaque benefits, its educational attainment levels low, and its society still very traditional in outlook. EU assistance has helped transform the country, not least of which by requiring a strategic approach towards managing national investment priorities. Yes, of course there have been trade-offs, but EU support has been irreplaceable in helping Greek enterprises, individuals and government authorities adapt to the needs of the emerging global economy.

Since 2000, Greece has supported the Lisbon Agenda, with all the benchmarks and open policy planning this entails. Since joining the EMU, its budgetary process has become much more disciplined and transparent, particularly since the Karamanlis government took power in 2004. There is no comparison between the quality of fiscal reporting in 2008 and 1988 or 1998 – I invite Mr. Linardatos to examine any Ministry of Finance budget and prove the contrary.

Of course, EU assistance could have been used more effectively, but this is not so much the fault of EU assistance as it is the state of government decision-making and patronage politics. To imply that EU assistance causes agricultural protests, teacher demands for higher pay, or demands of other interest groups is disingenuous, particularly since the EU promotes the very competitive framework that Mr. Linardatos purports to support, not least within its own borders.

Again, I wonder where the logical implications of this article take us. Should Greece reject EU spending? Should we aspire to return to the era of the Periclean city state, when slavery was common, women were disenfranchised, and political power was held by a narrow, property-owning elite? Has Mr. Linardatos read Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War or Herodotus’ Histories in their entirety, or only Pericles’ Funeral Oration? Has he heard of the slaughters of Corfu, Naxos, Sepeia, Heracleia, Tyre, Gaza or any of the many other such incidents in our long and bloody history?

Indeed, I am afraid that Mr. Linardatos may perhaps be spending too much time in the ivory tower of some Brussels think tank, excessively influenced by classical US conservatism, to see or understand what is happening in Greece today. Surely, things are not ideal, but as someone who has owned companies, lived and worked in the US, France, Germany and Greece, I am quite confident that the situation here is improving, and is in fact competitive in many more ways that we readily credit. We – as citizens and residents of this country – would do better to roll up our sleeves and see how we can contribute, rather than steep in a misplaced sense of bitter nostalgia and intellectual incoherence.


  1. Good to see someone making an effort to give a positive view of Greece. Until now, all I could find was negativity from ex-pats who seem to want to live in a 1950's era.

    I note that you did not attempt to discuss the authors comment on the dramatic decline in births between 1991 and 2001.

    This could be a problem, but I would suggest that the decline is mainly due to the 1990's being the era where men and women decided to get married later.

    And isn't it interesting that the author did not mention the demographic staistics between 2001 and the present?

    Savvas Tzionis

  2. I popped across Mr. Linardartos' excellent text "Modern Greece: Decadence Unbound" and as someone who knows Greece well (I have a holiday home on a plot that we own an island since 1997) can only confirm the truth and the accuracy of his analysis. I'm glad that a Greek is behind this text since, should I come with a similar analysis I'd risk being singled out or accused, as a foreigner, to being "jealous" on Greeks (in fact what I feel is pity).
    Linardatos is right: the amount of (mainly Northern) European money that Greece received is ridiculously astounding. From the billions paid by EU for highly expensive infrastructure such as bridges, motorways, tunnels etc. to trivial funding such as...the construction of a toilet at Mistra's outdoor museum (on a recent rip there I could read: "This works are funded by the EU").
    It seems that in 2012 the tap will finally be switched off and it comes as no surprise that Greece's economy started suddenly to nosedive this spring.
    I've got the feeling Greece is about to revert to its old self (cronyism, corruption, inflation-cum- stagnation, the stubborn addiction to such quasi-mediaeval practices as the "rousfeti" etc.). The recent huge Siemens scandal is typical to the trend towards the slow but sure disintegration of the Greek society.

  3. HAHAHAHAHAHA! Yeah Linardatos' article was so off base!