Germany, Greece, and the conspiracy of the technocrats

By Felix Salmon
January 31, 2012
Der Spiegel has a long and meticulously reported piece on the state of affairs as it exists right now between Germany and Greece, naturally concentrating on attitudes within Germany. Meanwhile, Yanis Varoufakis has a much more Greek take on the same subject at CNN.

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Der Spiegel has a long and meticulously reported piece on the state of affairs as it exists right now between Germany and Greece, naturally concentrating on attitudes within Germany. Meanwhile, Yanis Varoufakis has a much more Greek take on the same subject at CNN. And by far the most striking thing, here, is how similar the two pieces are.

The German article is headlined “European Politicians in Denial as Greece Unravels”, while the Greek one plumps for “Why it’s too late to save Greece’s sovereignty”. They’re both saying the same thing: Germany has been treating Greece’s insolvency as though it were some kind of liquidity crisis, which can be solved by lending Greece more money. But of course that’s the worst possible thing you can do with an insolvent debtor: it only makes things worse rather than better.

Here’s Varoufakis:

German leaders, unwilling to confront their bankers and the fault lines developing throughout the eurozone, pretended to believe that the problem was Greece and that Greece could be “cured” by means of loans and austerity. At the same time, Greek leaders, unwilling to confront their electorate, pretended to believe that they could deliver the targets demanded by Germany.

This can be seen as a conspiracy of the technocrats: both sides deliberately agreeing to the impossible so that Europe would be dragged into ever-greater fiscal union. After all, the more money that Germany lends to Greece, the more control it’s going to demand, and the greater the gap between Greece’s promises and its reality, the more control it’s going to feel the need to concede.

But the problem is that the technocrats aren’t managing to bring the two countries’ respective populations along for the ride. The Spiegel article is full of various German politicians saying in no uncertain terms that more money is simply not forthcoming. And the Spiegel article has some very strong demonstrations of why Greece is going to need to devalue if it’s going to have any hope of growing:

In Mediterranean tourism, Greece has to compete with non-euro countries like Croatia, Tunisia, Morocco, Bulgaria and Turkey, which can offer their services at significantly lower prices. The per-hour wage in the hospitality industry was recently measured at €11.39 in Greece, as compared with only €8.49 in Portugal, €4 in Turkey and as little as €1.55 in Bulgaria.

Devaluation alone isn’t enough, of course; it has to be accompanied by a large number of defaults and insolvencies. As the Spiegel article notes, thousands of companies and banks could be forced to declare bankruptcy. But maybe that’s exactly what Greece needs. Bankruptcy is a cleansing process which gives the opportunity to start over.

The Eurocrats are petrified of a Greek insolvency because they know it risks spilling over into Portgual and the rest of the continent. Sovereign defaults tend to be contagious — look at Latin America in the 1980s. But since a default in Greece is inevitable at this point, best it get done sooner rather than later. The German press has worked this out; it remains to be seen how long Europe’s technocrats can remain in denial.

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