Europe’s inevitable Greek divorce

By Felix Salmon
February 22, 2012
on Canadian TV yesterday, laying out my genius solution to the Greek crisis: Canadians.

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I had a little bit of fun amidst all the seriousness on Canadian TV yesterday, laying out my genius solution to the Greek crisis: Canadians. (My segment starts at about 19:20 in.) Essentially, Germany wants Greeks to become German: to stoically accept real wage deflation while working hard and paying their taxes in a good Protestant manner. Canadians are well-educated, productive, and very good at paying their taxes; what’s more, they’d probably like somewhere warmer to live, especially in the winter. So bring all the Canadians to Greece, where they could help turn the economy around, and leave Canada to the commodity companies and the Chinese property speculators. It’s basically the Davos to Greece idea, taken to its logical conclusion.

Underneath it all is the simple truth that economic growth is caused by people. Ever since the Eurozone was created, Europe has been quite clear about the fact that economic and monetary union can’t work without labor mobility. But sadly, the ability of Europeans to work in any EU country has meant an outflow of skilled professionals from Greece, when what it really needs is an inflow.

If you really want structural reform in Greece, a lot of that is going to have to come from new blood — northern European entrepreneurs and corporations setting up shop in Greece to take advantage of the large supply and low cost of labor there, as well as all the advantages of being both in the EU and in the Mediterranean. But that’s not going to happen so long as you read stories like this one, about how it took ten months to get permission to launch a website selling olive-oil-based products to the US market.

Antonopoulos and his partners spent hours collecting papers from tax offices, the Athens Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the municipal service where the company is based, the health inspector’s office, the fire department and banks. At the health department, they were told that all the shareholders of the company would have to provide chest X-rays, and, in the most surreal demand of all, stool samples.

Once they climbed the crazy mountain of Greek bureaucracy and reached the summit, they faced the quagmire of the bank, where the issue of how to confirm the credit card details of customers ended in the bank demanding that the entire website be in Greek only.

When politicians talk about “structural reform” in Greece, they mean cutting out a lot of this kind of red tape. But that takes time, which Greece doesn’t have. Besides, you need some kind of financial system to support new businesses, and Greece’s banks are barely lending at this point.

The really big picture here is that European monetary union is a marriage — and not a happy one, right now. In any marriage, if one partner falls on hard times, it’s incumbent upon the other to support them. If they can’t, or won’t, then divorce is surely in the cards. Similarly, if one partner doesn’t trust the other, then the marriage will not last long. The latest Greek bailout is being sold with the idea that Europe will support Greece indefinitely, and trusts Greece to do everything it’s promised. Neither passes the laugh test. And so, rather than moving to Greece to help rebuild its economy, the rest of Europe will ultimately split up with its noncontiguous partner. The only question is when.

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