Greece is currently negotiating its exit from the various programmes and ‘bailouts’ with its European and international creditors. Greece is still too weak to stand on its own, financially. But the problem is not the debt level alone, which is manageable over the short term because debt servicing costs are relatively low. The main issue is how to make Greece a prospering economy within the euro, after an epic economic depression and in the face of waning public support for further reforms. The country’s growth prospects will ultimately determine how much of Greece’s debt will get repaid. Of course, European policy-makers and the IMF could continue to muddle through, and Greece is unable to force them to change course. But with a crucial presidential election looming in early 2015 that could end the current government’s term and bring Syriza, the far-left party, to power, it is time to take stock. The Greek programmes had severe shortcomings that proved costly, both in terms of economic damage and in terms of popular legitimacy. What is needed is Greek ownership of further reforms, and a focus on long-term economic growth.
Over the last four years of crisis, Greece has never been the only – or even the main – problem in the eurozone. As a result, the eurozone’s Greek programmes have served other purposes: they have set a tough example for other countries, so they did not seek European money lightly; they have sought to prevent contagion to other countries and hence blocked a restructuring of Greek debt for a long time; by being tough, they have tried to preserve the political support in Europe’s northern core that might be needed if the crisis were to spread; and they have aimed to spare the fragile European banking system from ‘another Lehman’ because the Europeans failed to fully restructure and recapitalise their banks after 2008. At the same time, Greek society and its political leadership were ill-prepared for the crisis. They have struggled to collaborate with the IMF and the Europeans, neither of which knew the country well, in order to design an effective and inclusive reform programme.
The resulting programmes focused on cutting back spending and on sparing European and Greek private bondholders from losses. These wrenching fiscal cut-backs, together with the threat of a euro exit, predictably led to an economic depression: Greek GDP is currently 20 per cent below its 2009 level and hardly growing; unemployment stands at 26 per cent, three quarters of which is long-term unemployment. Greek public finances do show a primary surplus, that is, a surplus before the costs of servicing public debt have been subtracted. But with crumbling nominal GDP, Greek public debt has risen to 176 per cent of GDP – despite a massive haircut on private bondholders in 2012. Importantly, the depression has eroded the initial public support for an overhaul of the Greek economy and governance.
Structural reforms, meanwhile, focused on issues that were seen as crucial for Greece’s public finances: tax collection, cuts to public sector jobs, salaries and welfare, and privatisation. Some of these reforms were certainly needed, and Greece has been one of the OECD’s busiest reformers, according to the Paris organisation’s ‘reform responsiveness indicator’.
But they did little to raise Greece’s growth potential: public bureaucracy, regulation, the judicial system and land rights issues continue to weigh heavily on the Greek economy.
- This recent EU Commission paper found that these constraints hold Greek exports back rather than uncompetitive prices or wages;
- Earlier this year, the OECD argued that Greek business could save €3.3 billion euro annually if the government removed unnecessary administrative burdens.
- The OECD also identified 555 regulations that severely hamper competition in the Greek economy.
Thus, the goal should be an overhaul of the way in which the political system and public bureaucracy works, which requires the support of the whole political spectrum, the public and the bureaucracy itself. It also requires action to reduce clientelism, which to a large extent is currently just on hold because there is very little public money to spend, or public jobs to fill. These crucial reforms could take a decade – some even a generation – rather than a couple of years to implement.
The current state of the programmes
Overall, therefore, the limited political capital in Greece was not spent on what was most critical for the long-term success of its economy, and hence, its public finances. As a consequence, Greece’s European creditors are less likely to be repaid, despite extending loan maturities and pretending that Greece could grow strongly and run politically unrealistic budget surpluses for years. The current round of negotiations between the Greek government and the ‘troika’ of the European Commission, the IMF and the ECB over the final review of the second adjustment programme could now be the breaking point.
The government cannot agree to the troika’s demands – a highly unpopular pension reform and making it easier to lay off workers collectively, among other things – in return for the final tranche of €7.2bn. In addition, the government would like to exit
the programme entirely before the elections, foregoing further IMF funds pencilled in for 2015 and 2016, a plan that the troika rejects. Finally, it would like to reduce the amount of intrusive monitoring and outside interference, despite needing at least a precautionary credit line from either the Europeans or the IMF before it can safely return to markets – credit lines that usually come with significant outside monitoring.
The reason is clear: politically, the government has its back against the wall, ahead of the presidential election in February 2015. Under the Greek constitution, the president is elected by the parliament, and the winning candidate will need a three-fifths majority (180 votes). At present, the government only has 154. The remaining 26 votes need to come from either the former coalition partner DIMAR or independent MPs, both of which loath to help the government. If the parliament fails to elect a new president, there will be snap elections, one year ahead of time. The current government coalition is highly unlikely to win: the far-left Syriza is leading in the polls with roughly 33 per cent, compared to the main governing party, New Democracy, at just 26 per cent and PASOK, the junior coalition partner, down to 6 per cent.
If Greece elects Syriza, the eurozone would be back in unchartered territory. Syriza has vowed to reverse cuts to public spending, wages and pensions, and to cancel or at least substantially renegotiate the agreement with the troika. Given that Greece cannot stand on its own, financially, unless it defaults unilaterally on its debt, both sides would be on a collision course. Greece would be destabilised and less likely to repay its debt. It also might spook investors beyond Greece. Of course, the ECB has made it clear that it intends to prevent contagion from spreading across the eurozone. But the collision with Greece might come at a bad time. If eurozone growth continues to disappoint, the ECB has to use further unconventional measures (thereby enraging the German public), and Italy challenges the current policy course more openly, a collision with Greece might add fuel to the fire.
What Europe should do
The widely respected mayor of Thessaloniki, Yiannis Boutaris, has recently called
for a national unity government of all the major parties. The EU should take the cue and try to find a long-term solution to Greece’s economic woes and its public debt that has broad support across the political spectrum; that ensures Greek ownership of further reforms; and that, based on local knowledge, removes the most binding constraints that currently hold Greek growth back.
One way would be to create a Greek reform council, consisting of Greek experts and representatives of Greek civil society, which would draft a long-term reform programme that the major parties in parliament – and the Greek public – can agree on. This programme should, at the same time, leave enough room for democratic decisions on policies. Europe and the IMF should continue to offer their technical help but mandate the Greek reform council with the monitoring of its new reform programme. In addition, a clear agreement should be made: that after a successful completion of the programme, Greek debt will be written down to a sustainable level. How much debt is sustainable is impossible to predict and depends on Greek growth, but it would be an effective incentive to make sure the reform council is a success. In the meantime, the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), Europe’s main bailout fund, should extend a precautionary credit line that the Greek government can draw on in case the markets are not willing to fund it at reasonable rates, conditional on the progress of the reforms.
Why would the current leader in the polls, Syriza, agree to such a Greek reform programme and reform council, just before the opportunity to come to power? Syriza’s problem is that it has to prove to the Greek public that it would not further destabilize the Greek economy. The threat of a euro exit scares the public. According to the latest Eurobarometer poll, 59 per cent of the Greek population still approve of the euro – which, strikingly, is above the eurozone average, and considerably above Italy’s 43 per cent. A genuinely Greek reform programme and a stable, long-term agreement with the rest of the eurozone and the IMF might give Syriza the credibility it needs. If early elections in the summer of 2015 were part of the agreement, Syriza’s chance of winning an outright majority might actually be higher than it is now.
What is more, Alexis Tsipras, Syriza’s leader, could use this Greek reform programme to discipline his party, which is a loose association of various socialist groups. At the same time, he would have enough leeway to push through some Syriza policies. Finally, Tsipras would preside over a light-touch monitoring of a genuinely Greek reform agenda, rather than having intrusive troika visits every couple of months; and he could avoid a stand-off with the EU that deep down he knows he cannot win without causing further short term damage to the Greek economy.
The eurozone would gain from a realistic long-term strategy for Greece that ensures a maximum amount of useful reform and economic growth. Such a long-term solution would also, despite writing down Greek debt, ensure that Greece’s official debt would get repaid as much as possible, and end the current charade of extend and pretend. If eurozone policy-makers continue to muddle through with Greece against a fading momentum for change, the Greek economy will remain half-reformed and continue to struggle inside the euro. Eventually, the political tension might spread beyond Greece.
Christian Odendahl is chief economist at the Centre for European Reform.