This is not the end of Greece’s misery – but it is a turning point

 

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So Greece is returning to the markets to borrow money. The investors who lost big on their bond holdings at the peak of the crisis four years ago will doubtless be more careful this time.

They will not want to experience another “haircut” – that innocuous expression describing the process whereby a country does  not pay back in full the money it has borrowed. But in financial markets there is always someone else prepared to take a risk. For banks that have been lent money at very low rates by the European Central Bank, this could make a nice little profit.

The return to the markets is symbolic too. It coincides with the possible return to economic growth, for the IMF thinks that GDP will increase by 0.6 per cent this year and 2.9 per cent next. That would be the fastest growth in the eurozone, aside from the Slovak Republic, Estonia and Latvia.

This great leap forward, if it happens, does come from a long way back. Greece has lost 25 per cent of its GDP. No other developed country has had as severe a recession.

As Dimitris Kourkoulas, its Deputy Minister for European Affairs,  pointed out: “We have been in seven consecutive years of recession. This has never happened in modern history. Even in the Great Depression of 1929, the American economy was in recession for just three years.”

The austerity forced on Greece has been extreme. Wages have been cut by an average of about 30 per cent. Some pensions have been cut by more. Unemployment is 27 per cent and would have been higher had not nearly 50,000 people a year left the country to find jobs. As a result there has been a wave of protests, and another general strike is scheduled for today.

Yet the democracy has  held together. What has happened in Greece is an extreme example of an economic experiment and to many people a surprising one.

If someone six years ago  as the economy started to head downwards had known that there would be seven years  of recession they would probably have expected that the populace would not accept it. The country would have come out of the euro, maybe even come out of the European Union if that was what the EU imposed on it. Democracy, some might have thought, would not survive.

But none of this has happened. There is anger at Germany, seen as the principal country imposing the austerity, and we may see more of that when Angela Merkel visits on Friday.

But, maybe because emigration has provided a safety valve, the anger has been contained and the hostility seems directed only at Germany, however unfairly, rather than at the EU more generally. The glue that holds together the EU seems to have stuck.

This is not the end of Greece’s misery. The debt to GDP ratio is still 175 per cent. The growth this year may not materialise. The country may need yet another bailout, as the German Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, admits.

Another global downturn would be a disaster and it will be well into the 2020s before the country recovers the standard of living it enjoyed in 2006. But it is a turning point of sorts and that deserves notice and, for the long-suffering Greek people, respect.

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