Thursday, 6 December 2012

A Bad Numbers Week for Greece

Greece slipped further down the greasy statistical pole this week, an indication of losses both material and moral. Unemployment, poverty and perceptions of corruption all rose in estimates compiled by the Greek and European statistical services, and Transparency International.

Unemployment and poverty rise

Greek unemployment rose to 26 percent for the month of September, according to figures released on Thursday by the Hellenic Statistical Service (Elstat). The figure stood at 25.3 percent in August, and at 18.9 percent in September 2011.

In nominal figures, Elstat reports that 1.3 million people are unemployed, 3.4 million people are inactive and  3.7 million people are in work. This means that 3.7 million people are supporting 4.7 million people, but the ratio is in reality even less favourable, because approximately 800,000 of the 3.7 million work in the public sector and are paid through taxes. The original wealth generated through private sector wealth therefore sits on the shoulders of a mere 2.9 million people.

Employment peaked in 2008 at 4.65 million people, when only 371,000 were out of work.

Poverty also rose in figures released on Monday by Eurostat, the European Statistical Agency. Thirty one percent of Greeks, or 3.4 million people, were at the end of 2011 considered to be at risk of poverty or social exclusion. The blanket term covers three categories of deprivation as follows:

Greeks at risk of poverty or social exclusion* (all figures are % of population)

Persons at-riskof-poverty after social transfers 
Persons falling under at least one of the three
criteria (at risk of poverty or social exclusion) 
EU27 average

*Source: Eurostat

The highest proportions of people at risk of poverty or social exclusion were recorded in Bulgaria (49 percent) and the lowest in the Czech Republic (15 percent).

Greece has been in recession since the last quarter of 2008, and has lost over 18 percent of its economy according to a report by its creditors. Its economy is set to shrink by seven percent this year, at least 4.5 percent next year, and stabilise in 2014.

Corruption Rises in Greek Eyes 

The perception of Greeks that their country is corrupt rose this year according to Transparency International’s latest figures, released on Wednesday. Its 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index places Greece 94th out of 173 countries surveyed, alongside Benin, Colombia, Djibouti, Moldova, Mongolia, India and Senegal. Greece is behind every one of its European Union partners including Eastern bloc nations (except Bulgaria) which have been EU members, market economies and democracies for far less time.

The CPI measures the extent to which people believe that corruption exists, not corruption itself. Greece placed 80th last year and has been falling in the index since 2005 (see table below).

“There are solutions,” said Kostas Bakouris, head of TI in Greece. He called for the post of a “national co-ordinator of bodies combating corruption” to be created, directly answerable to the prime minister.

Greece’s Corruption Perceptions Index Rankings (2001-2011)*

2011 Greece is 80th with a score of 3.4
2010 Greece is 78th, with a score of 3.5
2009 Greece is 71st, with a score of 3.8
2008 Greece is 57th with a score of 4.7
2007 Greece is 56th with a score of 4.6
2006 Greece 54th with a score of 4.4
2005 Greece is 47th with a score of 4.3
2004 Greece is 49th with a score of 4.3
2003 Greece is 50th with a score of 4.3
2002 Greece is 44th with a score of 4.2
2001 Greece is 42nd with a score of 4.2

*Source: Transparency International

For more on this topic see Greek Shame campaign Seeks to Banish Corruption.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

UN Official Deplores Migrant Detention in Greece

This article was published by Al Jazeera

Eleni, 9, is a Bulgarian Roma who has been in Greece for eight years. She roams the streets with her sister Zoi, 12 and brother Mario, 14. Their mother works as a nanny in Spain and their father works late hours as a DJ in Athens, so they are practically left to their own devices. Asked if they attend school, the quick-witted Eleni quips, "We go on Saturdays and Sundays."   (Photo by Anna Psaroudaki) 

Greece’s growing chain of detention camps for undocumented migrants came under strong criticism from the United Nations on Monday. Francois Crepeau, Special Rapporteur for the Human Rights of Migrants, said conditions in some of the camps were “shocking” and the detention of children and families “utterly unacceptable”.

“It’s difficult to see families, it’s difficult to see children, three or five years old behind bars,” Crepeau said.

The Rapporteur said migrants were often detained without proper heat, hygiene or legal representation. “They are not informed properly about their rights, about what is going to happen to them, about recourses. They don’t see lawyers, or the lawyers take the money and run.”

Recently Greece's police spokesman told Al Jazeera that the detention policy was partly undertaken for migrants’ own good. “In the camps a migrant has a certain level of comfort, regular meals, a lawyer and medical attention,” Christos Manouras said. Journalists are not allowed into camps to verify these claims.

The worst camp he saw was in the town of Vena, Crepeau said, where “28 people are crowded into a room [of about 35 square metres] with beds which are concrete slabs, filthy toilets and nothing to do and no light… No television, nothing to read, no information – these are not places where I would care to spend more than an hour.”

The Special Rapporteur delivered the remarks in Athens, at the end of a nine-day inspection that included meetings with government authorities. The inspection is part of a year-long study of external EU borders that has also taken him to Brussels, Italy, Tunisia and Turkey.

Greece adopted a detain-and-deport policy for undocumented migrants in March, three months before the conservative-led government came to power. Under the conservatives the policy has been intensified. Police stop migrants on the street to check their residence papers every day, and regular police sweep operations have rounded up migrants en masse.

“The Greek-Turkish border is the main entry point of irregular migration in the European Union. Estimations say that 85-90 percent of irregular migrations go through that point,” Crepeau said. Prime Minister Antonis Samaras has called the influx “an unarmed invasion”. Greece has made over 100,000 arrests of undocumented migrants a year between 2006 and 2011. Despite a negative birth rate, its population has grown by over a million people over the past two decades.

Until this year authorities gave undocumented migrants three months to leave the country of their own accord. But after five years of recession and a 25 percent unemployment rate, political pressure built up in favour of a more aggressive policy. At the beginning of the year over eighty percent of Greeks were polled as favouring detention or deportation for undocumented migrants. This year for the first time the far-right Golden Dawn party was elected to parliament, claiming seven percent of the vote largely on the basis of its anti-immigrant policy. Polls show it could claim twice that vote if elections happened today.

Despite the political pressure, Crepeau believes the Greek policy is ultimately untenable. “The policy is not viable either legally or practically,” he told Al Jazeera. “Legally you can only detain if the person is dangerous to herself or others, or if the person is at risk of not coming back for proceedings. These are the only two reasons for administrative detention. If you only have a policy of detaining everyone at all times it’s against international law and it’s against international human rights. It’s not legally viable.”

If anything, however, Greek policy seems to be moving in a more xenophobic direction. Legal amendments ratified this year criminalise illegal entry onto Greek soil, and make it possible for the government to detain undocumented migrants for up to 18 months. Last month, Samaras said it was one of his government’s top priorities to abolish a two year-old citizenship law that offers Greek nationality to the children of migrants who have been legally resident in Greece for at least five years. His interior minister recently said that he would introduce tougher requirements, such as compulsory attendance of the Greek national curriculum in school.

Greece’s radical left wing Syriza, the main opposition party in parliament, has called for full migrant access to health and education, and for turning detention camps into open reception centres.

Although he called for an end to “a policy of systematic detention of  all migrants,” Crepeau did not lay the blame on Greece’s door alone. He said the European Union had to collectively resolve the problem of undocumented migration, because EU member states have unrecognised labour market needs which attract migrants.”  

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Socialist Schism Could Weaken Government

Greece's beleaguered socialists suffered a new setback yesterday when one of their most high profile MPs declared himself an independent.

Andreas Loverdos on Monday proclaimed a new political movement, the Radical Movement for Social Democratic Alliance (Rikksy), but said he would continue to support the conservative-led coalition the socialist Pasok party is a member of. In a statement he indirectly criticised socialist party leader Evangelos Venizelos for allowing himself to be strong-armed by the conservatives. "The entrapment of [political] forces in one-party procedures... without correspondence to the people and to society must be avoided," he said. In aiming to unite the "European, reformist centre-left", his movement  puts itself in direct competition with the socialists.

Venizelos reacted with a statement that Pasok "will march ahead with the willing and able." Loverdos' move was all the more painful for Venizelos, because last spring the two had announced a pact to forge a common political path.

Pasok suffered the loss of six MPs on November 7, who were expelled for voting against a package of painful austerity measures amounting to 13.5bn euros. One more departed later. It is now down to 25 MPs from 33 after the June election.

The conservative-led government wields a total of 167 seats in the 300 seat legislature, but has shown signs of advanced ageing after just five months in power. Apart from the eight socialist defections it has also shed one conservative, while its smallest partner, the Democratic Left with 16 seats, did not stand with the government on its most controversial austerity bill. Loverdos could be a threat to Pasok if he were to lure away more MPs. That danger already exists in the form of the radical left opposition Syriza, which opposes Greece's austerity policy and is believed to be in secret negotiations with lawmakers from various factions.

The socialists' fortunes have gone from bad to worse since they ceded power to a technocrat interim prime minister last November. In back-to-back elections last May and June they took 13 percent and 12 percent of the popular vote, respectively, in a steep tumble from 44 percent in 2009. Many observers believe the party faces possible extinction. 

Bond Buyback To Wipe Out 90% of Greek Banks' Bond Value

Greece's Public Debt Management Agency yesterday announced that ten billion euros will be spent buying back Greek bonds at discount, amounting to the second haircut for Greek banks this year. The money will go towards 40 billion euros' worth of bonds, meaning a discount of 75 percent on average. If achieved, the size of the buyout is more than enough to cover Greek banks' entire bond holdings.

The bonds in Greek bank vaults have already been discounted by a similar rate in March, during a restructuring that shaved 107 billion euros off the value of bank holdings of Greek bonds globally. This means that Greek banks' bond holdings will undergo a cumulative discount of more than 90 percent.

The buyback money comes from the European Financial Stability Fund (EFSF), the temporary facility set up in 2010 to bail out overindebted eurozone governments. After the buyback, the EFSF will spend 23.8 billion euro recapitalising the Greek banking system. The buyback will also pave the way for the eurozone to spend 10.6bn euros financing the Greek budget this year and another 9.3bn euros in the first quarter of 2013.

Greek banks have suffered a quadruple disaster since the beginning of the crisis: their cash reserves have dwindled from about 240bn euros to 165bn as Greeks sent their money abroad or lived off savings; their non-performing loans have soared; the value of their main asset, Greek government bonds, has plummeted; and their share value has collapsed to about a quarter of its pre-crisis levels. They have been staying afloat by borrowing from their sole source of credit, the European Central Bank, but much of this cash has been sucked up by the government during periods when its rescue programme was frozen.

The banks' plight has been shared by the rest of Greek society as liquidity to households and enterprises has dried up. The refinancing, and a consolidation currently underway, is supposed to put an end to this financial desert. In an interim report on monetary policy yesterday, the Bank of Greece said these two factors will "strengthen the trust [towards Greek banks] of domestic depositors and international money markets" and "positively influence the flow of deposits and Greek banks' access to international money and capital markets." 

Monday, 3 December 2012

Further Tax Hikes Expected

A new type of theft: Copper water pipes have been ripped off the outside of a new apartment building on Iosif ton Rogon Str., in central Athens. A few streets away, on Zefxidos, planks had been taken from scaffolding erected outside a public school. Among the victims of the ever more desperate thieving are apparently unattended olive groves, whose trees can occasionally go missing. 

A new tax code to be unveiled this month contains tax increases for large portions of Greek society, according to information leaked to various Greek media.

One apparent idea is to introduce Greece's top tax rate of 45 percent to incomes of 26,000 euro a year, whereas it currently applies to incomes of 100,000 euro. Another is to tax self-employed professionals on all their income, abolishing the free pass on the first 5,000 euro of their income. Most controversial of all has been an apparent attempt to abolish tax rebates for children.

Pensioners and salaried employees, who have borne the brunt of tax increases and pay cuts over the four years of the crisis, would be offered a significant tax cut.

The New Athenian last week asked Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras whether the new code would contain incentives for taxpayers to buy debt. The answer was no.