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The Tolling Bell

Beware of Greeks bearing debts. 

Europe is so being warned by the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who insists that the new left-wing Greek government fulfil its repayment obligations in full.

 “She’s got some gall,” the righteous citizens of Athens might be heard spluttering into their ouzo, interpreting Merkel’s obduracy as a typical threat from the arrogant barbarians from northern climes.  “We’ve just elected a government that promised to shed the German yoke, so Frau Merkel can take a running jump into the Rhine.” 

Are we to sympathise with them?

I think not, and without wishing to see Frau Merkel joining the barges on that mighty waterway.   

Somewhat against my instincts – which tend to veer automatically to the downtrodden and oppressed, and no doubt on the basis of reasoning that may not be less than intellectually watertight – I find myself agreeing with Frau Merkel.  Not because I admire the rigid Teutonic rectitude with which she expresses her views, but because in any language a deal is a deal. 

Greece was grateful enough to borrow the money; it should be prepared to pay it back, if not in gratitude then at least in the interests of self preservation.  It would be stupid to poison a well from which more water may have to be drawn. 

Any loan is made on the understanding that it will be repaid at an agreed rate of interest.  It is the foundation, rightly or wrongly, of the world market economy.  We repay our household debts on that basis, mindful of the potentially uncomfortable consequences if we do not.  And we rather resent those irresponsible fellow citizens who break the rules, thereby making life more awkward and expensive for the rest of us. 

Feeling sorry for the Greeks, whose economy and budget are even more ruinous than their glorious ancient monuments, is as pointless and misguided as the Merkel crusade to turn resolutely fun-loving Greeks into relentlessly hard-working Germans – something that even relentlessly hard-working Germans are beginning to understand, if not with hearty approval. 

I have no idea what Greece should do to drag itself out of the economic mire.  An insistence on imposing, more importantly collecting, taxes might be a good place to start.  A second would be rooting out the corrupt practices that pervade all levels of a bloated government bureaucracy.  Greeks do not have to become Germans in order to become honest.

But honesty also means not defaulting on debts, either as a first or even a last resort.

Greece could start, and perhaps will, by leaving the euro-zone, if not Europe. Britain, after all, remains a member of the Union without ever having joined the euro.  Such a plan could surely work, without causing serious collateral market damage, if accomplished in an orderly manner and under an agreed scheme, one that would include currency devaluation. 

As it is now, the country plainly does not belong in a club in which the bar of membership rules has been set impossibly high.  As an analogy, a London bus driver would not be able to join the Atheneum even if he wished to.  One day, perhaps, when British society reaches an egalitarian state of Nirvana, but not any time soon.

Frau Merkel fears the consequences of a Greek departure, and with good reason: Spain, Italy and Portugal would surely follow Greece to the exit door, sounding the death-knell for the euro experiment.  But the bell has been tolling for the euro since its very inception.  It will continue to toll mournfully, and tiresomely, until common sense finally prevails.

Mr. Farage and Mme. Pen would rejoice, of course, but forget them and their self-indulgent xenophobic ravings.  A united Europe can and must survive, with Britain and France inside it, perhaps even Greece, but not on the basis of an artificial financial construct sustainable only at the expense of huge and prospectively dangerous social upheavals.

The Greeks have to sort out their own problems, and Frau Merkel has to help them, and every other troubled member of the club.

I’m sure she knows that.  She just can’t afford to come out and say so.

But until she does, the tolling will continue, becoming ever more ear-splitting.

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