Greece could get kicked out of the European Union soon. They can’t pay their bills. They’ll get canned, get the hook, get the pink slip, the old heave-ho, told to clean out their desks, get their coats, head for the door and don’t forget to close it on your way out.
Can you imagine? What if you woke up one morning to find that President Obama kicked out New Jersey? New Jersey’s gone. Its own country. The Caliphate of New Jersey. And the 50 states are now 49. The State Police would be collecting the tolls at the Lincoln Tunnel and the George Washington Bridge. It would be in some weird purple currency.
I find the idea of Greece getting the boot an astonishing possibility. It was just 20 years ago that all these places were their own countries squabbling with one another. This seemed like such a good thing, bringing them all together, a no-brainer.
What about our gold star? the Greeks will ask. There are 12 gold stars forming a circle on the blue background of the flag of the EU. Each star represents a founding member of the EU. We’ve got the original colonies, they’ve got the original nations. And Greece was one of them. Just leave it where it is, the EU will tell them, and somebody will get a ladder and take it down in the next few days. Before you go, write down your forwarding address. Here’s a pad and pencil. The Greeks will leave sobbing. They are an emotional people.
But what else can they do? They’ve gotten themselves into this trouble. It’s their own damn fault. One year ago, they were told the government was just spending, spending and spending and the taxes they were collecting were low, low, low—and it wasn’t working. This cannot continue, an official from the EU said. To be nice, we’ll lend you the scratch this one last time but then that’s it. You’ll have to spend only what you take in. Show us a budget. Show us how you are going to do that.
I recall reading about the numbers. The average wages of Greek workers had risen from $16,000 a person before Greece joined the EU to $34,000 a person after they joined the EU. A huge number of people, one in six, has a government job.
“Portugal lives on $16,000 a person,” the EU official said. “Bulgaria lives on $15,000 a person. These are responsible members of the EU considering the size of their economies. Greece’s economy is about that size. You have to pay people less. Let some people go.”
The Greeks will tell you anything, anything you want to know. You ask somebody for directions in Athens and they give you directions even if they don’t know the directions. Same with the taxi drivers. They are just so polite and eager to please. Just get in, we’ll figure it out. So Greece promised yes, they would cut back, they’d pay everybody less, they’d lay people off and they’d present a budget. And so they did present a budget, but then they just kept on doing what they did before.
“This is the end,” the EU said last week. “You have to mid-October.”
In mid-October, loans from the World Bank come due and Greece will go bankrupt. And they’ll be OUT! There’s the door! Out! Out! Out!
Well, it won’t be the end of the world, one sympathetic EU official told them last week. You’ll reorganize. You’ll get your head on straight. We’re just helping you along. The Greek cabinet met last week. “We’re too big to fail,” one of the cabinet members said, remembering something he’d heard a Wall Street banker say. “We go down, everybody goes down.” But people were not so sure. A big bank is a big bank. There’s something to that. But a country is just a country. It’s one thing for the banks to stop sloshing the money around because they’d lost confidence in one another. It’s quite another for an EU country not to pay its bills.
We’ll kick you out but we won’t leave you without a drachma, your old currency, the official said. You can get those drachma presses rolling again. You’ve still got drachmas kicking around in desk drawers and pants pockets from before. Gather them up. Lots of EU wannabes have perfectly good old currency. Even EU “candidates”—officially in the union, but still trying to get their currency straight— are living on the Croatian kuna, or Turkish lira, or the Albanian lek. They dream about the Euro. They’ll get there. They’ll get there. And you can get back to it too. If we vote you back in.
And another thing. We’ll peg the drachma to the Euro. Yes we will. You’ll need a bushel basket of drachmas to make a Euro, of course. But you’ll still have your morning coffee and baklava pegged to the drachma so it will seem to cost the same. On the other hand, a new Mercedes will be out of reach—unless you have five zillion drachmas.
Poor Greece. Fewer cops on the beat, fewer firemen, fewer parks and museums open, fewer pensions for the pensioners, fewer hospital beds, fewer doctors, fewer government clerks, fewer traffic lights that work, fewer parades, fewer holidays, fewer BMWs, Porsches, Samsungs, Droids, Sonys, Game Boys and Learjets, but still plenty of baklava, gyros, tsipouro, saganaki, halva, kotopita, spanakopita, feta, yogurt, ouzo, chickpeas and olives, goats and sheep.
Geographically, you’ll still be sticking out down under the bottom of Europe like a cow’s udder. That will never change. You will be alone, though, fluttering in the wind. The Kingdom of Greece? The Republic of Greece? It will be up to you.