Deescalating Europe’s Politics of Resentment

ATHENS – A German television presenter recently broadcast an edited video of me, before I was Greece’s finance minister, giving his country the middle-finger salute. The fallout has shown the potential impact of an alleged gesture, especially in troubled times. Indeed, the kerfuffle sparked by the broadcast would not have happened before the 2008 financial crisis, which exposed the flaws in Europe’s monetary union and turned proud countries against one another.

When, in early 2010, Greece’s government could no longer service its debts to French, German, and Greek banks, I campaigned against its quest for an enormous new loan from Europe’s taxpayers to pay off those debts. I gave three reasons.

First, the new loans did not represent a bailout for Greece so much as a cynical transfer of private losses from the banks’ books onto the shoulders of Greece’s most vulnerable citizens. How many of Europe’s taxpayers, who have footed the bill for these loans, know that more than 90% of the €240 billion ($260 billion) that Greece borrowed went to financial institutions, not to the Greek state or its people?

Second, it was obvious that if Greece already could not repay its existing loans, the austerity conditions on which the “bailouts” were premised would crush Greek nominal incomes, making the national debt even less sustainable. When Greeks could no longer make payments on their mountainous debts, German and other European taxpayers would have to step in again. (Wealthy Greeks, of course, had already shifted their deposits to financial centers like Frankfurt and London.)