When it comes down to it, if they’re honest, the Germans will probably admit in private that there isn’t a hope in hell of Greece paying back its debt. They’ll also admit that the debt isn’t really the problem.
The real problem is that Angela’s hard line is beginning to take on the same golden calf standing in German politics as the commitment to restoring the national language is here. Except unlike us, the Germans tend to mean it.
We forget that for every Greek worker waving a sign saying “We are not a German colony” there’s a German worker happy to hold aloft a sign saying “Not a cent of my taxes, Angie!”, and unlike the Greeks, the Germans actually can remove her from office.
But what really matters to the Germans is the fear that firstly, the Greeks will immediately go back to their old ways of regarding taxation as being an interesting philosophical concept, and secondly, the Spanish, Irish, Portuguese and Italians will all suddenly stop self-flagellating, look at our trousers bunched around our ankles, and pull a collective “Now, hold on a minute!”
The trick then, is to find a way of cutting the Greeks some slack but doing it in such a way that the other problem countries do a Meatloaf: “I’ll do anything . . . but I won’t do THAT!”
A bit of imagination will be required. It’s all well and good signing memorandums of understanding, but nobody really believes them. You have to make them do something so humiliating that other countries baulk at the idea of requesting the same deal. For example, letting Brussels nominate the head of Greece’s tax collection authorities, and the head of its public service, and maybe even its finance, labour and justice ministers.
Extreme? Yes. Humiliating? Definitely. Worth a hundred billion of a write-off? Hmmm.
Would the Irish, Spanish or Italians concede the same? I doubt it. Sure, the wags say that Greece and Italy did actually let Brussels nominate their prime ministers, but this is much bigger. This is actual direct control.
Would we allow Olli Rehn be appointed to the Seanad and then made Minister for Taxation and Public Sector Reform for a €30 billion write-off? Sure, we announce, until he tries to bring in, say, Swedish tax transparency where everybody’s salary and tax is published online. Or tries to get us to pay for, God forbid, the actual amount of water we use?
How would our political class react if Brussels demanded that all our junior ministers not be members of the Oireachtas, but people technically knowledgeable of the portfolios they are covering?
How would learned colleagues in the Kings Inns react to a Dutch justice minister announcing that he was abolishing the difference between Irish barristers and solicitors? Good God man, an affront to democracy! There’d be wigs flying everywhere in indignation.
Suddenly €30 billion would become a mere metaphysical construct, something that pales into insignificance when your real live water bill arrives and the minister thinks nothing of turning off the water supply if you don’t pay, and doesn’t know or care who Joe Duffy is.
Yeah, the demonstrations will be all “national sovereignty now!” but the truth is that we wouldn’t want that nosy bloke from down the road looking up how much you actually earn and pay in tax, or that you don’t declare to the Revenue that mobile home you rent out every summer.
This would be the troika on speed with a SWAT team. We’d actually harp back nostalgically to Ajai Chopra and the way he’d look at you, peering over his half-moon glasses and saying “these ministerial pensions are a bit Liberace, aren’t they?”
And that’s the problem: the Greek compromise by its very nature, whilst relieving the actual pain of the Greek people, has to humiliate them to ensure that the rest of us don’t ask for a portion. We’ve got to wheel a lovely big wooden horse up to the gates of Athens, and everybody has to know what it means.
It’s like those old stories about how so many sexually transmitted diseases were solved with a bottle of Dettol and a wire brush. Has to be done, good in the long run, but still makes onlookers look on and exhale with a grimace thinking, “Thank Christ that’s not me.”