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Forgive us our debts

Forgive us our debts

To the simple, all things are simple, as St Paul didn’t write to Titus in Crete. So it is with Greece today.

This crisis that, unlike the ECB, just keeps on giving is all the fault of the IMF and EU, who lent money like it was going out of circulation and then fiscal-whipped the Greeks into bone-deep cuts and recession just pour encourager les autres. Podemos take note.

Conversely, the crisis is all the fault of the Greeks, who did nothing to clean up a culture of pervasive political clientelism, tax evasion, myopic unionism, and welfare munificence.

Perhaps it is because I am part-Greek and part-German, and so feel a slight tug of loyalty in both directions, but I can't help think this is no either/or option. There are no heroes on stage at the moment.  The Greeks undeniably brought this economic catastrophe on themselves, as Yannis Palaiologos shows in his admirable and depressing book The 13th Labour of HerculesBut they were helped by banks and the IMF who lent money irresponsibly and by a political project in which the good of the whole is very evidently more important than that of its constituent parts – although this itself is complicated by the fact that the Greeks have been resolute in their determination to remain part of the single currency.

As an annual Hellenic holidayer I rejoice that agreement has been reached, as it reduces the likelihood of a disorderly default, currency ejection, banking collapse, and food and fuel shortages none of which is calculated to add to the vacation experience. As a friend of Greece, I despair. As the IMF have just said, Greece’s public debt is completely unsustainable and there are only two serious options on the table: a major restructuring (think decades rather than years) or a “deep upfront haircut”, which makes me think of a 1980s pop group. It may be “and” rather than “or”: a significant restructuring and a moderately severe haircut, but either way to pretend that Greece will be able to pay back all the money in due time and somehow avoiding sliding back into the Dark Ages is fantasy.

Paul went on to warn Titus about the many “rebellious people” who are “full of meaningless talk and deception”. The Greek people have remained remarkably unrebellious given the economic uncertainty and hardship of the last seven years. But how much longer can this continue? Commentators sometimes talk about losing an entire generation to recession but this is one of those rare instances where that isn’t hyperbole. When you find yourself thirty and among a cohort over half of whom have never worked, can you recover?

If there hasn’t been much rebellion, however, there has been all too much “meaningless talk and deception”; from European politicians who have sought to paper over the depth of the financial and fiscal chasms ; from Greek politicians who pretended they could single-handedly abolish austerity; and from anyone who imagined that you could secure monetary union without fiscal union, or fiscal union without political union, or political union without some thick moral or existential sense of what Europe is and why Europeans belong together.

Once upon a time that existed, as least in outline. Europe’s post-war founders knew that thick sense could be located in the dual-fronted edifice of Christianity and the classical world, the foundation stone for which was laid by St Paul himself, most famously on the Areopagus in Athens, but also in his (more abrasive and less generous) letter to Titus. Without that sense of what Europe is and who Europeans are, forgiving or even seriously restructuring debts becomes very difficult. And without doing that, we are not going to see in Greece what Paul asked of Titus in Crete: putting in order that which has been left unfinished.

Nick Spencer is Research Director at Theos

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