Urgently Required: More Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency

Greeks are going back to the land. Many can, because they have retained family smallholdings and farms in the countryside that was depopulated in the rush to the cities. Here in the UK, we would not have that option.

Greece is bankrupt by any other name. The government cannot make interest payments on its debts without drawing down new loans. The people are being forced to pay a terrible price for the financial fools’ paradise wrought by the Euro.

The events in Greece are likely to spread. We in the UK continue to live beyond our means – but we do not have a reserve of small farms awaiting the return of their owners. Our farms have been amalgamated into much larger units. The houses and buildings on the incorporated farms have been sold off as expensive, desirable rural homes, maybe with an acre or two but not much more. Think of all those barn conversions: the barns are lost to agriculture.

The austerity measures in Greece are a return to hand-to-mouth poverty for the population, who in February 2012 are being told to accept a 22% fall in the minimum wage to £490.82 (€586) a month for a full-time job. Even this parsimonious rate is subject to income tax, because thresholds are being lowered from €12,000 to €5,000 a year.

The Greek economy has been sliding downhill since the then-Prime Minister, George Papandreou, in May 2010 agreed to cut budgets and increase taxes in return for a £25.13 billion (€30 billion) bail-out from the International  Monetary Fund and the European Union. The first wave of measures to hit the public included raising women’s pension age from 60 to 65. Cut after cut followed in 2011, and in November George Papandreou resigned as an agreed condition of Opposition support for a new Coalition government. His replacement was a banker, Lucas Papademos, formerly vice-president of the European Central Bank. The appointment signalled a ruthless concentration on the attainment of solvency.

By February 2012 official unemployment figures for Greece exceeded 20% — double that for the under-25s — with swathes of cuts still to come. Government will try to collect extra taxes of £2.83 billion (€3.38 billion in 2012). That’s £262 (€313) more for every man, women and child in Greece. Meanwhile, employees of public-sector enterprises are knocked sideways by salary cuts of 30%, and 30,000 civil servants are suspended on 60% of their pay for a year. After that, no one knows.

The retired with public-sector pensions exceeding £837 (€1,000) lose 20%. Wage negotiations across industries are abolished. Government assets are being privatised.

These are just a few of the headline decisions, which mask in figures the desperation felt in hundreds of thousands of Greek households. The economy, no surprise, is collapsing. The annual rate of decline, measured in the third quarter of 2011 when the cuts were in their early stages, was 5%.

It’s true that the Greeks have visited misfortune upon themselves by making tax evasion an art and still expecting subsidised public services, but that is not unknown as a state of mind elsewhere in Europe, including the UK. The Greek disaster is born of a disregard for future consequences, and of abysmal failure of governance, including cooking the books to be granted Euro membership back in 2001.

At least, Greece’s agricultural past is sufficiently close for the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of peasant farmers often to have retained ties with the countryside. When city life becomes so impoverished as to be intolerable, they can at least try to revert to subsistence farming. It is an option denied to the vast majority of Britons, whose connection with the land has been diminishing since the early days of the Industrial Revolution 300 years ago.

More information from Reuters ‘Timeline: Greece’s debit crisis’, February 10th 2012; BBC News ‘Greek government austerity measures’, October 19th 2011; Daily Mail Online ‘Greece braced for fresh wave of strikes as government finally agrees new round of austerity’, by Hugo Duncan, February 9th 2012; The New York Times ‘With work scarce in Athens, Greeks go back to the land’, January 8th 2012.   

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