An enlightening meeting of journalists in Athens

An enlightening meeting of journalists in Athens

There was a sigh of relief among the Greek participants of the latest Meeting of Journalists organized by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung which took place in Athens last weekend. The meeting in which journalists from Turkey, Greece and Germany participated in a three-day general briefing and presentations on the situation in Greece, Turkey and Germany came one day after the interesting conclusion of the euro summit, which secured a compromise for debt-laden countries like Italy and Spain through a development package of 120 billion euros and through the financing of private banks, whose debt is directly owed to European sources, without these additional funds being included in the countries’ national debt figures. Greece is not included in that arrangement but is expected to benefit from it in the sense that part of the funds already earmarked for the indebted private banks may be deducted from Greece’s official national debt.

Some of our Greek colleagues thought this may be a stroke of political luck for the recuperating Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, who has been conducting his first meetings with his ministers from home as his health condition has not allowed him to move a lot, let alone travel. A possible relief to Greece’s huge debt may be a welcoming reverse of the downward trend of the Greek economy and would be a useful psychological boost to the new government; it may even secure a longer life expectancy, provided of course that political balances are kept and no other issues creep onto the political agenda.

We have learned a lot, and most of the information was provided to us by experts. It was extremely enlightening for all us to have an accurate glimpse into the figures on the current situation in Greece, especially after the recent general elections which concluded the cycle of political instability in recent months. One of the experts, Professor Dimitris Sotiropoulos, an expert of public administration and an advisor to former Prime Minister Lucas Papademos gave us some extremely useful figures which I would like to share with readers.

Since the beginning of the crisis in Greece, several Greek “myths” have been floating around and have been used or misused by the media, said Sotiropoulos. For example, it is a myth that Greeks are pensioned off very early, that they get high pensions and work very little, he said. According to the available figures of 2010, only the employees of the old Olympic Airways were able to be pensioned off early plus the employees of some banks and a very small number of state-owned enterprises. Average pensions range between 750 to 1,300 euros a month with a minimum of 580 euros a month. Of the country’s 11 million people, approximately 1 million or more are migrants, while the inflow of migrants from Turkey through over the Evros River continues in high numbers.

Greece, like most other European countries, has a low fertility rate, and only six out of 10 Greeks are in the labor force, whereas the European average is 64 percent, said the Greek expert. A striking figure came from the side of women. According to official figures, the participation of women in the Greek labor market is low. Although their educational levels are relatively high, they prefer to go back to the home once they get married, which happens around the age of 29.

But the figures that illustrate the dismal picture of a Greece in crisis are the following: Unemployment doubled from 9 percent to 18 percent between 2006 and 2011; by 2012, it had risen to 22 percent, with youth unemployment for people in the 18-25 range at 50 percent and rising with new high school graduates appearing on the scene.

Unemployment benefits were at around 560 euros month, but this was reduced to a mere 360 euros once the second round of austerity measures was applied. There are 1,200,000 people who are registered as unemployed, but they benefit from unemployment insurance for only 12 months. After that, they can only get a few allowances that add up to around 200 euros. Greeks, however, do have one of the highest ratios of home ownership in Europe at 73 percent, meaning that the main reason there has not been a “complete social breakdown” amid the crisis is that the family structure remains tight, funneling the income of family members into one pool.

There are many more interesting figures that will be included in the official report to be published soon. The FES group has already decided its next subject will be Greek-Turkish relations and that they will perhaps meet in late autumn this year in either Greece or Turkey.

With the Samaras government already in power for enough time to show its intentions in foreign policy and with presidential elections in Cyprus just a few months away, it will be an interesting platform to analyze whatever situation will have developed by then.