Friday, 5 March 2010

Selling off the family silver

My mother was right.

'Are we even a country any more' she asked me, after the EU Financial Salvation Army made clear what the price of salvage was actually going to be.

At the time I made some vague noises around conceptual issues and the idea of statehood but as it turns out, she knew what she was talking about and I can just stuff my statehood notions. After explaining to my mother that countries are not businesses for whom bankruptcy can well mean selling off assets and shutting up shop and that borrowing and lending at the state level carries a different set of caveats than corporate lending does, I may just have to eat my words.

You must have heard of the two Germans, an MP and a finance expert, who suggested during an interview that Greece should sell off a few islands and maybe the Parthenon to pay off its debts?
Crazy? Possibly.
But yesterday the article was reprinted in the Guardian. In the Business section. Not the funny pages. Not in the spirit of 'comment is free'. And although it was treated as preposterous, it was still printed. In the Guardian. In the Business section.

So get in line guys.
Crete and Mykonos are already spoken for and me and a couple of mates are clubbing together for Santorini but the rest is available so have a look at the map and take your pick.

Now Josef Schlarmann and Frank Schaeffler didn't actually suggest we sell off the good islands, they are economists after all and this is a practical solution for them: Greece keeps the islands that bring in tourist revenue and the ones that are inhabited at a push – the logistical nightmare of relocation is just not worth it – and uninhabited islets that currently generate no revenue go up for sale.
Oh and the odd antiquity goes up for sale too.

"Those in insolvency have to sell everything they have to pay their creditors. Greece owns buildings, companies and uninhabited islands, which could all be used for debt redemption" Schlarmann told the Bild.

Buildings? If the country's debt would be settled by selling the odd building we wouldn't be where we are now. As for Greece's state-run businesses, again, if they were appealing prospects for private investors we wouldn't be in such dire straits. So. Islands and nuggets of history it shall be, decree our German friends.
Gotta love economists. A problem demands a solution and all assets are ultimately for sale. Ergo.

Now granted, I know that these statements are made against the backdrop of a German populace that is against a Berlin-funded bailout for Greece and I can't blame them. But not helping may not be an option within the confines of the euro-zone and although they EU and its powerful members retain the power – and on some level the right – to demand austerity measures, cut-backs and tightened belts, surely there is a limit to what can be asked of us.

Or is there?

Because, let's face it, this is no joke.

Of course the Bild headline Sell your islands, you bankrupt Greeks! And sell the Acropolis too! was, one would hope, tongue in cheek, the idea is out there. Granted, in the UK at least it has been printed and reprinted as a preposterous idea that is now on the table.
Preposterous. And on the table.
And Merkel is meeting Papandreou, in Berlin today. And she is not going to suggest that we sell off the Acropolis. Or antiquities. Because I am hoping her advisors have filled her in on the EU's legal and moral stand on matters pertaining to the trading in civilisation and cultural artifacts.
But uninhabited islands are real-estate and the idea is out there.

So could future maps show a bit of Austria in the Aegean? A bit of Malaysia in the Ionian sea? Could school-kids in future generations learn that Greece shares borders with Turkey, Bulgaria, Albania and Unilever since their purchase of the island of Evoia?

Of course Evoia is populated – not to mention massive – so it wouldn't be an obvious candidate for sale but the underlying concern is the same: when a distinct and contiguous piece of land – however small – is sold to an individual, company or foreign government what jurisdiction is there on that island? Logically the pre-existing national jurisdiction remains because what you sell is a plot of land, not sovereignty.

So what's the big deal? Land is bought and sold in Greece all the time.
And what the Germans don't know is that there is a law in Greece that protects public access to all beaches. So if Mr Schlarmann buys himself an island, I can always paddle out there and sun myself on his beach whether he likes it or not.
So what difference does it make, if the plot of land sold to an individual, company or government is on the beach or in the middle of the sea in the shape of a tiny little island?

Is it just that we resent being told what to do?
Is it that we resent the symbolic power of selling off islands rather than the odd field? Chunks of homeland, rather than plots of land?
Is it that we resent the implication of what was said: you are finished anyway so you might as well sell the family heirlooms and the house because you'll be out on the street whether you like it or not.
Or do we resent being told by the Germans who, after all, were the guys who most recently tried to take those islands away by force, and are now seemingly trying a different route? The echoes are deeply unpleasant. That, of course, is a facile criticism but that doesn't make it any less true.

Not that the Greeks would have enjoyed being told to sell by anyone else. The implication of selling distinct chunks of land and antiquities is too stark: you are finished, you are through, the vultures are circling your body and the heirs are already squabbling over the silver. Not a pleasant image and of course we are upset. But let's be honest with ourselves.

We are not upset just because two very practical teutonic economists found very practical teutonic solutions to a practical hellenic problem without consideration for our feelings.
We are not upset just because two lone voices in Germany told us we are finished.
We are not upset just because the world press is discussing that we are finished, as if we couldn't hear, as if it didn't matter we can hear.
None of this would matter as much, if we weren't all actually convinced we are finished. And if every solution didn't ultimately feel like selling off the family silver because there's nothing else left to do.

So onto the auction block. And don't forget. I've got first dibs on Santorini. You lot squabble over the rest.