According to Homer’s account, Ulysses took almost 10 years to return safely to his throne, his family and his people. A decade of journeys in the unknown, subject to the will of the Gods and buoyed by the winds, meeting chimerical monsters, resisting the temptation of the mermaids and – more than anything – struggling with determination for his own survival.
Like Ulysses back to Ithaca, Greece is finally reaching its destination today, ten years after the beginning of a long recession. She can finally breathe, look at the path she has traveled and contemplate again the future with confidence.
22 June 2018 will remain a milestone in the history of modern Greece and the euro area. It marks the end of an unprecedented crisis, of unheard-of violence, which tested the will of an entire population and also of Europeans to defend the euro and the solidarity between us. A crisis that was resolved last night at the Eurogroup by the conclusion of the stability support programme, and by strong political and financial decisions that will ensure the economic future of Greece and its people.
Greece has been the main victim of the economic crisis in Europe in the last decade. Much has been requested, or even imposed, during these years of programmes. Much has been accomplished to fundamentally restructure a failed economy and rebuild an outdated administration. Political and economic mistakes were made in Athens, but also in Brussels, Berlin and Washington. I will come back to that soon.
The Greek crisis was an odyssey in the unknown, forcing the Europeans to get along, to stick together, and to invent unprecedented solutions to survive.
No one imagined, in May 2010, the duration or the violence of this crisis. No one, not even the Greeks, was aware of the fragilities of the Greek economy and administration and the reforms that would be necessary to put Greece back on its feet. No one thought that the Europeans would lend more than 240 billion euros to finance the Greek State in exchange for these reforms. No one had imagined the monsters that this crisis would bring up and that we would have to fight for many years.
Economic monsters first, which hit hard: a brutal recession, up to minus 9% of GDP in 2011, condemning the bulk of SMEs in the country, a terrible austerity cutting into national budgets, lowering wages of both the public and the private sectors, as well as the social minimums, and ultimately concluding with a loss of 25% of national wealth and a dizzying debt of 180%.
Social monsters followed: unemployment that climbed to more than 27% of the population and 50% of young people, leading many to exile. The dramatic rise in poverty has affected the entire country, undermining national cohesion.
Greece’s political life has also been swept away by this crisis, following the numerous changes of prime ministers, governments and coalitions. A new radical left party has emerged, considered the enemy to be defeated by some states, and today in power to implement the opposite of its original political agenda. In this recomposition, the hideous beast also resurfaced with the emergence, and then the entrance into the Greek Parliament, of an authentically neo-Nazi party. We have heard on several occasions Greek political leaders, including an ephemeral finance minister, whose memory deserves no regret, revive the memories of the Nazi oppression in Greece, at the risk of breaking the solidarity that served us as a compass in this crisis.
The greatest danger of this odyssey has been the monster called Grexit! I have fought it with all my strength since 2012, first as Minister of Finance, and then as the European Commissioner in charge of Greece. Fueled by speculators in the markets, pushed by some Member States and their ministers in terrible and deadly negotiations, the hypothesis of Greece leaving the euro area first appeared to some as the necessary amputation to save the euro area, and then as a punishment against a Greek government elected to stop the austerity. The Grexit is, ever since, buried.
Greece and the euro area are emerging stronger today from this terrible crisis. Greece has been hard hit. Many sacrifices have been accepted, courageously, and many reforms have been accomplished, no less than 450 in the last three years. Greece is now reviving economic growth, deficits have become budget surpluses, investments are returning, as well as part of its youth, unemployment – still dramatically high – has fallen by 25% in the last five years. Debt is under control and the Eurogroup’s decisions put Greece on a stable path for the coming decades.
The euro and the European project have been tested. Our currency has shown its economic strength when the political determination of the states is behind. Solidarity has been strongly reaffirmed. We have put in place, albeit sometimes too late, powerful mechanisms to protect our economies and prevent new crises.
Yes, the Greek crisis has ended here, in Luxembourg. A historical page is turning for the euro area. I look at the road traveled, with regret over the dramas we could not avoid. But I am also proud to have always been with the Greek people over the years, against austerity and Grexit. The journey of my Greek friends is not finished to rebuild their country and erase the stigma of this crisis. Europe, the European Commission and I will remain with them. Because the European Odyssey, for her part, does not stop here.