Eurogroup President Jeroen Dijsselbloem is facing calls to resign after making what will perhaps come to be his most memorable statement, if not his political epitaph. In an interview with German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, he had the following to say on the subject of the EU’s response to the financial crisis in the southern European member states: “You cannot spend all the money on drinks and women and then ask for help.” Representatives of Spain, Portugal, Italy, and even Bulgaria were quick to object. And although there has been no official response from Greece, there has been plenty of unofficial commentary, ranging from bemusement to outrage. It is fair to say that up until this point, Dijsselbloem has run a pretty close second to his German counterpart Wolfgang Schäuble as a hate figure in Greece, where he is seen as representing the hard line against any sympathetic treatment of Greece’s debt. But the statement wasn’t just a sexist, xenophobic and financially illiterate brain fart – it was also strikingly culturally inappropriate for a high level official serving in an international institution. By this I mean not so much politically incorrect (although it is that too), but way off-target, as any connoisseur of cultural stereotypes will tell you.
Why, only last week our own Finance Minister responded to opposition criticism of his negotiating prowess by confessing to his own, much more genteel, drink-and-women fantasy: “Mitsotakis said that he wants a primary surplus target of 2%. I, too, would like to go for cocktails with Scarlett Johansson, but…”, his point being that you can’t always get what you want. Euclid Tsakalotos, privately educated in the UK, foreign resident for most of his life and with heavily accented and halting Greek, is not your archetypal modern Hellene, and thus his comment was greeted with much hilarity by his fellow countrymen.
So what would be a more appropriate cultural stereotype to deploy against the Greeks, one that would actually make them feel the sting of reproach? It’s not that we are strangers to the evils of boozing and whoring. There is indeed a strain of popular song that laments how “cigarettes, drinks and late nights have closed the best homes”. It’s just that by being sung in the very disreputable establishments that it purports to deride, this self-reproach by definition ironic. So where did we blow our kitty? We undoubtedly spent some of it on status symbols like cars, with a particular penchant for German marques – though not as many, and not as luxurious as the tabloid myth would have it (that catchy line about “more Porsche Cayenne owners than taxpayers” proved fairly easy to debunk but harder to kill off, like most of the persistent myths of the Greek crisis). Some of us spent it on holidays and designer bling and even more of us on unwittingly inflating a real estate bubble. Much of it was financed by loans from European banks, ultimately paying interest to northern European savers.
When it comes to consumables, though, blowing it on drink is not such a southern European thing. On old professor of mine, an expert in the history of booze (among other substances) often observed that Europe is divided into north and south by distinct cultures of intoxication rooted in our prehistory – the grape in the south, the grain in the north, originally the function of geography and climate which in turn determined access to different sources of plant sugar. It is the grain-fermenting northerners who have traditionally binge-drunk themselves to oblivion, and it is them that felt the teetotal backlash of the protestant reformation, whereas the Mediterranean world used their fermented grape juice more sparingly and even made it “taboo” by ghoulishly turning it into blood in the Christian sacrament. It is said that you can still observe this divide by walking down the main street of any Mediterranean town hosting a Club 18-30 resort in high tourist season. Some might say, therefore, that Jeroen is merely projecting his own cultural inclinations. They don’t call it Dutch courage for nothing.
No, when it comes to consumables, another famous one-line aetiology of the Greek crisis comes to mind: “We ate it together” (“μαζί τα φάγαμε”,”Mazí ta fágame”), is what PASOK grandee Theodoros Pangalos poffered in 2010 in response to the question “where did the money go?”. A succinct description of the workings of clientelism, delivered by a true master of the art. The saying survives and thrives, in large part because it had a grotesque, evocative appeal in light of the speaker’s own well-fed physique, an apparent embodiment of gluttony openly admitting to the sin and beckoning us to join him at the trough. In the popular imagination it conjured up images of the Greek political class, bloated with greed both physical and metaphorical, sharing a well-furnished table with their clients, the ordinary voters. And although we, too, like to accuse our elites of eating Marie Antoinette’s cake and caviar (or perhaps the Greek pre-crisis equivalent, lobster spaghetti), the most appropriate fare loading down the table would be a cholesterol feast, most likely at Baïraktaris, the legendary Athens kebab house and political hangout. Not the starched white tablecloths of Washington’s Palm Grill, London’s private clubs, or the Michelin-starred chateaux of Gallic political intrigue, but oilcloth and stacks of paper napkins, the great equaliser, where we do indeed tuck in together in large, boisterous groups. You may recall Baïraktaris as the scene of another famous apophthegm, by another regular, former Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, to the effect that “five pimps run this country”. And that is as far as I will go with the “women” element. Yes, we all ate a lot of souvlaki, most of it made with imported European meat, topped with yoghurt, more than likely made with European milk. And in the background, all this internal consumption was underwritten by state largesse in the form of public sector salaries and pensions, financed by public debt owned by our fellow European governments and institutions happy to pretend that Greece was Germany for the sake of a few extra basis points of yield.
You see, even the culturally appropriate stereotypes of southern loucheness contain an element of northern complicity. But Dijsselbloem may have more in common with Pangalos than he would like to acknowledge. Politically, Dijsselbloem was already a “dead man walking” before he shot his mouth off so spectacularly. In last week’s elections in the Netherlands, the Labour Party of which he is a member and by whose election he serves as Finance Minister at home and President of the EU’s informal but influential group of Finance Ministers, suffered what has come to be termed “Pasokification”: the term used to describe the annihilation of once powerful centre-left parties in European national politics. His days in office (both offices) are numbered, the timing of his departure determined only by the uncertainties around Dutch coalition forming. Ironically, had he released his populist bon mot a few days earlier, it may have won him a few more votes at home – now it is as irrelevant as it is embarrassing.
One final thought though, for those in Greece who are eager to see the back of the smug, hair-gelled wonder. Be careful what you wish for. In the horse-trading the follows his departure, the front-runner to succeed him is Slovakia’s Peter Kažimír, a man routinely described as “one of the most hawkish ministers on the Greek crisis”. After a particularly gruelling round of negotiations in July 2015, he had this to tweet: “#Greece compromise we reached this morning is tough for Athens because it’s the results of their ‘Greek Spring’ #eurozone”. If his prior record is any indication, there will be plenty more inflammatory statements (if not more grave outcomes) to look forward to.