My big fat Greek week
· Paris may be called the 'city of love', but Alexis Tsipras is not feeling it. His recent stop to the 'City of Light' while on a flight back to Athens from Lisbon has been the object of scrutiny. The Greek PM was criticised for withholding information such as the reason for his brief visit, the passenger list and more importantly, whether he used the official government plane for a meeting that is said to be of a "private" nature. After a lot of pressure from the opposition, the government issued a statement confirming that Tsipras had a "private meeting" with Jean-Paul Agon, CEO of L'Oreal. The Greek government states that the cosmetics giant is very interested in investing in Greece, and apparently this is also the reason of Tsipras' second "unofficial" meeting with, representatives of Rothschild & Co investment bank.
· The opposition continues to apply pressure, demanding more information, as the idea of Tsipras stopping at L'Oreal to personally buy a Valentine's gift for his partner sounds more plausible than the company investing in Greece.
· Paris has been causing pathos for the opposition as well, given that Kiriakos Mitsotakis is pressured to explain how his wife, Mareva Grabowski, whose professional background is also in investment banking, by the way, found herself in possession of a property in one of the 'artistic' neighbourhoods of the city.
· As the dispute continues, the government and opposition's back-and-forth is similar to a lovers' spat. One can almost expect the two sides to engage in make-up lovemaking, given that what they have in common (a commitment to conforming to the country's creditors' demands) is stronger than what divides them. At least they will always have Paris.
· After all, Valentine's Day is coming and love is − or should be − in the air. Unfortunately, there seems to be very little love towards Tsipras. Should it be seen as a coincidence that farmers' unions opted to hold a rally in Athens on Tuesday 14 February? After weeks of blockage of key highway junctions and border crossings, representatives from 11 unions, 35 roadblocks and dozens of strike committees are set to bring the country's capital to a standstill, in their protest to changes to taxation and social security.
· So, yes, the Greek PM may need all the love he can get at the moment, but the irony is that he's getting it from the IMF, which he wants to oust from the bailout program. The organisation held a board meeting on Monday, after which it issued a statement praising Greece for reducing "its fiscal and current account deficits significantly since the onset of the crisis. In particular, the fiscal primary and current account deficits declined from 11 and 15 per cent of GDP, respectively, to around zero at the end of 2015. This is an impressive adjustment for a country that is part of a currency union and does not have access to monetary and exchange rate policy tools". This love letter went on to shockingly state that "Greece does not require further austerity at this time", as it is expected to achieve a primary fiscal surplus of 1.5 per cent of GDP.
· In his response on Tuesday, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, head of the Eurogroup of finance ministers, dismissed the IMF report as "outdated" and was even more favourable towards Greece and its economy's recent growth. "Greece is already doing better than that report describes," he told Dutch television, stating that Greece's creditors would still be prepared to ease terms of Greece's debt (which, at 175 per cent, is deemed 'not viable' by the IMF) further, if the country continues to cooperate on reforms. That is EU-talk for 'tough love'.
· For the moment, there is one major reform that has taken place in Greece and has been largely under-reported thus far. It has to do with the remarkable increase by 391 per cent of debit cards usage in everyday transactions. There are 14.6 million cards being used today in Greece, among which 81 per cent, i.e. 11.8 million, are debit cards − 1.3 million cards were issued after the capital controls. So yes, Greeks are using fewer and fewer less cards, which should make the finance ministry (and the country's creditors) happy, since this means there's less chance for tax evasion this way.
· Another step in this direction will be made with the reforms announced for the regulation of the farmers' markets, which are famously chaotic. The Greek government may have bigger fish to fry, in terms of tax evasion, but it is still significant that it creates a database for all vendors and producers. The ministry of trade also introduced 28 types of fines for offenders, ranging from €100 to €3,000.
· Speaking of offenders, Greek police arrested a ring of smugglers, who exported rare eels, illegally fished in southern Europe, through Greece to China, where they are sold for €1,500 a kilo.
· In news completely unrelated to eels or smugglers, former minister of defence Akis Tsohatzopoulos, who is serving a 20-year sentence for money laundering, was denied early release from jail due to health reasons. Which gives a completely new meaning to feeling rejected and unloved on Valentine's Day.
· Of course, Greeks should not celebrate Saint Valentine, since he is not recognised by the Greek Orthodox Church. The late Archbishop Christodoulos had tried to persuade Greeks to celebrate Sts Akyllas and Priscilla (a couple), in his effort to modernise the Church and attract young believers, but to no avail. However the Greek Church is indeed making a transition to the 21st century, introducing a digital service for marriage licences, baptism certificates and other documents. This would prove to be very useful to Greeks abroad, as it would allow them to easily lodge applications and receive their certificates 'scanned by email' − using a blessed server, surely.
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