Greece has been at the heart of the ongoing European economic crisis.
Most accounts in the Canadian media point to the Greek welfare state as the source of Greece’s woes. But some critics argue that military spending has also contributed to Greece’s inability to pay its bills (Helena Smith, “German ‘hypocrisy’ over Greek military spending has critics up in arms,” The Guardian, 19 April 2012):
Greek profligacy may be blamed for triggering the debt crisis that now threatens to tear the eurozone apart, but if there is one area where Berlin is less excoriating of state largesse it is in Athens’s extravagant taste for arms. Behind the frequent exhortations that Greece rein in spending after living “beyond its means” – admonishments made most loudly by Merkel and her finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble – there is another reality that paints Germany in a less than flattering light, according to MPs, military experts, economists and scholars.
“If there is one country that has benefited from the huge amounts Greece spends on defence it is Germany,” said Dimitris Papadimoulis, an MP with the Coalition of the Radical Left party.
“Just under 15% of Germany’s total arms exports are made to Greece, its biggest market in Europe,” Papadimoulis said the MP, reeling off figures from a scruffy armchair in his party’s parliamentary office. “Greece has paid over €2bn (£1.6bn) for submarines that proved to be faulty and which it doesn’t even need.
“It owes another €1bn as part of the deal. That’s three times the amount Athens was asked to make in additional pension cuts to secure its latest EU aid package.”
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri), France is not far behind. Some 10% of its total arms sales go to Greece, which is a member of Nato. From 2002 to 2006, Greece was the world’s fourth biggest importer of conventional weapons. It is now the 10th.
“As a proportion of GDP, Greece spends twice as much as any other EU member on defence,” said Papadimoulis, who is also a former MEP.
“Well after the economic crisis had begun, Germany and France were trying to seal lucrative weapons deals even as they were pushing us to make deep cuts in areas like health.”
Under the latest EU-IMF-sponsored rescue programme – which is propping up the near-bankrupt Greek economy with an extra €130bn in emergency loans until 2015 – Athens has agreed to cut defence expenditure by €400m. Even so, its military budget accounts for nearly 4% of national economic output, compared with the eurozone average of around 2%. The country has cited perceived security risks from Turkey and, in addition to state-of-the-art submarines, has bought hundreds of Leopard tanks, howitzers, Mirage fighter planes and F-16 jets from Germany, France and the US since the late 1990s.
Speculation is rife that international aid was dependent on Greece following through on agreements to buy military hardware from Germany and France.
“Since the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus, Greece has spent an estimated €216bn on armaments, although I am 100% certain that in absolute terms its defence expenditure is much greater than official documents would show due to the so-called secret funds the state has access to,” said Katerina Tsoukala, a Brussels-based security expert.
“The problem is that unlike Britain, for example, Greece has never had a transparent and democratic defence procurement strategy. Instead, everything is veiled in secrecy and people like me have to go to Sipri to find out information that in other countries would be readily available.”
The murkiness has ensured that over the years the Greek arms trade has become increasingly associated with high-level bribery and corruption – the very practices abhorred by Berlin, Athens’ main provider of rescue funds.
Given Greece’s financial predicament – illustrated last week by IMF managing director Christine Lagarde’s refusal to rule out a default – growing numbers have begun to question the probity of the nation’s defence expenditure.
Deputy prime minister Theodore Pangalos publicly rued the fact that Athens was spending so much money on arms, exclaiming during a visit by the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, that Greece was being “forced to buy weapons we do not need”.
No other area has contributed as heavily to the country’s debt mountain. If Athens had cut defence spending to levels similar to other EU states over the past decade, economists claim it would have saved around €150bn – more than its last bailout. Instead, Greece dedicates up to €7bn a year to military expenditure – down from a high of €10bn in 2009.
“Germany became Germany partly because for 62 years it did not have to think about military expenditure,” said Angelos Philippides, a prominent economist. “For a long time Greece spent 7% of its GDP on defence when other European countries spent an average 2.2%. If you were to add up that compound 5% from 1946 to today, there would be no debt at all,” he said. “It’s vital that if the European Union wants to speak about fair deals it should at least guarantee Greek borders [with Turkey] so the country can bring down military spending to 2.2%.”
Photo credit: Wikipedia (Onkel Tucal)