I hope I’m not going to regret this post and I want to state very clearly that I do sympathize with my Greek friends and colleagues as well as the whole country for the difficult future ahead of them, and wish them the fastest possible recovery.
Lately I have had several conversations with people that I meet outside Europe, who ask me for my absolutely unqualified take on the Greek situation and what lies ahead. I always state that I am not an economist and I do not cover financial or economic trends. However being based in Europe and having worked for the European Commission is enough for people to feel entitled to ask me the question.
Well, of course I do not know more than everybody else does by reading the news. But I can try to relate some very personal (and – as such – statistically irrelevant) experience to all this.
For instance, in my many business trips I have never travelled to Greece. Not even once. Of course I have been there on vacation a few times, but as a Gartner analyst, a EU official, a manager in a vendor organization or a systems engineer working on international projects, I never landed in Athens once, nor did I ever attend a meeting or see a client there. What does this tell me? Two things: (1) most likely I do not know Greece businesses and government as much as I should and (2) they are somewhat different from others (issues? approaches? sales behavior and purchasing patterns?).
If I look at some of the European collaborative R&D projects that I participated in as a partner or, during my job at the EU, as a negotiator as well as an evaluator, I do distinctly remember a few cases where very small Greek enterprises stemmed out as an anomaly. Little (or maybe not so little) things like having an R&D investment approaching their entire revenues, being present in multiple projects, being pivotal to certain typical partnership patterns in totally unrelated projects and project proposals, were incompatible with how successful they were in winning projects.
As far as people, some of the best persons I met professionally, including consultants, former colleagues and university professors, were Greek: I do remember wonderful, intense, and rewarding conversations with some of them, which will stay with me forever. On the other hand the laziest person I ever met in my professional life was a Greek colleague who would sit the whole day doing nothing or making personal phone calls.
So, where is the problem? Well, I guess it has to do with how Greeks cover for each other. In my little microcosm in Brussels, when I would raise my hand to ask for a deeper scrutiny of some unlikely consortia, I would get some Greek colleague (even higher up in the hierarchy) or external Greek consultant talking me out of it. In that environment Greeks seem to network to help as well as cover each other. There are other nationals who network very strongly: Germans are a great example, but they do so in a positive sense, to support proposals, projects, people that are worthwhile.
I wonder whether this behavior has had any part in bringing Greece where it is now. A combination of denial, cover-up, excessive hope that things will get sorted out by themselves, may be what got people, businesses and government where they are today. If I think about those old project proposals that had very weak foundations and business cases, but were funded anyhow and rarely succeeded, it seems to me that the symptoms are the same. One could see that those projects were a failure in the making, and yet the funding was granted, periodic project reviews passed and all money consumed with very little or no impact.
Each and every one of us bears a part of the responsibility. I, for one, did not fight hard enough to get some of these suspicious consortia dismantled and some of these projects audited early enough. I also thought that in the great scheme of things, these were minor issues, and my (Greek) management would not give me any reason to think otherwise.
Now that Greece has opened the tap for what can be a very deep crisis across the entire EU, I start thinking about other national traits and behaviors. Greeks were not alone in their attitude. Italians or Spaniards also exhibited a fair amount of “protective” behavior, although I as well as my Spanish colleagues would have no instinct to treat an Italian or Spanish-led consortium any different than another one. Greeks were somewhat more explicit and more persistent in pursuing their fellow citizen’s success,but this does not mean that other countries always played by the rules. Italians exhibit questionable behaviors when it comes to complying with basic obligations, such as paying taxes or issuing an invoice. So, we can’t really claim that we are any better.
Now if I look at my past experience in the EU R&D funding microcosm, and blend it with personal experience about how people and businesses behave in different countries, how politics work, how straight or honest or transparent people are, I can clearly see a pattern that tells me: we should have seen all this coming long time ago.
So, when we Europeans blame the “greedy American banks and corporations” for being the sole responsible of last year’s financial woes and recession, we’d better take a good look at ourselves in the mirror.