A very Greek tale

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Greece flags are waves outside the parliament building in Athens.
Greece flags are waves outside the parliament building in Athens. Photo:

For anyone still wondering how Greece got into such a mess, a short story that reveals quite a lot:

A couple of years ago a Swiss whistleblower smuggled out of the country a CD ROM containing the names and account numbers of thousands of European citizens with secret accounts at Swiss banks.

The German tax authorities paid a lot of money to get their hands on this CD and used it to recoup tens of millions of Euros in unpaid tax.

They let people know that they had the list and offered tax evaders good terms for coming clean. Anyone who didn’t would face the full weight of the law.

The tactic worked brilliantly. No one was sure who was on the Swiss ‘naughty list’, so the Germans were able not only to bring in those they knew about, but many more that they didn’t.

Former French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde
Former French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde passed on details of secret Swiss accounts to Greece Credit: Reuters

The French had the list too, and their then Finance Minister Christine Lagarde gave her counterpart in Athens the names of 2,000 or so Greek citizens with Swiss accounts.

A grateful Greek Government would now be able to move against some of its richest citizens and recoup some desperately needed tax revenues, while frightening many more into paying up as well. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, what did the Greek Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos do with this treasure trove of information? He put the memory stick he’d been given in a draw in his desk, and forgot about it. Tragically, this is not a joke.

This week, when questions were asked about why no revenue had been recovered from the 2,000 Swiss accounts, officials said that the information they had been given 2 years earlier had been lost.

Venizelos, who has since assumed the leadership of his party PASOK, then rather sheepishly admitted it hadn’t actually been lost, just ignored. It was not, though, his fault. Of course not.

Evangelos Venizelos
Evangelos Venizelos Credit: REUTERS/Yiorgos Karahalis

A year ago Christine Lagarde, by then head of the IMF, publicly accused the Greeks of having been the authors of their own downfall by tolerating widespread tax evasion.

She was lambasted for her comments by...you guessed it, Evangelos Venizelos. “Mrs Lagarde has insulted and humiliated the Greek people”, he said, a view widely endorsed by most of the Greek establishment.

The Greeks complain that few in Europe seem to want to help them in their hour of need.

They may have a point, but maybe if they tried a little harder to help themselves?