June 3rd, 2011
03:55 AM GMT
It has the makings of an economic tragedy of epic proportions.
As Brussels battles to prevent Greece from becoming the Eurozone’s first member to default, the country’s crisis is talk of the town among Greek communities thousands of miles from Athens.
One year after Greece received a $158 billion bail out from the International Monetary Fund, talks have started on potential second package.
Money is still pouring out of the country while authorities fret about a brain drain – factors that are having a surprising impact on London’s estimated 400,000-strong Greek population.
Over a game of backgammon at the capital’s ‘Byzantium café,’ Panayiotis Dimopoulos tells me Greece’s frightful finances have implications far beyond the borders of his homeland.
‘Everyone is worried about it,’ he says with a rather melancholy roll of the dice.
‘It’s not only me. Every Greek, every other European is worried about it. It’s an issue for more countries than just Greece.’
Financially, Greece is standing on shaky ground: the European Commission expects its debt to balloon to over 157% of gross domestic product this year while its economy is set to contract 3.5%.
What’s more: resistance to painful belt-tightening has thrown into question Greece’s ability to stop spending and to raise tax revenues. While economists in agree that Greece must make cuts soon, many Greeks in London are just as staunchly opposed to those austerity measures as their compatriots protesting near the Parthenon.
‘It’s not fair to take the money from these people,’ says Dimopoulos.
‘They should be cutting taxes not raising them. That would make the money circulate better in the economy.’
Pantelis Theodoropoulos, a young banker, is less reflective –if not downright angry.
‘Those people who got the country into this situation need to be made accountable,’ he says, with half an eye on the latest developments from the Greek parliament, beamed out from the café’s flat screen television set.
On a daily basis the headlines seem to get worse as EU ministers prepare to meet later this month to tackle the crisis, while Greece tries to allay fears that investors in its debt will loose money.
This week Moody’s cut its credit rating on Greek debt and raised the chances of a default to 50-50. The true extent of Greece’s cash deficit may become clear as soon as this week as IMF and European officials complete their audit of its public accounts.
But it’s not just politicians who are praying for a miracle.
Archbishop Gregorios of Thyadeira and Great Britain is the spiritual leader of the Greek Orthodox Church in Britain and Ireland. During an audience at his private chapel, he told me that yes, the financial crisis, has been giving his congregation sleepless nights but times of hardship often bring people closer together. Since the start of the crisis he said his congregation has grown.
‘Greeks are deeply religious people,’ he says. ‘When you suffer immediately you remember god and you feel for others who are suffering—not only in Greece but also in Ireland and Portugal.’
The Archbishop recalls Jesus Christ’s words from the Gospel of Matthew and reminds me ‘man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’
Existential issues aside, Greece faces a $43 billion funding gap by next year.
That’s about the same amount that has gone offshore since the start of 2010, Greek treasury officials say.
Much of that money has found its way into London’s real estate market where agents like Panos Koutsogiannakis have seen surge in interest from Greek investors.
“We’ve had a steady stream of enquiries all of this year,” Koutsogiannakis, a Greek-Australian, tells me from the London offices of realtor Hyde Park Agencies.
“Most are cash buyers and some haven’t even seen the properties before. I have one client transacting on a $1.3 million flat which they haven’t ever seen.”
Koutsogiannakis says his average Greek client is spending between $1.2 million and $2.4 million on apartments in some of the most expensive areas in the British capital, like Knightsbridge and Mayfair.
Four doors along, realtor Stephen Kalogroulis of Hellas Helvetia says he is getting up to 20 enquiries a week.
He tells me the parlous state of Greece’s economy is “a standard conversation” he has with Greek investors on a near daily basis.
“They want to talk about it all of the time,” he says.
"They want to talk about how the property market has collapsed, how there are no jobs."
There may be a dearth of employment opportunities in Greece but the boom in demand for Greek speakers is attracting young workers to London in droves.
“Loads of people are coming over here and they’ll take anything they can get,” says Kalogroulis.
“We advertised for a lettings agent four weeks ago and we got 25 enquiries from Greece. Normally we would get only one or two.”
Kalogroulis eventually filled the post last week, hiring a civil servant from Athens who has now moved to the UK.
Yet what may be a once-in-a-lifetime chance for some has also had devastating consequences for other London-based Greeks, young and old.
Theodoropoulos, who moved from Australia to be closer to where his family comes from, says he may never fulfil his dream of living and working in Greece because of lack of prospects.
‘I am now facing the real prospect of remaining a Greek outside my country for my whole life. It’s terrible. It’s sad.’
Natives like Babis Kalamis, who have already spent 30 years in Britain, once planned on returning home for good one day but those hopes have been dashed by Greece’s dangerous debt spiral and rampant unemployment.
“Last year, after I lost my wife, I went back to live in Greece for a year,” Kalamis tells me while stacking shelves at the Athenian Grocery in London’s Bayswater district.
“That was just when the crisis started. When I left it was full-blown. It was bad. So, I came back here and now I am an employee here at this store.”
Cause for complaint, I ask him? “No, I’m happy here but took some time for me to find myself,” replies Kalamis philosophically.
For Greece’s sake let’s hope ministers have a “Eureka” moment soon, as the economic fate of millions lies in the balance.
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