Monday, February 20, 2012

Beware of Greeks accepting gifts

Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes, which is paraphrased in English as the aphorism "Beware of Greeks bearing gifts", has blighted and somewhat labelled the whole Greek population for centuries. The phrase originates in a poem written by the Roman poet Virgil. Immortalising the events of the war between the Trojans and the Greeks in his epic Aeneid.

While Virgil certainly applies much poetic licence in the stories depicted in the book, the influence cannot be disputed. One part in particular has captured the public imagination.

As related in the Aeneid, after a nine-year war on the beaches of Troy between the Danaans (Greeks from the mainland) and the Trojans, the Greek seer Calchas induces the leaders of the Greek army to offer the Trojan people a huge wooden horse, the so-called Trojan Horse, while seemingly departing. The Trojan priest Laoco├Ân, distrusting this gesture, warns the Trojans not to accept the gift, crying, "Equo ne credite, Teucri! Quidquid id est, timeo Danaos et dona ferentis." ("Do not trust the horse, Trojans! Whatever it is, I fear the Danaans, even when bringing gifts.")

The facts behind the story are disputed, and it is unlikely there was ever really a large wooden horse. But the story has stuck, and the Greeks have had to weather the storm ever since.

Metaphorically a "Trojan Horse" has come to mean any trick or stratagem that causes a target to invite a foe into a securely protected bastion, and is often applied to a piece of computer malware. Moreover the Greeks have been labelled as a nation of untrustworthy people ever since.

It is perhaps unfair that a factually incorrect and allegorical tale should poor so much scorn on an entire country, but with the rising concerns over the potential fallout from the current saga seen in Greece over the past few months, trust is an issue that is being widely debated.

Greece has been criticised for lying over its financial status in order to obtain EU membership. But with years of overspending and a failure to keep its finances in check, the country has collapsed into virtual bankruptcy. It has led to riots on the streets, massive cuts in public spending and a change in political leadership. Meanwhile the EU and IMF have sought to limit the fallout by trying to prop up the failing economy.

EU member states have come together to fund a massive bailout. But this has gained a mixed response even by the Greeks themselves.

Greece has accused the EU and IMF of interfering in its domestic affairs after international lenders called on Athens to speed up reforms and sell more public assets. In February last year EU and IMF inspectors visiting Greece to monitor the implementation of a bailout plan that saved Greece from bankruptcy, approved more aid for the country but adopted a more critical tone than on previous visits.

The criticism was not welcomed by the the Greek government who described the inspectors' approach as unacceptable. One government spokesman George Petalotis said, "We asked nobody to interfere in domestic affairs … We only take orders from the Greek people." [Reuters]

A year later and the problems concerning Greece have still not been solved. A change of administration and further austerity measures have brought only more trouble in the streets, while Eurozone finance ministers debate whether Greece has done enough to merit a huge bailout loan.

Athens needs the €130 billion [£110 billion / $170 billion] in order to avoid bankruptcy in mid-March, when a huge repayment on its governmental debt must be made.

Greek PM Lucas Papademos went to Brussels on Sunday to secure the deal and while many are in support of bailing out the country, doubts remain.

US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said the United States was urging the IMF to support the bailout, though it is not clear how much the IMF will contribute. China and Japan have pledged some support to the IMF in order to help the eurozone [BBC]. The rescue plan would also write off €100 billion of debt, with private lenders accepting a 70% reduction in what Greece owes them.

Some eurozone finance ministers doubt Greece's commitment to its spending pledges and want strong mechanisms to ensure its debts are paid [BBC]. And there is the fear that by letting Greece go, and expelling it from the eurozone, would also create as much chaos as letting it remain.

Writing in the Guardian Larry Elliott suggests that the conflict over Greece's bailout has Tolkienian overtones. "There's a scene in The Lord of the Rings where the wizard Gandalf confronts the Balrog, a hellish monster, on a narrow bridge in the Mines of Moria. The battle ends with Gandalf smiting the bridge with his staff, sending the Balrog plunging into a fathomless abyss," Elliott writes. "There's a twist to the tail, however. As the monster falls, one last swish of its whip curls round Gandalf's ankle and drags him down into the pit as well. Views may differ, in the context of the eurozone debt crisis, whether Greece is Gandalf or the Balrog, but one thing is for certain; the risks of mutually assured destruction are high."

To hark back to the aphorism "Beware of Greeks bearing gifts", it might also be said "timeo Danaos donos accipiendo" - Beware of Greeks accepting gifts!

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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