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Sell Them Tanks, Then Call Them Profligate

Germans, French Were Keen to Sell Arms to Greece

by PATRICK COCKBURN

Athens

As Greeks waited for a second eurozone rescue package to finally be agreed in Brussels today, many were blaming Germany and France for encouraging and benefiting from some of the much-criticized profligate spending that reduced Greece to near bankruptcy.

About 1000 protesters gathered in front of the Greek Parliament in central Athens yesterday, while riot police waited to see if there would be a fresh confrontation. But, in general, Greeks are resigned to the new package of austerity measures which will cut jobs in public service and slash pensions and the minimum wage.

Hopes are high that the eurozone ministers’ meeting today will agree to the €130 billion bailout after Athens detailed the new budget cuts.

While most Greeks are critical of the reforms on which the troika of the EU, International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank are insisting, many also feel that Germany and France share some of the blame for Greece’s overspending.

Over much of the past decade, Greece – which has a population of 11 million – has been one of the top five arms importers in the world.

Most of the vastly expensive weapons, including submarines, tanks and combat aircraft, were made in Germany, France and the United States.

The arms purchases were beyond Greece’s capacity to absorb, even before the financial crisis struck in 2009. Several hundred Leopard battle tanks were bought from Germany, but there was no money to pay for ammunition for their guns. Even in 2010, when the extent of the financial disaster was apparent, Greece bought 223 howitzers and a submarine from Germany at a cost of €403 million.

In the new bailout agreement, Greece will pledge to reduce its defense spending by some €400 million. Eurozone leaders have hitherto been notably more tolerant of Greece’s arms expenditure – though this is twice the size of the NATO average as a proportion of GDP – than they have of excessive spending on health or pensions.

“It is easily forgotten when Greece is criticized that there has been not very subtle pressure from France to buy six frigates,” says Thanos Dokos, director-general of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy.

He adds that Greece was unwise to be the first buyer of new weapons systems, such as German submarines, that still had technical glitches.

There is now a serious disparity between the limited resources of the Greek state and its expensive weapons. Exercises are being cancelled to save small sums of money.

Greece also has the world’s largest merchant marine, but its navy is cutting back on its anti-piracy patrols to protect vessels in the Indian Ocean.

The justification for Greece’s large army – 156,000 men compared with 250,000 in the German army – is the perceived threat from Turkey, which requires the Greeks to keep some form of military parity with a nation with seven times as many people.

There has never been a debate in Parliament about the extent to which a Turkish threat really exists.

PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq