Former US President Obama, in his gigantic new book of memoirs called “A Promised Land,” released on Tuesday, speaks at some length about Greece’s debt crisis, which he admitted kept him and his aides up at night during its worst days.
Remembered as a figure who rushed in to meetings held between European Union and Greek officials, appearing to play a role in the extraordinarily difficult discussions, the former President has now filled in some of the blanks from those whirlwind days, when the Greek economy held on to life by a thread.
During his presidency he had initially criticized both France and Germany, the power players in the EU financial sphere, for their calls for fiscal austerity.
However, the tide began to change when, as he says, “I noticed that they rarely mentioned that German and French banks were some of Greece’s biggest lenders, or that much of Greeks’ accumulated debt had been racked up buying German and French exports – facts that might have made clear to voters why saving the Greeks from default amounted to saving their own banks and industries.”
Obama was noted for his ease in dealing with many world leaders, and German Chancellor Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy were no exceptions.
In the book, Obama has warm words of praise for the veteran German chancellor. But it became clear to him over the course of the crisis that there was another aspect of the situation.
Namely, that the two European nations’ revelations of their deep ties to Greek banks “would turn voter attention away from failures of successive Greek governments and toward the failures of those German or French officials charged with supervising bank lending practices.”
This revelation, coming as it does from the world’s most powerful man during the period in question, is quite surprising, and certainly shores up the opinions of many in Greece, who complained to deaf ears during the worst days of the crisis that the blame was not to be placed squarely on their shoulders.
On his final trip to Europe in the last days of his Presidency, Obama reiterated his solidarity with Greece regarding the severe privations of the days of austerity in a visit with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.
He offered his strong support for debt relief for the battered country, which has experienced a shrinkage in the size of its economy shrink by a quarter over the previous seven years.
Greece had previously voiced its hopes that the US would be able to persuade its foreign creditors to restructure some of its massive debt burden, which at one point reached 180% of its GDP.
“We cannot simply look to austerity as a strategy,” Obama said after meeting with Tsipras at Maximos Mansion.
“Our argument has always been that when the economy contracted this fast, when unemployment is this high, that there also has to be a growth agenda to go with it and it is very difficult to imagine the kind of growth strategy that’s needed without some debt relief mechanism,” the American President stated.
Just the year before, Athens had agreed to a third economic bailout package of up to 86 billion euros ($93 billion) but it still needed long-term debt restructuring in order to make its way out of the crisis.
Obama, reiterated at the meeting with Tsipras that the United States would stand “shoulder to shoulder” with its NATO ally Greece.
On this last official visit to Greece, Obama openly lauded the many figures who created democracy in the days of ancient Greece.
He said, as he spoke to reporters on the Acropolis, that it was in Ancient Greece where “the notions of citizenship, democracy and the rule of law first began to develop,” adding that a visit by any American president to Greece “sends a signal of the continuity between the speeches of Pericles and what happened with our Founding Fathers.
“It’s a very important role for the President of the United States to send a signal to the world that their culture, their traditions, their heritage, their monuments are something of value, and are precious, and that we have learned from them.”