According to classical poet Homer, the Greek hero Odysseus returned home from a difficult 10-year journey with the wisdom of self-restraint and the joy of redemption. That lesson has not been lost on modern Greece and its current prime minister, Alexis Tsipras.
On Tuesday, Mr. Tsipras traveled to the island of Ithaca, the mythological home of Odysseus, and marked the end of his country’s eight-year “odyssey” of international bailouts. The financial rescue of Greece from a severe debt crisis was the largest of any sovereign nation in history ($330 billion). The official end of the bailout from Greece’s eurozone partners and the International Monetary Fund, he said, was “a day of redemption.”
Tsipras also called it “the dawning of a new era,” one that he says will require further reforms aimed at changing Greek culture and behavior, such as better tax compliance and the end of a patronage system for government jobs.
The crisis began when the Greek government admitted in 2009 that it had lied about the size of its debt. That scared off foreign creditors, threatening the breakup of the European Union and the end of its experiment with a single currency. The EU countries in the eurozone then threw Greece a lifeline that has since saved the Union. For its part, Greece decided to stay in the EU and change its ways. Both decisions have proved to be the right ones.
Greece is now a stable center in the eastern Mediterranean, one that welcomes Syrian refugees. Its economy is growing 1 to 2 percent, exports are rising, and unemployment is going down. It has risen up the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business index. While it will take years to lower its outsize debt, Greece’s budget is running a surplus. With the end of the bailout, it can again seek money from financial markets.
More Greeks now see more of a future in entrepreneurship than in landing a government job. For sure, the imposed austerity has left its mark on daily life and many businesses. Many well-educated Greeks have left for other countries. Yet the “new era” also includes a shake-up of Greece’s politics. The people are more demanding of integrity and accountability in leaders. So far, the journey home has been worth it, both for Greece and the rest of Europe.