The EU Commission’s hubris over the Greek wildfires

Flickr/Christos Loufopoulos
Wildfire in Greece

In the month that passed since the Greek wildfires, the death toll has climbed to the record number of 99, making it one of the most lethal “natural” disasters in Greece since World War II and the second deadliest forest fire in the 21st century worldwide. Few were those who, in private or in public, blamed Greece’s creditors and the long-lasting austerity they have imposed on the country for what happened in Mati. This is a surprise in a country where many (including myself) almost always reserve a place for the troika in the blame game – and for good reason.

A plausible explanation is that this time it was simply not the troika’s fault. Another, more intuitive explanation is that the drama was so national, so existential that putting the blame on outsiders was inconceivable.

This was not the case outside Greece. The most telling example is an article by prominent Italian journalist Federico Fubini published in the Italian daily Corriere della Sera on July 25. Fubini put forward the hypothesis that fire protection in Greece had been the victim of austerity.

In the wake of Corriere’s article, FAZ in Frankfurt published its own take on Fubini’s angle titled “Is it the fault of the creditors’?” But the German daily focused more on deconstructing Corriere’s arguments than adopting them.

The Corriere article irked Brussels. It came at a moment when EU stakeholders were promoting the exact opposite narrative – that Europe once more is coming to save (an ungrateful) Greece. As shown by this tweet by Carl Bildt, former prime minister of Sweden:

The article by Fubini, deputy chief editor in the biggest Italian newspaper, reputed for his pro-Europe positions, disturbed Brussels for yet another reason: It was seen as a boost to eurosceptic reflexes in a country where anti-European political forces have taken the upper hand, potentially destabilising the European construction.

(A similar debate, much bigger in volume and in intensity, was sparked in Italy by the Genoa bridge disaster, with eurosceptic Matteo Salvini, deputy prime minister and leader of the xenophobic Lega Nord, putting the blame on the EU, and the EU Commission furiously rebuffing it.)

The Brussels choreography

The European rebuttal was imminent. Not even 24-hours after Corriere’s article, at the press briefing at the Berlaymont building in Brussels, the first official reaction by the Commission was meticulously choreographed:

A journalist puts a question to the Commission’s spokesperson Alexander Winterstein referring to what was written in the Italian press about the wildfires.

The Commission’s spokesperson responds “it is good that you ask this question” and with a nod calls to the stand another Commission spokesperson (Christian Spahr) who – by sheer coincidence – carries with him a dossier with data on the Greek Fire Service budget.

Spahr gets the floor, consults his papers, and starts making his arguments, backed-up by figures that are supposed to disprove Corriere’s article:

First of all, explains the Commission spokesman, even if there were cuts, these were not decided by the troika but by the successive Greek governments:

“The institutions agree [on] overall fiscal targets with the Greek authorities in context with the stability support programme; the allocation of budget resources, including to emergency services, remains the responsibility of the Greek authorities.”

But, according to the Commission’s spokesperson, there were no cuts – on the contrary:

“The budget allocated to the firefighters has even slightly increased between 2010 and 2018.”

“That was very clear. Very good”, commended the other spokesperson, and proceeded to the next question.

The Commission counter-attack against Corriere

A few days later, Corriere della Sera published a letter from the Director-General for Economic and Financial Affairs (DG ECFIN), Marco Buti, one of the most powerful officials in Brussels. It was a letter of protest and denial:

“Any such debate must be based on facts, data and solid arguments”, wrote Buti, adding that “unfortunately” the arguments invoked by Fubini “are not corresponding fully to the truth of the facts.”

And the ECFIN Director-General continues: “The figures show that the firefighters’ budget was increased by 5%, from €378 million in 2017 to €397 million in 2018. And currently, the budget for firefighters in Greece is higher by 3.6% than the one for 2010.”

In other words, says the Commission, under the troika’s watch not only was the budget for the Greek fire service not cut, it was actually increased! The claim is sourced from the most official level: budget data as published by the Greek ministry of Finance on its own website.

It didn’t take long before the same debate showed up on the pages of the Greek press. The front page of “To Ethnos” daily titled “The Bailouts burnt down the Fire Service”. To which the Commission again responded immediately with a letter signed by the head of the EU Representation in Athens George Markopouliotis and published on the following day. The Commission was sticking to its line:

“The firefighters’ budget has even slightly increased between the start of the first programme in 2010 and the end of the programme of economic consolidation in 2018”.

Indeed, in the recent budgets of the fire service there is a slight increase.

But this is where the Commission departs from the truth.

600 million to 1 billion euros cuts on fire protection

YearBudget appropriationsDifference
from previous year
(in €)
from previous year
(in %)
Sources: Hellenic Fire Service (HFS) budget appropriations (or commitments), Diavgeia, ministry of Finance, ministry of Interior. Datasets for 2017 and 2018: HFS and  xls. Detailed budget breakdowns per year: 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011. For 2009-2010, parliamentary question.

In the 2009 budget, the funds earmarked for the Fire Service were 499 million euros. In 2010 they dropped to 451 million (-48 million). In 011 (first budget under the troika), they dropped further to 370 million (drop of another 81 million). The cuts continued until 2014 when the budget had fallen to 340 million. It was only then that a gradual increase started so bringing the budget to 397 million in 2018, still a long way below the fire service’s budget before the start of the crisis.

In total, the cumulative budget cuts of the Fire Service exceeded 1 billion euros if our starting point is the 2010 budget or 600 million if the starting point is 2011.

Greek Fire Service Budget Cuts, 2009-2018

YearBudget Appropriations
(in €)
Difference from 2009
(in €)
Difference from 2009
(in %)
Difference from 2010
(in €)
Difference from 2010
(in %)

The Commission’s response

We contacted, by email, the three EU Commission officials that made the aforementioned statements and represent three key EU bodies (DG ECFIN, European Commission, Representation of the Commission in Greece), Messrs Buti, Spahr and Markopouliotis; we laid out before them the discrepancy between the official data and their statements.

On August 10, Mr. Spahr replied:

“Our team will get back to you as soon as possible.”

There was no further answer, so on August 23 we asked again if the previous statements were still valid. Mr. Spahr replied:

“Indeed our previous statements are valid but nevertheless, we will verify the course of emails.”

On the same day, another Commission spokesperson, the Press Officer for Economic Affairs Enda McNamara, wrote back:

“The data referred to by the Commission are available on the Greek Ministry of Finance’s website:”

This hyperlink refers to the Greek budget website which contains thousands of documents as opposed to the specific official datasets we quoted (see table’s caption). The Commission avoids explaining the source of its statements, while at the same time insisting that these statements are valid despite the official data seemingly to say otherwise.

30% of fire engines rendered “useless”

The Commission’s statements make the additional argument that “spending for [firefighters’] wages increased by 5% compared to 2010.”

However, if this claim is true, then the cuts in fire protection become even more dramatic. Those 600 million (if one starts counting from 2011) or 1 billion (if one starts counting from 2010) that were cut were not missed from fire fighters’ wages but from items such as the purchase, operation, maintenance and repairing of firefighting equipment.

The operational cost of austerity is confirmed by the fire fighters themselves. The head of the fire fighters union, Dimitris Stathopoulos told UK newspaper The Guardian that budget cuts had rendered at least 30% of the service’s fire engines useless:

“About 15% of our fleet of 1,750 trucks are off the roads because they have chronic problems and are old,” he said. “Another 15% are in need of spare parts, which we can’t afford.”

504 firefighters reassigned from fire-prone areas to (German-owned) airports

The level of fire protection was also indirectly impacted by other troika-led policies, such as privatisation. In 2017 more than 500 fire fighters that belonged to the Fire Service were forced to relocate to 14 regional airports bought by the German airport management company Fraport as part of an agreement signed between Fraport and the Greek state. (The wages of the relocated fire fighters are paid by Fraport.) This prompted a wave protests by mayors across Greece who saw crucial fire fighting manpower lacking in fire-prone areas.

The EU should not be treated as a convenient scapegoat to absolve the sins of others, in this case the grave responsibilities of national authorities (central and local government).

For example, according to a story (in Greek) in Kathimerini, 16 million out of the 89 million approved by the EU Solidarity Fund following the 2007 wildfires in Greece were earmarked for early warning systems. None of them are currently operational.

The fire in Mati, barely 25 kilometres from the centre of Athens, left a trauma on Greek society, so deep that blaming the disaster on the officials in Brussels, Washington or Frankfurt seems like a diversion.

From that point through to the EU officials boasting their “help” to Greece, and going as far as twisting the official data, is nothing less than hubris.

Evidently, Europe has taken a page out of the Greek Statistics handbook.

A version of this article was first published in Greek by Inside Story.