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What, Besides Islands, Can Greece Sell?

Friday, 5 Mar 2010 | 8:39 AM ET

It was once considered the ultimate status symbol to own your very private island in the sun. The Aga Khan did it and, of course, Greek multi-millionaire and celebrity Aristotle Onassis had his island in the Aegean.

But now, selling of some of the smaller (and uninhabited) islands has been suggested as a desperate, scraping-the-bottom-of-the-barrel-for-cash measure for debt-throttled Greece.

It was German politician Josef Schlarmann, head of the German Mittelstandsvereinigung (the association for Germany's mid-cap industry), who suggested to Greece "if you are bankrupt, you have to sell everything you got .... why not sell some of your islands"?

Now, that didn't get down too well in Athens, but the idea is anything but new. Greek real estate brokers have been show-casing "island jewels" in the "sun-spoilt" Aegean Sea for some time. Cost: 2 to 20 million euros. And many of them have in fact already been sold.

View over the caldera of Santorini in Greece.
Tom Pfeiffer | Getty Images
View over the caldera of Santorini in Greece.

While there might be a few - yes, sun-spoilt for sure - uninhabited rocks in the Aegean that could be turned into petty cash, many of the 3,000 or more islands are uncomfortably close to the coast of Turkey and might not be that attractive to investors.

More often than not one might get unannounced visits from refugees that land on these islands in ramshackle rubber dinghies. Not really the "Onassis feeling," is it?

Ok, if islands are not a real cash option and - often deplored by Greek politicians - many of the valuable antiquities have long been pilfered (by fellow Europeans), what DOES Greece still have to sell?

Family Silver

Jokes and satire aside, there are still some assets Greece could sell. Some state-owned family silver so to speak. Such as public utility DEI. But such a move would be extremely unpopular with the unions (well, what else is new?).

The government made a few half-hearted attempts at privatizing DEI and the unions always very successfully kyboshed that - very effectively, by turning the lights off in Athens for a few hours. Result: DEI still is firmly in state hands.

Really, Greece is only facing what other, richer countries have faced before: painful, all too painful economic restructuring, lay-offs and selling off the "family silver".

Germany had to do it in order to finance the debts of German unification. The UK had to do it in the depth of its economic crises of the seventies and eighties. And France had to do it (and is doing it still).

There were protests, general strikes, steel workers and miners marching in order to defend their jobs and their livelihoods; and governments came under pressure - and on occasion were booed out of power.

But in the end, that did not stop the painful restructuring. It happened all the same, with all the pain it involved. As it will happen in Greece. Greece will survive this crisis. Whether the present Greek government will ... well, the jury is still out on this one.

Maybe Papandreou and Co should invest in one of those "sun-spoilt islands" in the Aegean while they still have the chance ... just in case they end up enjoying their retirement rather earlier than planned.

Contact Europe: Economy

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