Even on a stiflingly hot summer’s day, the Athens underground is a pleasure. It is air-conditioned, with plasma screens to entertain passengers relaxing in cool, cavernous departure halls – and the trains even run on time.
There is another bonus for users of this state-of-the-art rapid transport system: it is, in effect, free for the five million people of the Greek capital.
With no barriers to prevent free entry or exit to this impressive tube network, the good citizens of Athens are instead asked to ‘validate’ their tickets at honesty machines before boarding. Few bother.
This is not surprising: fiddling on a Herculean scale – from the owner of the smallest shop to the most powerful figures in business and politics – has become as much a part of Greek life as ouzo and olives.
Indeed, as well as not paying for their metro tickets, the people of Greece barely paid a penny of the underground’s £1.5 billion cost – a ‘sweetener’ from Brussels (and, therefore, the UK taxpayer) to help the country put on an impressive 2004 Olympics free of the city’s notorious traffic jams.
The transport perks are not confined to the customers. Incredibly, the average salary on Greece’s railways is £60,000, which includes cleaners and track workers – treble the earnings of the average private sector employee here.
The overground rail network is as big a racket as the EU-funded underground. While its annual income is only £80 million from ticket sales, the wage bill is more than £500m a year – prompting one Greek politician to famously remark that it would be cheaper to put all the commuters into private taxis.
‘We have a railroad company which is bankrupt beyond comprehension,’ says Stefans Manos, a former Greek finance minister. ‘And yet, there isn’t a single private company in Greece with that kind of average pay.’
Significantly, since entering Europe as part of an ill-fated dream by politicians of creating a European super-state, the wage bill of the Greek public sector has doubled in a decade. At the same time, perks and fiddles reminiscent of Britain in the union-controlled 1970s have flourished.
Ridiculously, Greek pastry chefs, radio announcers, hairdressers and masseurs in steam baths are among more than 600 professions allowed to retire at 50 (with a state pension of 95 per cent of their last working year’s earnings) – on account of the ‘arduous and perilous’ nature of their work.
This week, it was reported that every family in Britain could face a £14,000 bill to pay for Greece’s self-inflicted financial crisis. Such fears were denied yesterday after Brussels voted a massive new £100bn rescue package which, it insisted, would not need a contribution from Britain.
Even if this is true – and many British MPs have their doubts – we will still have to stump up £1billion to the bailout through the International Monetary Fund.
In return for this loan, European leaders want the Greeks’ free-spending ways to end immediately if the country is to be prevented from ‘infecting’ the world’s financial system. Naturally, the Greek people are not happy about this.
In Constitution Square this week, opposite the parliament, I witnessed thousands gathering to campaign against government cuts designed to save the country from bankruptcy.
After running battles with riot police, who used tear gas to disperse protesters, thousands are still camped out in the square ahead of a vote by Greek politicians next week on whether to accept Europe-imposed austerity measures.
Yet these protesters should direct their anger closer to home – to those Greeks who have for many years done their damndest to deny their country the dues they owe it.