AMSTERDAM/ATHENS (Reuters) - For months Dutch Finance Minister Jan Kees de Jager has subjected Athens to regular dressings-down on the dire state of its finances. Now, with his coalition brought to its knees by a row over budget cuts, Greeks may detect a whiff of hypocrisy.
Even by the standards of the blunt-talking Dutch, De Jager hasn’t minced his words in demanding that Greek leaders submit to EU demands for punitive austerity measures - or forget about getting any help to avoid bankruptcy.
So blunt were some of his comments that he helped to provoke a response from the Greek head of state, who normally stays above the rough and tumble of daily politics. “Who are the Dutch?” asked an angry President Karolos Papoulias in February.
Monday’s resignation of the Dutch coalition over a failure to agree on budget cuts which are modest compared with those endured by Greeks aroused no sympathy in Athens.
“This serves the Dutch right. They haven’t understood that the crisis is pretty much hitting the whole of Europe, not just Greece,” said Nikos Karagiannis, 32, a state employee whose pay has been cut 40 percent under the austerity regime.
The problems of the Netherlands, one of the euro zone’s strongest economies and most stable democracies, are minor compared with those of Greece, which is suffering the fifth year of what some politicians call a depression.
De Jager himself dismissed any thought that the Dutch crisis put his country in the same league as Europe’s sick economies. “There is no correlation whatsoever between the Netherlands and the countries of southern Europe,” he told Reuters on Monday.
Dutch state debt is about 65 percent of annual economic output, he noted. Greece, by contrast, hopes to cut its debts to almost twice that by 2020 from 165.3 percent last year.
The Dutch row is over whether to cut the budget deficit to the EU target of three percent of GDP next year. For Greece, such levels are only a dream: last year Athens got its deficit down to 9.1 percent, but only after cuts which have helped to send unemployment to record levels.
De Jager, a short, plump figure who looks younger than his years, has rarely held back in saying that European countries in trouble will have to accept greater oversight of their budgets.
“You can’t solve a debt crisis with more money, that is the lesson from this crisis,” the 43-year-old minister said last year. “You need more tools, you need budget oversight.”
Only last year De Jager and Prime Minister Mark Rutte - who offered the cabinet’s resignation after a party it relies for support on refused to back the austerity cuts - proposed an EU budget authority run by a powerful commissioner.
This could intervene in government budgets if countries ignored debt targets, gradually taking over their finances and potentially expelling them from the euro zone.
Greek conservative leader Antonis Samaras, a frontrunner to become prime minister after the May 6 election, dared to question whether policies which have destroyed economic growth might be modified.
This drew another lecture from De Jager, who backed in blunt terms an EU demand that Greek leaders make written undertakings on implementing austerity laid down in a 130 billion euro bailout deal. Words were not enough, he said.
“We have passed that stage. We want a signature from this Mr. Samaras,” De Jager told RTL. “Otherwise they won’t get money, absolutely not.”
Nevertheless, while the Netherlands enters a dangerous period of uncertainty, Greece is enjoying at least a temporary period of relative calm following several years of turmoil.
Greece’s national unity government is due to step aside after elections next month having achieved its aims of passing a 2012 austerity budget, pushing through a bond swap to reduce its debts, and securing the bailout from the European Union and IMF.
Many Greeks feel critics like De Jager are dangerously out of touch in a crisis which threatens the entire euro zone. “I think there’s a possibility that the euro will break down,” said Karagiannis. “It seems the Dutch and others don’t get it.”
The comments hurt. “I don’t care what happens to the Dutch,” said the owner of an Athens coffee shop who declined to be named. “What really bothers me is that all politicians in the big European powers are saying vote for me so that you don’t end up like Greece,” he said, adding that his sales had dropped 50 percent and taxes almost doubled under the austerity regime.
De Jager, an entrepreneur from the Christian Democrat party, in fact doesn’t hold back from predicting dire trouble, albeit with the blame beyond Dutch borders.
“If Greece falls, many European banks will fall as well,” he tweeted in March 2010 as acting finance minister. “All hell will break loose if there is another crisis,” he said on Twitter, drawing fire in parliament.
Additional reporting by Thomas Escritt in The Hague; Writing by David Stamp