The horrific forest fires near Athens, with terrible loss of life, have led to claims that the austerity measures imposed on Greece by the troika damaged the capacity of the Greek fire-protection services. Part of the blame for the horrific deaths and property damage in the Greek fire tragedy is therefore to be borne by the troika.
Is this true? It is a complex question which, I understand, is to be part of a formal investigation. That is right and proper. A crucial issue is clearly to what extent decisions on the mix of fiscal measures, for a given amount of fiscal consolidation, were taken by the Greek authorities or the troika. But given that the claim of troika responsibility is already circulating in the media, it is worth looking at the data that are currently available. Eurostat has detailed breakdowns of public spending data that can shed at least some light on the question.*
Public expenditure on fire-protection
Let’s look first at current spending on fire-protection (in millions of Euros):
The picture is mixed. From a high in 2009 substantial cuts of the order of €200m were made; on the face of it it would seem unlikely that cuts of such an order of magnitude would not have negatively affected the fire-fighting capacity of the public services. These were partially reversed, to the tune of around €50m, in 2015 and 2016, the last year for which we have data. We should note that the 2009 figure marked almost a doubling of (nominal) spending on fire-protection since Greece joined the Euro. The €510m spent in 2016 was the fourth-highest sum ever spent by Greece on fire-protection. (These are nominal figures. Greece had rather high inflation up to the crisis, which will partly explain the pre-crisis increase in spending, but it has been negative – deflation – for most of the period since 2013.)
It is also useful to look at expenditures as a proportion of total public spending, to get a sense of whether the fire-service was hit relatively more or less hard by spending cuts.
We do see an initial reduction in spending on fire-protection as a share of the total in the wake of the crisis. This raises a question as to how this decision came about. The recent recovery, however, puts the spending share at the highest level (just under 0.6% of public spending) it has ever been. It is also worth noting that the spending share on fire-protection is now (2016) very susbtantially higher than the EU average (0.44%) and the shares in countries that might be considered similar to Greece (Spain, Croatia, Italy: all below 0.4%). Even at its low point in 2011 and 2013 the spending share was higher than in those countries.
Broadly the same picture emerges if the fire-protection expenditure figures are calculated as a share of nominal GDP (not shown). The share (most recently around 0.3%) is high in European comparative terms and is up by around half since the figure just prior to the crisis (around 0.2%). Of course this is against the background of a major decline in the level of GDP. What this suggests is that, taking the decline in GDP and overall public spending as given, the fire service has been partially shielded.
When the mourning is over a full investigation of the causes of the fires and why so many lives were lost will need to be carried out. The figures discussed here cover spending, in the country as a whole, and tell us nothing about the efficiency of the Greek fire-services, neither before nor since the start of the EU-led “programmes” in the country. Much less do they shed light on how the political choices on spending cuts and tax rises came about. What they do show is that total spending on fire-protection is probably (at least based on 2016 data) rather high in historical terms, despite substantial absolute cut-backs made in the wake of the crisis. It is also high in EU-comparative terms.
It is beholden on everyone, out of respect for the victims and the difficult task facing the Greek authorities, to be extremely reticent in pushing theories until the investigation is complete. Meanwhile the EU should seek to step up further the fire-fighting and prevention help that is reaching Greece from other European countries.
* My attention was drawn to this data series on social media, specifically by the “My country? Europe” facebook page.