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The Bureaucracy is Greece's Number One Problem

The National Herald

A tax office in Marousi, Athens. (Photo: Eurokinissi/Stelios Misinas)

If Alexis Tsipras or Kyriakos Mitsotakis asked me which of the great problems that plagues Greece causes the most problems for the country’s economic development – especially driving away investors – and as a consequence should be dealt with immediately, I would answer without a second thought: the bureaucracy.

If this problem is not addressed, at least to some degree, everything else that is done will be a waste.

The following lines, which describe a true story, I am sure will remind to some of you of similar experiences with the bureaucracy of the country.

Here is what happened:  a few days ago, I had sent a little money from a New York bank to my personal bank account in Athens.

On Thursday of last week, around noon with the city burning at more than 90 degrees, I stopped my work at the newspaper's office in Athens Center to "jump" to the bank where I had sent the money so that I could transfer it to where I had to.

“I'll be back in a little while,” I told one colleague, and I left with another.

I reached the bank in five minutes. Once inside, I was faced with a long line of people. No problem. New York had prepared me well for this.

So I wait patiently on the line, but it was going slowly. I noted that only two windows were open, but even if four were in operation I would have said there needed to be more at that time in that particular location.

Nonetheless I found the situation to be reasonable. Banks, I thought, are going through a big crisis - so it makes sense for them to economize.

After 40 minutes, I arrived at the window. A kind employee took my identity card, looked for a while on the computer screen, and finally told me, "there is no money in your account."

“But that can’t be. I sent it days ago,” I answered him.

“But it did not come,” the employee insisted as he continued to look at his computer screen.

“I sent it in dollars,” I told him. “Is it in my account in dollars?”

“Oh, you did not tell me that,” he replied.

“But I told you beforehand that I am a permanent resident abroad and that I live in New York.”

“In fact, I see the money,” he said finally.

“I'm very glad,” I answer him and proceeded to give him a piece of paper with the information he needed to transfer the funds to another account at another bank.

“It will cost you 30 euros,” he told me, “15 euros for each operation.”

What am I to do? I said to him, “Ok.”

“Ah,” he then said. “I can make this one transaction and you will save 15 euros.”

I thanked him warmly and told him to go ahead. He gave me two pieces of paper to sign. No problem. Everything was now moving right along.

After a while, however, he told me, “I need your tax clearance information. You have to go to Mrs. 'X' across the room, who will take care of you.”

One hour had already passed.

So I went to Mrs. 'X', who, of course, was serving other customers.

Again I stood in line, and I began to read on my mobile phone – on the website of The National Herald - a speech that former prime minister Kostas Karamanlis had given the night before in Thessaloniki. (An interesting speech).

After 20 minutes, it was my turn to speak with Mrs. 'X'. She was a kind young woman who looked tired but was well-disposed to helping me.

My colleague, who accompanied me, tried to download my tax update from his cell phone. However, because Vodafone's network was not connecting at that time, it would not download.

The woman then picked up the phone and talked to someone.

After another 15-20 minutes, a tall young man with a confident air about him showed up. He was obviously a man of authority. He was a manager.

The young woman showed him something on the computer and he told her, “no you cannot do it. In addition to Greek tax information, we also need your tax information from the IRS.”

I could not believe my ears.

“What does the IRS have to do with this,” I replied. “This money was sent from my New York bank account, so if there were any issues they would not have transferred the money.”

No one in America needs tax information from the IRS to undertake a bank transaction.

“Without it, I cannot give you your money,” he answered me categorically.

I tried to explain to him, to convince him, but it was in vain.

He was adamant. He answered me in the end, “it is the law. I cannot do anything.”

“He is right,” I thought. He had to follow the law. Since that is the law, that is what has to be done.

However, is it necessary for a person to wait 1 ½ hours to ask for his or her own money – and please do not assume it was a large amount – only to be told he cannot have it because he needs... tax information from the IRS?

And don’t forget: I am not taking money out of Greece – I am bringing money into the country.

I told him that since that is the law, he was correct not to transfer it, but that I wished the first employee had told me so that I would not have wasted my time. And that I wish I had to sign fewer forms.

But, beyond and above all, I regret that such bureaucratic procedures are necessary even in a private bank that take so much time to navigate through. How will the economy move forward and which foreigners will invest when faced with such bureaucracy?

That is why I stated above that I would tell the political leaders that the biggest problem holding back the economy is the bureaucracy, and that if the winner of the July 7 election does not start to drastically reduce red tape from July 8, anything else he does will be just a drop in the bucket...

P.S. A friend of mine whom I told what happened told me he had exactly the same experience. And what did you do, I asked? He said, "I went to another branch of the same bank, and had no problem."

I then proceeded to do the same. And it worked!