For a long time, Greek political parties have resisted to overhaul their civil service strucutre. Now, parliament has agreed to a massive reform: 15,000 civil servants are to be laid off by the end of 2014.
Since 1911, Greek civil servants cannot be fired. It's a right that's guaranteed by the constitution - for a good reason. Before then, they were helpless victims of party interests, where each new government laid off civil servants to get their own friends into lucrative state jobs.
In the past decades, however, the situation seems to have tipped toward the other extreme. Even in cases of severe breaches, a Greek civil servant keeps his or her job.
Only recently, Greek media uncovered an example of how absurd this can be. A policeman who in 2008 killed a 15-year-old and received a life sentence still gets 30 percent of his salary - although he's sitting in prison. And this, the report claimed, was not an exception.
Salary in prison
"Changing the status for civil servants and their right to a certain salary can only be done by the police's disciplinary council," explained journalist Maria Psara, who had broken the story. Her research had shown that the lawyer of the policeman in question had managed to delay proper discussion of the case. Only once the story got picked up by the media did the disciplinary council convene for a meeting to discuss the case, the Athens journalist explained.
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Lately, more similar cases have been uncovered. There's talk of two city officials who ordered the killing of the mayor of a northern Greek town, got arrested, and still receive half of their former salary.
There's also the case of a former financial director of the city of Thessaloniki who is continuing to receive 25 percent of his salary, despite the fact that he's behind bars for embezzlement. There even is a civil servant who played truant for 10 years, and still received his full pay check each and every month.
Reforms not cuts
All this is to change now, the government has promised. The three-party coalition under conservative Antonis Samaras said that some 1,500 civil servants who broke the law must quit. Also, some 13,500 civil servants are to be laid off by the end of 2014 as part of restructuring efforts.
This is a decision likely to be welcomed by the troika made up of the European Union, International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank. For years, the troika had been calling for more efficiency in state structures. But the announcement that some 15,000 jobs would be cut in the public sector was followed by the interior minister saying that the same number of new people would then be hired - much to the surprise of the international community.
"Firing civil servants is not an austerity measure in itself, but rather the first step of more comprehensive structural reform," explained political analyst and former government spokesman Dmitris Tsiodras. "So its not about saving 300 million euros [$390 million] by laying off 15,000 people - instead it's about replacing unqualified employees with younger and more efficient people," he added.
The problem is not the state apparatus itself, Tsiodras believes. It's rather the fact that many civil servants got their jobs not due to their qualifications, but because they had the right connections to the right people.
Until a few years ago, the government didn't actually know how many employees it had. Only in summer 2010 did then-Finance Minister Giorgos Papakonstantinou have all state employees registered, and ended up with a count of some 768,000 people - not including local government jobs. By now, this number has reportedly been reduced to 644,000, due to pressure from the troika.
For Tsiodras, this number isn't actually as scary as it is widely perceived. It is, he claimed, about average compared to the OECD. Now, it is more about creating an efficient administration that can make Greece economically competitive again. The former government spokesman knows only too well how difficult this might be.
"The state apparatus resisted reforms - there was a fear of what's new," Tsiodras recalled. The pervasive mentality, he added, is of equalizing everything, which leads to ambitious and efficient employees getting the same salary as those who are lazy. This is what the government is now trying to change, he explained.
Troika ups the pressure
It remains to be seen whether turnover in the public sector will bring about the change needed. Psara is sceptical - she thinks there's a danger of a new system developing, in which civil servants will again be at the mercy of party interests.
That state employees who broke the law can expect consequences is perfectly legitimate, Psara said. But she added that "we have to be careful that we don't head to the other extreme." She postulated a scenario where innocent people end up on trial due to false accusations. "They would need many years to achieve receive justice and regain their reputation. That's hardly what the government is aiming for," she said.
For the troika, time is of the essence: A promise to cut 15,000 civil servants by the end of 2014 is a precondition for the next 8.8 billion euro ($11.5 billion) installment of bailout money for Athens.
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