Greece should fight the ‘Euro Club’ from within

I believe the Syriza party is selling the Greek population a pig in a poke.  They are misleading the population by adopting a populist stance on Europe and currency while still appealing to the radical left that they are a fundamentally anti-establishment party.  They have mismanaged the negotiations over the Greek bailout situation, and now create a fast-tracked controversial referendum to vote on a bailout package that expired last Tuesday.  They are clearly too busy trying to unilaterally redetermine Greece’s position in the European Union and have subsequently created a confused political space.

My own left wing, anti-establishment political positioning on the face of it, would seem to align me with Syriza, but that would be to judge on the surface and miss the substance, or lack of it in Syriza’s case.  In fact I was rather disappointed to see the Radical Independence Campaign rally in Glasgow, protest in ‘solidarity’ with the Greeks, but tell them to vote ‘Oxi’.  It’s too simplistic to align yourself with a situation just because your keywords are all there, ‘radical’, ‘left’, ‘anti-establishment’ and so forth.  Greece has been forced into a reduction of public spending and been driven into a vicious austerity cycle as wages drop and economic investment is reduced.  Austerity does not work, and the people at the bottom are always the victims as we see in Greece with child poverty and unemployment rates on the rise, but the Greek people will have to live with the consequences of a possible future withdrawal from the Euro and possibly the EC.

I write this article from Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece, which encompasses around 1 million people in its larger urban zone, making it 4 times smaller than Athens.  However if Greek PM Alexis Tsipras is to persuade more than half of voters to back ‘Oxi’ (No), he will need more than the rhetoric aimed at his ‘fellow Athenian’ left, and the disenfranchised jobless youth he is focusing on.  The picture here is not the one painted by the UK press I’ve just read, which tells a story of panic food buying and chaos in the streets with long queues at banks. In fact the street cafes that characterise Thessaloniki have their usual bustling and busy atmosphere as Greeks get out and chat in surprisingly good spirit, I have not witnessed a single queue at cash points, any trouble or sign of chaos.  I’ve witnessed city life, airports, a holiday island, even the rural areas around Pella, the ancient kingdom of Macedon from the time of Alexander the Great, who would definitely have something to say about the way his people are being treated.  The UK press are lying and have their own agenda again it seems.

I have spoken to many Greeks over the course of this week.  I am in the interesting position of working with Greek professors and researchers who rely on European funding to sustain important job creating research and pay to staff the R & D related activities of the departments they run and employee Phd students.  In fact, sitting in a Thessaloniki restaurant, I look around at these colleagues and consider that we also have German, Croatian and UK professors in our company. In the coarse of the inevitable political discussion, the German backs Merkel with talk of Germany propping up the Greek economy.  The Croatian speaks of the benefits of his country being a new entrant and being classed as a great leap forward in Croatia. The Greeks blame Greece for it’s own situation, they largely say the way Greece manages it’s country has to change but will take time.  I guess the fact Greece requires a Minister Of State For Combating Corruption alludes to the many problems they have.

The UK participant in the lively debate in a busy waterside Thessaloniki restaurant was anti-European but for completely different reasons, ones of immigration, money lost and being dictated to.  I realize we have a mini European Union around our table with views that are largely about self-interest rather than shared future, which is a little disappointing, however the common denominator in the company is that everyone seems to back a Greek Yes vote in our dinner time referendum.

As if on cue, a loud protest march of a couple of thousand people goes by our window and parades along the sea front, so I head out to observe.  It’s a pro ‘Oki’ march and is mainly full of younger people.  There is plenty passion on show and this peaceful demonstration has a frustrated and angry edge to it.  I catch the end of a Yes demo the next day which seems more mixed in participation with a family affair vibe, with a lot of the older generation as well as kids waving flags.  The paraphernalia and protest set up seems more organized for the Yes campaign and their messages clearer, which is quite surprising given this is not the government stance.

The European partnership that Greece joined in 1981 was considered a Union of fair democracy.  The one they realized they ended up with did not conform to their expectations.  Their eligibility to join was rather fudged in the first instance regarding their economic state as it suited all parties but this meant there was a problem waiting to happen.  The way Europe has dealt with the issue exposes a cancer at the heart of the EU model where there is a relevance towards punishment rather than understanding and reasonable help for flagging partners requiring a leg up.

This could have been achieved by a package of debt relief, interest free loans, grants, far more time to pay debts and a package of professional help to boost the Greek economy in terms of GDP as well as methodology towards better fiscal governance.  Instead this broken Union of Europe adopted a stance of punishing what they consider a failed state.  This was despite the fact they were responsible for implementing a borrowing cycle with increasing interest rates to pay off existing debt, meaning your debt becomes increasingly expensive and inevitably rises.

I watched the Glasgow scenes from my Thessaloniki hotel on the live stream on this site and frankly thought the stance was ridiculous.  Chants about ‘from Glasgow to Greece’ advising them of ‘no justice, no peace’ if they do not get their way are at best naive and ill judged and at worst an incendiary validation that resorting to violence is a great idea.  I am in Greece, it’s a tense situation and even Syriza are being very careful with their words in order not to pit the population against each other.  In fact Alexis Tsipras tweeted that:

‘Our people are fighting without swords or bullets. They have something stronger on their side: Justice’.

He also said yesterday,

“I urge you to act with civility, to respect opposing views so that we may present a united front in the negotiation.”

So far the Greeks natural easygoing nature has prevailed, and let’s hope it stays that way.

greeceSyriza are playing an economically dangerous game though, and gambling with a countries future.  This vote is not directly about leaving the EU or even the Eurozone but let’s be clear, it would be a massive step in that direction if Tsipras gets his way.  It’s also interesting that some Greek voters see the referendum as an in/out of the EU vote.  This is a complex vote with very little time for Greeks to get their head round the question, never mind the detail behind the question.  The question is complex and consists of an incredible 74 words, which is surprising for something requiring a simple binary response.  The question put to the Greek people reads:

“Must the agreement plan submitted by the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund to the Eurogroup of 25 June, 2015, and comprised of two parts which make up their joint proposal, be accepted? The first document is titled “reforms for the completion of the current programme and beyond” and the second “Preliminary debt sustainability analysis”

Interestingly the first option on the ballot paper unusually is the Oxi (no) option, which seems to defy convention, but this is the bonus of having the largest party in the Hellenic Parliament.  It’s no wonder it’s a confused situation though, when the bailout package referred to in the question expired last Tuesday!

A Greek Minister is interviewed on TV here and his answers range between nonsensical and farcical and are reminiscent of comical Ali during the illegal invasion of Iraq. He is every inch, the classic evasive politician who places rhetoric over reason.   This is a party without answers, alternatives or a good record in government.

I’m watching scenes from Athens on TV of a huge ‘Oxi’ rally in Athens Syntagma square.  I’ve been there a few times; I’ve even witnessed a rally there, but nothing on this scale.  There is a Nai (Yes) rally nearby that is smaller in scale.  Alexis Tsipras arrives at the rally around 8PM local time to a reception befitting of a rock star and reminds me of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and her ‘gig’ at the Hydro in Glasgow.  He talks of the medicine of austerity killing the patient, the high unemployment and urges people to fight with them.

In a passionate speech to his supporters, he rejected the European ultimatums and spoke of dignity and democracy.  In a rhetoric-fueled appeal aimed at the heart rather than the head, Tsipras went on to say:

“Long live dignity, nobody knows the passion of our people. Embrace hope, and optimism, this s a celebration.  Take our future in our own hands.  Hope to overcome fear and this oppression.”

“The whole of Europe and the world are on Greece, the place democracy was born.  We need a chance for democracy to return, in Europe because Europe has changed and is oppressing people. All of us can send a message of democracy and dignity.”

“Nobody has the right to threaten, to cut down Greece from it’s natural geographic body.  Greece was the birthplace of European civilization.  Europa is a Greek word.  We will not allow Europe to ignore its democratic purpose of democracy and solidarity.

People, we are here in constitution [Syntagma] square, I urge you to reject repression and suppression. This is a historic moment of resurrection and freedom, I call upon you on Sunday to say a great ‘No!’ and turn back the people who are oppressing us.”

“Whatever the result, people are afraid but on Monday we so no to division, together we will make a better Greece after 5 years of catastrophe.  I call on you to avoid terrorism.  Decide by law and democracy.  Justice is our friend and justice is on our side.  Whatever happens we are the victors, Greece won, democracy won.  Goodbye good friends, go with dignity and our ‘No’ will write history.

Emotions are running high, but for a supposedly non-Eurosceptic MP, the speech was as anti-Europe as it could probably be.  The Syriza Party slogan is “We open a way to hope”, but they seem to be closing doors and have backed themselves into a cul-de-sac of their own making.

Time to fly home on the eve of the vote, with things far more quiet than previous days as the Greeks are banned from organized protest today under electoral rules.  My feeling is that Greece will return a Yes vote as too many older voters who remember the austere times of a devalued Drachma, then again driver of the taxi to the airport I just spoke to says he will vote No, this one may be tight.  The irony is not lost on me as the ‘Euro Club’ travellers are allowed to board first.  Indeed, I consider to myself, I hope none of them has a veto that allows them to block my boarding.   As my flight hits some turbulence, I’m reminded of the situation I’ve left behind.  A generous and proud nation that feels insulted and let down by a hierarchical and increasingly dictatorial Europe, Germany especially who clearly are desperate to punish Greece and send out a message to others.

The Greeks are a people stuck between a rock and a hard place with no easy answers, but this is not the eve of destruction.  They know they must arrive at an eventual fiscal position of raising more in tax receipts than they are spending, but they are a hard working people and will get there. For the long term good of these wonderful people, I believe, fighting against a broken and unfair European Union is better achieved from the inside.  How will the No voters feel if they get their way and plunge Greece into decades of poverty and decline on a scale that would make todays Greece feel like Dubai.  Let’s all acknowledge it’s a broken system and jointly force change that fosters equality and progression.

There, I got through this without mentioning the horrible ‘Grexit’ portmanteau.  Oops, I just did.

 

 

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