As the referendum draws nearer, the Greek people find themselves at an historical crossroads yet again. A lot of positive ground has been covered since 1980, when the country first joined the European Union, with dramatic improvements in everyday life and an overall booming living standard; challenging the European consensus would have seemed unthinkable as recently as seven years ago. Why is it, then, that the possibility of a defiant No in tomorrow’s referendum appears more and more likely?
The question can only be answered once the bigger picture is understood: Europe is not the Union it was in 1980. Or 2001, for that matter. The notion that economic policy is the central, all-encompassing political subject matter which forms the basis for European integration dominates our lives now in a way it never did. Governments used to (or at least appeared to) tell their banks what to do in order to serve their people, but this hierarchy has now clearly turned on its head; nothing new there – the same political condition was true of medieval, feudal Europe.
The Euro, with all its unifying powers, may in fact prove to be the tombstone of Europe unless something changes soon. In Greece, a hothouse for political debate since time immemorial, everyone is vocal; the diversity of opinion is deafening, but there is a new axiom that seems to be accepted by almost everyone: Europe is wrong on this one and has mutated into a non-Europe.
The small city of Kozani is a case in point. Built in the 16th century by Greek refugees in the mountain ranges of the northwest of the country, it grew rapidly as a commercial and cultural centre in the multinational circuit of Ottoman and central European routes. In 1912 its union with Greece was welcomed but meant its financial demise. Over the following century, it became an industrial coal mining town. Throw in a couple of wars and living standards have always been sub-par in recent memory.
Since 1980 however, a growing sense of prosperity, modernisation and financial prospects gave the townspeople an air of optimism. Up until recently that is. The European ‘dream’ has collapsed in a few dozen months of austerity, shock economic policy and the domination of neoliberal politics across Europe. The historical library of the city which hosts manuscripts from the 11th century and boasts thousands of old prints and maps had been scheduled to move to a new €10m purpose-built library and become the centrepiece structure of the municipality. All work ceased last week, and funding for the completion and operation of the new library is now rapidly becoming the stuff of science fiction. If the country leaves the Euro violently in a display of Berlin’s might after the referendum, that exit will actually manifest itself physically, in a city which is currently running the construction of more than ten major EU-funded public sites.
But this is only the surface of it. The town is already suffering from an unemployment rate that finds roughly one in two out of work. Society is fragile. Many are now questioning the artificial prosperity that the EU brought with it and some are even accusing its policies of having been premeditated and deceitful. The dozens of BMWs one finds parked along the unkempt streets of a decaying city, used to be symbols of European integration and well-being, now they are reminders of an economic arrangement that turned the Greeks into both investors and debtors simultaneously, dependent on European funds and restricted from sustaining their own industrial and agricultural production. Unsurprisingly, realising the effects of this peculiar financial scheme of give-and-give makes people bitter.
And yet loyalties remain, in spite of German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble and the likes confirming all alleged duplicity this past week by way of extreme and inexplicable schadenfraude. In the coming referendum opinion is divided, debates are heating up. Many compare the situation with 1944-46 and the beginnings of the Greek civil war whose tragedy still resonates strongly. The Yes camp often considers No-voters to be childish and impulsive, spoiled even, unaware of act and reaction, sequence and consequence. The No camp generally considers Yes-voters to be spineless and self-serving, uninterested in the common good, traitors to their own people and the people of Europe at large. Harsh words are exchanged, accusations are made in public addresses, coffee-shop debates and television arguments. The privately-owned media offers ample opportunity for the Yes camp to lash out and predict the most apocalyptic end of the world imaginable as a result of government incompetence in a display of propaganda that may in fact have an opposite effect to that which is desired. On the other hand state-owned media is restrained in its bias, but not completely innocent of mild propaganda either.
And then there is the government which asked for the referendum in the first place, knowing full well its divisive side-effects. This government has the sympathy of many more now than those who actually voted for it. Most think its intentions are genuine for a change. More people than not think that a pretty decent job of voicing the people’s concerns is being done. Pretty much everyone realises that the odds are and will continue to be stacked against it and that it may not be able to pull off a negotiation ‘victory’ which would improve things for Greece. But this has always appealed to the Greeks: they fight their best as an underdog, defending in despair. It’s a tradition that goes back to the Persian wars, lives through centuries of overcoming odds and ends in defeated glory with the 1940s resistance to the German-Italian-Bulgarian axis. Ironically, this patriotic rhetoric has resurfaced strongly in the ‘socialist’ government’s own expression, creating a wave of defiance that unites ideologically incompatible elements of the right and left wing. This emotionally-charged unity gives the momentum to the No camp as we approach the referendum. With no realistic plans beyond Sunday, needless to say.
People are aware that the referendum vote is not about the agreement documents, or Greece leaving the Euro. Voting No in the referendum is a message to the other nations of the Union: “we don’t want Europe operating like this and neither should you, or soon you’ll be in our place.” Unfortunately, the political personnel of the government are not up to scratch for either parliamentary procedure or international affairs – this is pretty obvious; and yet they seem to annoy the public far less than the seasoned veterans who roamed the corridors of power and European affluence for decades. They also seem to annoy the corporate media far more – and this, in 2015 Greece is a ‘miracle-weapon’ in politics.
I find myself sitting at a coffee shop in Kozani, eavesdropping. From the surrounding tables I hear numbing words of fear: first, the enemy camp is to blame. Then other nations are brought up in court – the sadistic and remorseless Germans, the imperialist and cynical British, the ever-meddling and bloodthirsty Americans, the autocratic and brutal Russians, the multitude of Wehrmacht-supplying nations of Eastern Europe who are now unwilling to assist us. Finally, after stereotyping is out of the system, a moment of reflection and self-criticism follows only to give way to the option of vilifying the banking system – which proves a legitimate target, with its incorporeal and faceless nature perfectly fitting the description: an enigma behind an iron curtain of conspiracy and greed to blame for everything.
This itinerary of blame may read tragicomical and uninformed; the irony is that – all incendiary talk aside – the conclusion is pretty much spot on. What the unemployed, raging, near-suicidal person on the street says is, “I could blame anyone including myself, but I choose to blame the political choices we made in Europe.” There are indications and historical paradigms that the combination of these social habits and the result of a referendum can be the soft underbelly of a country in crisis – of this country especially. Consistently, Greek politicians have acknowledged the need for national unity this week. It remains to be seen whether they should like to exercise unity in political practice; there’s a chance this is the only viable solution from next week, namely a wide, ‘national coalition’ government.
Until then there is the vote. The actual question of wealth is not the issue – if we were asked to take part in the general redistribution of wealth for the good of everyone on the planet, Greece would comply and lead the discussion, I have no doubt. But what is being done to Greece at this point is neither an act of peace, nor justice, nor will it help those who are worse off than we are in the long run – quite the contrary.
In third grade I had to memorize a phrase that made perfect sense to me then and still does today: ‘All virtue is to be found in Justice’. There is no justice or virtue whatsoever in any of the announcements of the Eurogroup, the IMF or the ECB from what I can read and understand. All I can detect in the frowning ramblings of the Troika is power politics, fear-mongering, absolutism and bureaucratic self-importance. My blackmailed government had to ask me to choose between two mistakes just to prove a moral point.
When, on Sunday, I find myself with what may be the only referendum ballot of my life in my hands, the fortunes of my two young daughters clear in sight, I will mark and cast it thinking of Europe, virtue and justice – not the IMF’s Christine Lagarde, the ECB’s emergency liquidity assistance, or a long ATM queue. I am certainly not alone.
Panayiotis Demopoulos was elected to the city council of Kozani in 2015, and is the president of the board of the Koventareios Historical Library of Kozani.