EU associated with austerity not solidarity after seven years of recession in Greece
Ambivalence to Europe widespread as Greece takes up fifth EU presidency
Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras (right) and European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso during the handover ceremony for the six-month rotation of Greece’s EU Presidenc in Athens.
Greece kicked off its fifth presidency of the Council of the European Union yesterday with the motto: “Europe: Our Common Quest.” But for the people of Greece, the ideal of European solidarity has never seemed so remote.
As riot police guarded the entrance to official buildings, and the government imposed an 18-hour ban on protests ahead of the visit of EU commissioners, Athens in many ways seemed a city under siege.
The ancient capital close to the shores of the Aegean Sea is accustomed to conquest. Throughout history it has seen the Roman, Byzantine and the Ottoman empires come and go. But for many Greeks, the European Union has become the latest manifestation of foreign political dominance.
Speaking ahead of the official opening, finance minister Yannis Stournaras was unequivocal about the sacrifices that have been demanded of the Greek people. “No one country during peace time has achieved as much as Greece has achieved,” he said, pointing out that it would be completely “illogical” to demand more fiscal consolidation.
Minimum wage cut
Stournaras’s claims are supported by official statistics. Since the onset of the crisis, Greece’s minimum wage – which at €750 per month in 2009 was already half of the Irish figure – has been cut by 22 per cent, with a 32 per cent cut for younger workers. Pension income is down by 20 per cent, or 40 per cent for higher earners.
The average Greek citizen has experienced an estimated 35 per cent cut in income, with many experiencing delays of up to four months in receiving pay cheques. It is not uncommon for young, middle-class Greek emigres to send money to their parents each month to help support the household.
The public sector has seen its workforce slashed from 950,000 in 2009 to 750,000 in 2012. Further cuts are pencilled in for next year. Unemployment, which is twice the European average at more than 27 per cent, continues to rise, with about 60 per cent of Greek people under the age of 25 jobless.
As austerity-weary Greece enters its seventh year of recession, evidence of the economic slump is evident on the streets of the capital. Restaurants offer “crisis menus”, while charities report daily instances of people openly searching bins for food.
Sitting in a smoke-filled cafe on the corner of Exarcheia Square, students and political types while away the hours over coffee and cigarettes. The square – which shot to notoriety following the shooting of 15-year-old Alexis Grigoropoulos nearby in 2008 – has become a focal point for renewed political resistance and protest.
Kostas Leon, a 24-year-old student, says a mixture of fatigue and defiance characterises the Greek attitude to the crisis. “A certain resignation has set in,” he says, looking out on the empty square that is dotted with torn posters and graffiti.
While the frequency of protests has abated, much of the discontent is now channelled through political protest. Far- right party Golden Dawn has seen a surge in support, tapping into the rising xenophobia that has accompanied the economic crisis.
Greece’s policy towards migrants has been widely criticised by NGOs, though Greece argues it shoulders a disproportionate percentage of the EU’s immigrants, with the vast majority of irregular migrants entering the EU through Greece.
The International Organisation for Migration has already arranged for almost 20,000 irregular migrants to return to their home country. Having moved to Greece to find work, 90 per cent are now homeless.
As Greece takes the reins of EU affairs over the coming six months, the government’s real focus will be on progressing discussions with the troika. Officials from the EU and IMF are due back in Athens next week, amid continuing tensions between the two sides about the scale of cuts needed. Mr Stournaras said yesterday his country does not want a third bailout, though a financial gap in the programme of €11 billion has already been identified.
Political instability is also a recurring worry – the coalition government’s majority is wafer-thin, despite prime minister Antonis Samaras’s assertion yesterday that the government will remain stable until elections in 2016. But perhaps earlier comments from foreign minister Evangelos Venizelos, and leader of the junior coalition partner in government, Pasok, painted a more realistic picture of the political reality of implementing austerity measures.
“Pasok has paid a heavy price. This is a party that back in the election of 2009 got 44 per cent of the vote. In May 2012 we got 12.4 per cent instead. A large number of voters expressed their disenchantment . . . But we have a national responsibility, a national duty to keep Greece within the euro zone and the European Union. We hope history will vindicate us.”