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EU at its lowest ebb in Greece

HDN | 3/14/2010 12:00:00 AM |

In short, the EU has to decide whether it will go “from words to actions” to provide aid to Greece or at least support.

It must have been the August of about two years ago when I had visited Athens for my annual pilgrimage trying to catch up with what was happening in my home country, talking to friends, colleagues and most of all to “people on the street.”

The general atmosphere was not very different than the previous year: a boring stagnant political scene opening to a dark corridor of intertwined problems of nepotism, corruption, public frustration, peppered as usual with a common approach by the public that somehow “we will manage.” It was the year following a second electoral victory by the party of New Democracy, which was struggling in power with a majority of just two in the Parliament.

As this was the mood during my previous visit a few months earlier, I did not give it too much notice and was concentrating more on my holidays at my home island in the Ionian Sea.

But it must have been out of professional instinct rather than knowledge that before returning to my base in Turkey one month later, I decided to stay a few days more in Athens, checking again what was there for the incoming political winter. And it was certainly due to a premonition that, out of the long list of possible rendezvous, I chose to discuss the latest social and political trends with the president of one of the social research companies in Greece whom I had recently met during a Greek-Turkish conference. That meeting was more a networking meeting as I was not expecting any surprises.

But I was wrong.

“There is hardly any money in the state coffers. I told them, if you are not careful, you will not be able to come out of the Parliament building: there are going to be hungry demonstrators who will lynch you!”

I was shocked. There was nothing in the social or political atmosphere in Greece then that would alert anybody to an incoming storm. I mean nothing more than that customary dose of government mismanagement and state ill functioning that has plagued Greece for the last three decades. At any rate, the embrace of Brussels and the tighter embrace of the Euro zone were feeling safe enough for anybody to sense any danger. But my new contact surprised me even further:

“Last month there was hardly any money to pay public employees. They keep on borrowing, but there is a deeper crisis coming up, which is beyond parties and politics. It is a crisis of credibility of the political system and a deep crisis in society.”

I left the office of my newly acquired friend with mixed feelings, but I must confess, I was not very worried as I attributed his pessimism to a professional defect.

Needless to say, since then, I have referred to that conversation very often.

Hardly two years passed, and the political and social landscape in Greece is fast approaching to what the expert had predicted. The latest surveys published yesterday in the Greek Sunday press, conducted against an avalanche of deeply anti-popular economic measures on the orders of Brussels, registered a significant drop in popularity of the government and main opposition parties. An enraged public opinion is deeply upset and worried about the dismal state of the country’s economy as it is called upon to sacrifice their income to cover the gap. The surveys are showing a picture of a confused and depressed society. While most people believe the strict economic measures threatening their fundamental labor rights are necessary, more than 50% of the participants in the surveys believe their sacrifices will not contribute anything to the solution of the crisis.

But the most interesting and worrying find of the surveys had to do with an underlying explosive trend many fear may bring more problems. In a country accustomed to public protest, the latest surveys are predicting a social explosion due to the reduction of living standards and loss of hope.

Greece may have been at the center of an unprecedented international attack as the ‘black sheep” of the Euro zone. Indeed, today the Finance Ministers of the Euro Group are going to decide in Brussels whether they are going to set an inter-EU mechanism controlled by the European Commission and the European Central Bank with the help of the IMF to help Greece. In short, the EU has to decide whether it will go “from words to actions” to provide aid to Greece or at least support, which will help her borrow with less interest for her domestic needs.

Last Thursday in Greece a successful general strike, organized by three different labor groups, showed we may be witnessing the beginning of a wave of public unrest with unforeseeable consequences. And perhaps not surprisingly, it is not only their politicians and corrupt officials who have sent the Greeks to the streets. The old Greek vision of belonging to the “West,” materialized with the entry of Greece to the EU and its subsequent inclusion to the Euro zone, is now seen as an asphyxiating straight jacket, which threatens even their “national integrity” as Greek PM Papandreou confessed himself.

More and more voices are raised against the functioning of the new-neo-liberal style EU, which neither provides for a common economic support system for its members nor for a common foreign policy - as Greece and Cyprus hoped for.

“We are continuing our course abashed, melancholic and alone in the stormy sea of neo-liberal globalization. This tough course, which threw dozens of peoples and countries into the depth of recession and distress, was drawn by the European Union, which in full knowledge of our subjective and objective difficulties not only refuses to give a helping hand to a country which represents 2.5% of the GDP of the Euro zone, but does not recognize that a great part of the developmental asymmetries and our economic deterioration is due to their political obsessions and bondages,” wrote the eminent Prof. of Labor Alexis Mitropoulos.

But it is not only their politicians and the EU that the Greek public is angry with. They are also angry at their unions, and they are asking more action from them. The latest surveys showed that a significant majority of the Greek public – 62% - declares its willingness to participate in mass protests and desires their unions to increase strike actions. For the first time, citizens in desperation are openly supporting tough actions, like the occupation of public buildings rather than peaceful marches.

Commentators are reminding that similar public rage was observed last year in Iceland when people encircled their Parliament and clashed with the security forces, followed by similar protests in Romania, Latvia and Lithuania. And they point out to the most serious example of “uncontrolled public clashes” in Argentina in 2001-02 when the country defaulted on its international debt of $140 billion. Inflation and unemployment brought the enraged citizens to the streets, resulting in violent clashes and a fall of living standards.

Of course, Greece is a different issue and remains part of the Euro zone, whose validity EU partners are determined to keep safe.

But what happens in Brussels today does not necessarily dictate what will happen when the Greeks start receiving their April salary where the traditional Easter bonus will have been drastically reduced. And 86.9% of the respondents to a survey conducted last week think “it is very likely or likely enough” that there is going to be social unrest in Greece due to the new tough economic measures imposed by the government and dictated by Brussels.

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