BREXIT – Grexit, what next?

Well, the Brits have voted – and they want out. Having been through a version of this in Greece last summer, I followed the debate with interest, without feeling in any way qualified to have an opinion about it. We decided to stay in – but Greeks see things from a totally different perspective, both historical and geopolitical. Was it the right thing to do for us? It is a costly solution, and there are still arguments against it.

L’union fait la force, as the French say. There is strength in numbers. We live in very bizarre, unsettled times. You would think we’d welcome a haven, a problem-solving support group, protection against common enemies. But no, we seem unable to see beyond our particular interests – you have to work together to make a haven.

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Of course, Europe has not been an unqualified success – far from it. The lack of leadership as a whole is appalling. Politicians have a peculiar affinity for irrelevance. The minute someone accedes to office, he seems to lose sight of reality, and of the practicalities of life. Or is it that politics attract precisely this type of person, because people who like getting things done cannot tolerate the endless red tape and manipulation needed? Difficult to say and of course, I’m generalizing here.

Be that as it may, Brussels has been putting far too much effort on stuff such as banning the use of chlorophyll  in Italian olives and unpasteurized milk in French cheese, and not nearly enough on getting a consensus on serious fiscal and legal matters, as well as on major problems such as the recent refugee crisis. It’s no wonder people are fed up. And I am one of them – I think their handling of the Greek crisis was atrocious (even, I hasten to add, if the Greeks were at fault as well.)

However, to my mind, when something is broken one should try to fix it, not scupper it.

The debate will go on, hopefully on a higher level than before. I must say I found the discussions before the referendum mostly disappointing – a lot of threats, scare-mongering and unsupported assertions on both sides. There is no doubt that this whole issue has caused a rift in England – but, on the plus side, it will shake things up, and perhaps some good will come of it (for all, not just the English.)

However, for the western world as a whole, I cannot help but feel this is a defeat – proving once again mankind’s inability to cooperate with one another.

We are going into unknown territory. What next, a Frexit? A Spainexit? Will Greece be pushed out now? Scotland and Catalonia want independence – maybe we’ll go back to city  states like in Ancient Greece, when Athens and Sparta spent their time fighting each other. Or Italy before Garibaldi?

The Sunday Papers

Today is the second Sunday of the new year. Time for stocktaking – what are the prospects before us?

I took a look at the main Sunday papers. Although of different political persuasions, the themes they deal with are the same.

THE ECONOMY

The problematic state pension scheme, the constantly increasing taxes, and the difficult measures that have to be taken in order to satisfy our lenders. Depressing, to say the least!

THE NEW DEMOCRACY ELECTIONS

The second round of voting to choose a leader for the New Democracy party (the main opposition party) takes place today. It is between Mr. Meimarakis, a member of the old guard, and Mr. Mitsotakis, much younger and more modern, but a member of an old political – and often controversial – family. Is there, in actual fact and despite what they’re proclaiming, much to choose between the two? Voters who turned out in decent numbers for the first round are, so far today, exhibiting election exhaustion.

 

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THE REFUGEE ISSUE

European countries are complaining about the number of refugees allowed into Europe but, let’s not forget, most of those are still in Greece (to say nothing of the vast numbers stuck in Turkey). It is clear the situation is totally out of control. Today the articles were about increasing instances of fights amongst the refugees themselves, especially between groups with different religions; abuse of women and children; cases of women selling themselves in order to pay the traffickers; extortion; black markeering in cellphones, fake documents and other goods.

In a horrifying statistic given out by the organization “Missing Children Europe“, 50% of unaccompanied children arriving at one of the refugee centers disappear within 48 hours never to be found again.

Very few of the refugees are actually in the centers – the rest are wandering around, penniless, hungry, hounded by the police.

Meanwhile, the trafficking business is thriving, starting from Syria itself, where allegedly there are special ‘schools’ coaching people how to reach Europe.

In Bulgaria, the police has issued a warning to hunters to be careful what they shoot at in the woods, in case the prey is not a wild boar but some refugee hiding from the authorities.

However, in a different article, there are glowing reports from various workers from the NGOs working on the island of Lesbos. This is close to the Turkish coast and has received huge numbers of refugees. The NGOs are doing a great job, but they’re also full of praise for the islanders, who have been welcoming the refugees to the best of their ability. People collect food, prepare formula for babies, grandmothers are even knitting little sweaters. Many volunteers from all over the world have also arrived, some giving up their vacation to help, others declaring their willingness to stay ‘until the war ends in Syria.’

Another, more curious, article deals with the refugees who have arrived with their pets. As a general rule, this has been well received by the Greeks, who think it a very human touch. In some other countries, however, (apparently Slovenia is one,) the refugees’ pets have become an object of political pressure, as well as a business: border controls confiscate cats and dogs, even those with passports, microchips and the correct vaccinations, and put them in quarantine,  demanding for their keep and release exorbitant amounts (up to €2000). Otherwise the animals are euthanized…

FOOD

The Sunday supplements have the usual restaurant reviews: a new Italian in Kolonaki, an Asian street food bar, a tacos place. And two great salad recipes, to detox after the festive overeating. My favorite? A rocket salad with roasted beetroot, walnuts and orange.

The political situation remains unstable, and thing are not looking good yet. But the start of a new year always feels like a new start, and there is a tiny whiff of optimism in the air.

In other, unrelated, news , as Anita Kunz put it: ‘As if everything else this past year weren’t enough , now Kim Jong-un shows up again.’
She’s doing a cover of him as a baby playing with toy missiles, for the New Yorker.

Please feel free to join in with other pleasant surprises awaiting us in 2016!

Battered by the daily news

The morning news make for grim reading at the moment. I take a quick glance through the headlines, my stomach knotting. It’s all a big mess, worldwide. Violence. Terrorism. Domestic murders. Killers on a rampage. Scandals. Corruption. Fighting. Destruction. Climate change. Of course it’s all fact, but sometimes the press seems to enjoy wallowing in it as well. After a summer spent stuck in front of various screens, I avoid turning on the television as much as possible.

In Greece things are still looking bleak. The private sector has mostly borne the weight of the crisis so far, the public sector being traditionally regarded by every government as an untouchable holy cow. It is enough to note that salary reduction in the private sector has reached 20-23%, whereas in the public sector it is barely 12,5% – without even mentioning the fact that most public offices are still employing a large number of people, many of whom do nothing. The increase in unemployment is also much higher in the private sector. Capital controls are still in place, and every new law passed seems to contradict the one before.

While being unemployed is horrible whatever your job, surely having a vibrant market would benefit everyone in the long run. This policy has created a downward spiral: international competitiveness is at an all-time low and every means of getting out of the crisis has been scuppered. A increasingly large number of firms, including shipping companies, are getting out and basing themselves elsewhere, mostly in the Balkan countries and Cyprus. There is also a huge loss of human capital as individuals are emigrating as fast as they can get a job abroad.

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Not only are people given zero incentives to stay, but often special opportunities are lost as well. For example, a few weeks ago I read that Jason Bourne’s next adventure, set against the backdrop of the Greek financial crisis, is being shot in the Canary Islands rather than Athens. Why? Because the film’s makers were put off by red tape and a lack of tax breaks.
Last year culture minister Nikos Xydakis had proudly announced that the Bourne film would be made in Athens — claiming the effect on local jobs and trade would be akin to setting up a “small factory”. But afterwards the government failed to make good on promises of tax breaks offered in most countries. So now Spanish advertisements and street signs in Santa Cruz de Tenerife have been covered over with ones in Greek, while a local plaza is doubling as Syntagma, Athens’s central square. Walls have been daubed with graffiti in Greek and locals signed up to stage anti-austerity rallies.
It makes you want to pull your hair out.

And who is doing something about all this? Not our politicians, that’s for sure. As has always been the case in our long and troubled history, they are busy squabbling (still).The government is in above its head – rumors abound they’re not going to last long – and often does not even get the support of its own party; and as for the opposition, they’re having a ridiculous and costly fight over electing a new leader.

Christmas is approaching. I wonder how we will be able to conjure up a seasonal festive spirit this year.

Back to the Ballot Box

In order to resolve the problems in his party – the Left Platform faction has defected, depleting his majority – Greek PM Alexis Tsipras has decided to hold elections in September. Yet again, we are forced to choose the lesser evil. This, at least, is how I see it – but, judging from readers’ commentary in the papers, I’m not the only one. Comments range from mocking, to cynical, to downright outraged. Political satire, in the form of comic strips and caricature, is rampant.

Here’s an example from one of our leading comics artists, Arkas:
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Translation: A leader is someone who can avert a catastrophe, which never would have happened had he not been leading in the first place.

The process of elections is bound to slow progress down – AGAIN. Greek ministers are not known for taking matters in hand rapidly once they are installed in their new position. The economy will continue to stagnate. Recovery will be delayed. However, the Europeans’ response to the news (especially Mrs. Merkel’s) has been positive – which has to be a good thing.

So, for the third time in eight months, we shall wend our way to the local school and stand in line to cast our vote for something we are not enthusiastic about. Of course, some people might be enthusiastic, but I have yet to meet them. At the moment, Tsipras is expected to win. Let’s hope that if he does, the result will put him in the position to govern more efficiently.

White Smoke

After a long and episodic night (beats me why the session couldn’t start at 9.30 a.m. instead of 9.30 p.m.) the Greek parliament voted in favor of the rescue package.
However, in the process, P.M. Alexis Tsipras lost the majority in his own party (32 of his own ministers voted against him) so has now to decide whether and when to hold elections. Elections are obviously the last thing Greece needs right now. But what is certain is that he cannot implement the very difficult measures contained in this package with the present government.
The Eurozone approved a Greek bailout of up to €86bn in loans over the next three years, in return for  far-reaching reforms, essentially tax rises and spending cuts.

“Together, we have looked into the abyss. But today, I am glad to say that all sides have respected their commitments. Greece is living up to its ambitious reform commitments,” Juncker said in a statement. “The message of today’s (meeting) is loud and clear: on this basis, Greece is and will irreversibly remain a member of the euro area.”

Following the approval of the new deal, the International Monetary Fund has called on eurozone ministers to offer Greece debt relief.

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Should we Greeks feel relieved? Happy? Are we safe? Hard to tell. Readers’ comments in the papers show anger, anxiety, and general disgust with and mistrust of the politicians involved.

Jokes as usual, are proliferating. Most are untranslatable, but I offer the following two:
😆 In the end, the exact question asked at the referendum was: Are the austerity measures proposed enough for you or would you like more?
YES meant ‘They’re enough for us,’ and
NO meant ‘No, we want more!’

😅 Phew! Thank God, Greece will not go bankrupt now. Only the Greeks will.

Greece on fire


imageAs if we didn’t have troubles enough, Greece is now, literally, on fire. Huge blazes have broken out concurrently: around Athens, in the Peloponnese, and on some islands. The gods must be angry with us, indeed. Or perhaps it’s not the gods? There is talk of arson; of a plan to destabilize the government. More conspiracy theories? Heat and high winds are a dangerous combination for woods that have seen no rain for months. Rubbish such as glass bottles can also play a part, as well as people’s irresponsible behaviour. But we had a similar situation in the summer of 2007, in another politically unstable period under the Karamanlis government, when forest fires caused the death of 84 people and 4,5 million olive trees were burnt. Be that as it may, it’s another disaster, more damages for people and a country that can ill afford them.

Having lived through two fires myself, some years ago, I agonize for the people involved and, indeed, for the huge destruction of nature. There is nothing more heartbreaking than watching a mountain burn.
In our case, luckily our house itself did not burn either time, but everything around it did. At night, the hillside across from us was lit by a wall of flame, against which black silhouettes of houses and trees could be seen. An apocalyptic vision of hell. Bringing coffee to the firemen, we had to fight our way from our car to the fire engines in a storm of swirling ash flakes.
For days, trees or bushes you’d thought had been put out would flare up again. The lawn was black. Inside the house, however much you cleaned and scrubbed, bare feet would be black with soot. And the smell of burnt just would not go away. We’ve had to replant our garden twice.

I pray for the people fighting the blazes; firemen, volunteers, neighbors, even old ladies passing buckets of water. And for the fearless pilots who fly into the smoke and flames to dump water – that is how our house was saved – and then back down to the choppy, wind blown surface of the sea to fill up their tanks. A dangerous job indeed; and in these strained financial times, one can only hope the planes and helicopters have been properly maintained.

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The big picture

“It is never too late to be what you might have been.”
― George Eliot

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A sigh of relief? An all-night marathon ended in ‘white smoke,’ as Greece and its creditors managed to reach an agreement that secures the country’s place in the Eurozone. From Grexit to ‘Greekment’, as Donald Tusk, head of the European Council, dubbed it.

Of course, a lot of work remains to be done, since Greece has an obligation to immediately implement draconian reforms. There is political uncertainty because this implementation depends on the cooperation of all parties. For the Greek people, more hard times are ahead.

There is a feeling, abroad as well as in Greece, that the terms of the deal are punitively harsh. Nobody is celebrating. However, I think one must remain positive. Catastrophe has been averted, given that it appears the government had no plan B in case of a return to the drachma.
I hope Greece will take this chance to put its affairs in order, something which is long overdue. It’s sad and humiliating to accept, but maybe the political system will finally be obliged to break out of the vicious circle they’ve been in for so long, and bring about a real change in mentality.
Let’s hope this will be the making of a modern, self-sufficient new Greece.

At the same time, this crisis has shaken the foundations of Europe considerably, and exposed its flaws. There is an immediate need to look at the bigger picture. Today Europe is faced with huge problems, starting with its failure to alleviate the poverty of many of its citizens.
Amongst other things, it has to cope with wave upon wave of immigrants seeking a better life within its borders. It has to deal with the threat of terrorism. And it has to compete with emerging markets where labor is still both cheaper and willing to work much longer hours.
Europe has shown it is not united, nor has it found a way to accommodate the differences, cultural or other, between its members. Changes are needed; rifts must be healed and hard questions answered if the European machinery is to keep moving forward smoothly in future.