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.


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.

The tip of the iceberg

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A few days ago I had lunch with a friend who is very involved in the refugee crisis, since she works with the European official in charge. They had come to Greece in order to meet with various members of the Greek government and to visit  Lesvos (they had previously stopped by Lampedusa). The things she told me make for scary reading.

Firstly, the measures decided upon – after much debate – are simply not working.  The relocation project dependant on ‘hot spots’  being set up to process people is proving ineffective, even as Greece is asking for €480 million to implement it (less than six have been approved so far). The reason is the following:
Refugees must go to the nearest hot spot to be fingerprinted and given identity papers; then they will have to wait until they are sent to the country they are allocated to. This might take months, given the numbers involved and the usual bureaucratic delays.  So why would they want to do that when – by other means – they can be in the country of their choice in four days? Nobody wants to stay – and almost nobody stays.

It also appears they have to be persuaded, rather than told, to have their fingerprints taken. It’s their choice – whereas all Greek are obliged to be fingerprinted for their identity cards. A few days ago I  read in the papers that – so far – only 15 Syrians have elected to stay. But if people are undocumented, it is very difficult to implement any kind of coherent policy for dealing with them.

Secondly, desperate people do desperate things. There are more and more babies and children coming in, because parents with children get automatic priority. There are more and more unaccompanied minors, sent by families hoping they’re going to a better, safer life. But I don’t need to point out the dangers they face traveling alone, and who knows how many don’t make it – and how many are abused and exploited along the way?
Worst of all, people have started to steal kids because they can use them to get preferential treatment. When they arrive at their destination, they dump them. More money is now being spent on a campaign to try and locate their families.

Only in the last two months, more than 100 children have drowned in the Aegean Sea, while in the last couple of days, 31 kids lost their lives in 7 separate shipwrecks. The mayor of Lesvos has asked that identification of the refugees is done in Turkey, to avoid so many drownings. Meanwhile, the local morgue is full of bodies and there is need for a new burial ground. And for the ultimate irony:  an airplane ticket from Turkey to Germany costs around €400. These people are paying well above €1000 to cross over on a floating death trap. Surely there is a moral in this somewhere.

Something else I didn’t know, and which I found quite shocking, is that sending people back home is often not possible, because their own countries WON’T TAKE THEM BACK (I’m not talking about war-torn zones like Syria here.) They prefer their citizens to stay abroad, since that means a lot of foreign currency will be coming in, and it also helps with local unemployment.

It seems every measure taken has a huge downside. The more people are saved, the more come over. In October alone, 218.00 people have crossed the Mediterranean, and of those, 210.000 have ended up in Greece.

imageWe are witnessing the biggest movement in populations in the history of mankind. 60 million people, from Syria and Afghanistan, Gaza, Iraq, Haiti and a dozen African countries have fled endless wars and disastrous governments. And it’s not over yet. The wars are far from ended, ISIS and the Taliban are still preying upon entire populations, religious minorities are being hounded from their homes. The floods and droughts brought on by climate change exacerbate the problem. It would only take one typhoon in the Bay of Bengal to displace millions in Bangladesh.

To top it all, my friend has worked for a long time in Ethiopia – and the scariest thing she told me is the following:

In the next few years, immigration from Africa is set to increase exponentially.
Many of the young African countries are doubling their population every twenty years. Most of their current population is under 30 years old, while their governments are not doing much in terms of job creation and services. We’re talking billions here, a large number of whom will want to come over. Recent studies have shown that in developing countries, more than half wish to move to the west.

All this is bound to lead to a rise of the extreme right in European countries, something which has already started. Tensions are growing – the refugees are at the end of their tether, but so are a lot of the people assisting them, who sometimes feel they are not grateful enough for the help they’re getting. Many are demanding that borders be secured. The Schengen concept is in real danger, even though Angela Merkel is warning that border closures and fences to stop refugees “could cause military conflict” in the Balkans. The face of the world is changing, and most of us have yet to realize it.

I’m sorry to keep harping on about this subject. In spite of everything, some people remain optimistic that the refugees can eventually be absorbed by EE countries. Today, I read that 30 refugees were flown to Luxemberg for resettlement – a drop in the ocean, but still, some kind of start. Others just do their best to help, like Britons Andrew Davies and Wendy Wilcox, who set up  Solidarity Symi on the island of Symi, to help the people coming through. I also heard that young men on the islands are going out on jet skis, braving huge waves, to rescue people from shipwrecks.

Meanwhile, winter is approaching, and the refugees will have to face weather a lot of them are not used to, in many cases being obliged to live outdoors. Some parents are already wrapping their kids in rubbish bags to keep them dry…The seas are getting rougher and more dangerous, but the flow is not lessening. It is possible that because of all the talk of frontiers closing, many people feel it’s now or never.

So they take the risk.




There’s a heat wave on, but everyone’s frozen: paralyzed, unable to plan or think of anything else than the situation we find ourselves in. Heads are buzzing and eyes are red from hours of watching television and computer screens, trying to make sense of the news pouring out.

There was an atmosphere of celebration after the referendum results on Sunday; but everyone I’ve talked to since Monday, from all social levels – and whether they voted YES or NO – is dazed and confused. Nobody’s spending any money, apart from filling the fridge and the car. That’s fine,  most people still have plenty to eat and enough clothes and other accessories to last them for years if need be – but what about those in retail? Business has fallen to zero overnight. Nobody’s shopping, nobody’s going to the hairdresser or even to the doctor if they can possibly avoid it. There is a peculiar exception to this: some are buying jewelry, expensive smartphones or tablets and even cars. This is because they fear a haircut will be applied to their savings, and they prefer to have goods they think will keep their value.

Immigrants from Albania and Bulgaria who have lived here for years and are well integrated, with families and children who go to Greek school, are returning to their countries. They don’t want their kids to go through the same things they experienced in their childhood. And this just a a law is being passed making it easier to get Greek nationality. Meanwhile, more than a thousand new immigrants landed on our shores in the last week. On Samos, there was a huge problem providing them with food, since the catering company had not been paid.


To kill time while waiting for the results of the European summit, we took ourselves off to our local open-air cinema. One of summer’s pleasures – watching a movie under the stars. Jasmine and bougainvillea climbing the walls, a bar selling popcorn, hotdogs and  nachos. Tickets €6.  Still an affordable evening out. The cinema was not full, but not empty either, with couples and families trying to forget their troubles for a couple of hours.



Back home to another episode of science fiction, or shall I say, the theater of the absurd?

Journalists on all TV channels were commenting on the fact that the Greek negotiating team had arrived at the meeting without a proposal. Our new Finance Minister, Mr. Tsakalotos, was inadvertently carrying handwritten notes in such a way they could be – and were – read by all. Then participants of the summit started emerging, all with long faces. They made statements saying how committed they were to finding a solution, but that it was going to be extremely difficult, that time was running out, and that the ball was in Greece’s court. Some openly said it was time Greece left the Euro, and maybe the Eurozone as well.

Next, our PM came out, all smiles, and declared proposals had been made for an equitable solution for us and our partners, promising social equality and economic growth. He implied all would be well by Sunday.

What to believe? Commentators were describing rescue talks as having collapsed yet again. Most were pessimistic about a positive outcome.

Is there some plan behind all this? I wish our politicians would come straight out and tell the Greek people what it is they’re expecting to achieve, what their proposals are, if they have a Plan B and how that would work out. My greatest fear is that, by the time they’ve sorted something out, it will be too little, too late. Every passing day, another bit of the Greek economy dies.

The day after


A quick roundup of today’s events:

Maverick finance minister Yanis Varoufakis resigns (to the relief of many in Europe). His place is taken by Euclid Tsakalotos, an Oxford-educated economist.

All party chiefs meet to prepare a ‘new’ proposal, which they will co-sign before submitting it for negotiation in Brussels.

The package under discussion is similar to the one proposed by Mr. Junker.[Statement from Washington: The referendum happened, and the situation remains the same.]
The question is: If we’re to go back to the same point we were at before the referendum, why was all this necessary, only with Greece now in a weaker position, with the previous program having expired, and a full-blown bank crisis going on?
Was it just a complicated piece of political maneuvering?

The government is trying to distil an air of optimism and presents an agreement as a foregone conclusion, to the contrary of the messages coming in from Europe, where the consensus seems to be dissatisfaction with the referendum result.
Tomorrow, the Eurogroup meets. Will the Greek team bring back an agreement? It appears difficult, and the terms will most probably be worse than before. And if they don’t succeed, what then?