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.

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.

 

 

It ain’t over yet…

How better to start the day than with an ironic take on events by one of my favourite cartoonists, Matt.

image imageOn to the news:

In a turbulent all-night session, Greek PM Mr. Tsipras managed to get Parliament to ratify austerity terms previously rejected by his government, in a desperate bid to secure the country’s future in the Eurozone.

Mr. Tsipras explained his about-face by saying he did not get a mandate from the people to take Greece out of the Eurozone, confirming his pre-referendum assertion that a NO vote was not a vote against Europe. He has recognized that the pain of capital controls and economic collapse is too much to bear. Mr. Tsipras had promised voters a miracle which he was unable to deliver – the only way he can now redeem himself is if at least he achieves some restructuring (or what Mrs. Merkel calls re-profiling) of the debt.
He got 251 votes, bolstered by opposition parties, but lost the majority within his own party. The left faction of SYRIZA voted against, which is understandable from their point of view. They have been against all along. They accuse the ECB of using ‘liquidity asphyxiation’ to bring a rebel democracy to its knees. And they accuse the PM for not having a Plan B if Europe did not give in to his demands.

Major architect of the whole fiasco, ex Finance Minister Varoufakis, did not vote. He left for his holiday home on the island of Aegina, citing ‘personal reasons’ – a bizarre turn of events that was widely condemned by all parties. Readers’ comments in the press have vilified him as a rat leaving a sinking ship which he himself helped scuttle.

New Finance Minister Mr. Tsakalotos admitted that the measures proposed will reinforce austerity, but insisted we had to look at the big picture and promised to aid the weaker members of society.

However, Mr. Tsipras warned that the battle is not won yet, since it is far from certain the new proposals will be accepted by the lenders.

Conclusion: We will – should? – be happy if we manage to achieve a new agreement which will be similar to, and tougher than, the one we nearly got before the referendum.

To end on a lighter note, yesterday farmers in Thessaloniki rolled up image
with truckloads of watermelons which they proceeded to distribute to the pensioners waiting in line in the heat outside banks to get their money. They thought they could do with some refreshment.

Frozen

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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.

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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.

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*

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.

“NO”

The country has voted: it’s a landslide for NO. No to more austerity, no to the disastrous economic policies of the Troika. It was also made clear that people are sick of the old political system, which bears a lot of responsibility for the situation in which we find ourselves. It is time for a real change. As I was writing this, the chief of the opposition, New Democracy leader Mr. Samaras, announced his resignation.

The European institutions have warned that this would be a step towards a Grexit.

The Greek PM however, has insisted that the NO vote would just be a show of support that would give him greater powers of negotiation and help him achieve a better deal. He has promised to deliver within 48 hours. Godspeed – I don’t think a single Greek, whatever they voted for, does not wish him well.

He is facing a mammoth task. The hard facts are the following:

The banks are shut, and likely to remain so for a while. Panic rumors are going around that there will be a haircut of deposits and that the contents of safe deposit boxes will be confiscated.

Most ATM machines are empty and the rest only give each person €50 instead of the €60 allowed since they have run out of €20 and €10 notes.

The tourist season is in ruins. Most Greeks cannot afford a holiday and there are multiple cancelations from abroad. Hotels will run out of supplies in ten days. Hospitals already lack basic necessities and medicines. Many small businesses will close because they need cash to function on a day to day basis. Their business will be taken over by multinationals who can afford to remain unpaid for a while. A lot of people will be laid off.

50% of children in the Athens region go to school without breakfast. More than 60% of young people are unemployed. Many thousands have committed suicide. A few hundred thousand have been obliged to emigrate.

And the elephant in the room: what will happen to the hundreds of destitute immigrants arriving on our shores every day? Who will feed them? Where will they go?

We hear the Italians are expressing solidarity. The Germans are intransigent: they think it’s time we went. These are the messages we’ve got so far.

It is my sincerest wish both sides will see their way forward to an agreement that will allow Greece to survive, recover and, in the future, thrive. The next few days and weeks are vital. It will be hard, but let’s hope the difficulties can be overcome. The alternative is a leap into the unknown.

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For the moment, I feel we are like jellyfish pushed around by the currents.

Between Scylla and Charibdis

Sooner or later, everything refers back to ancient myth.

The Greek people today feel like Odysseus, forced to navigate between Scylla and Charibdis, two monsters guarding the straits of Messina. They were only an arrow’s throw from each other, so sailors found it almost impossible to escape them. image We have to vote in a referendum on Sunday.

Vote YES, and we face having to crawl back to our creditors, begging for a deal probably much worse than the one we had before. Greece will struggle along for years, unable to climb out of recession.

Vote NO, and we sail into unknown waters. Will we be forced out of the euro, maybe out of the EU? How will this exit be organized, and by whom? The way ahead is dark, and full of eddies and reefs.

What’s more, almost everything is still unclear.

This is what they’re saying:

The YES vote say they are voting for Europe.

The NO vote say they do not accept anymore to be threatened and blackmailed (by Europe).

The PM, Mr. Tsipras, says that a NO win does not mean Greece will leave Europe or even the euro, just that it will increase his bargaining power.

The President of the European Commission Mr. Junker disagrees, and, only this morning, warned Greece against a NO vote (which must have angered NO voters even more). He said: “If the Greeks vote NO, the Greek position is dramatically weakened.”

Mr. Varoufakis, the Greek Finance minister, said today a new deal was in the offing.

Mr. Junker denies this.

This morning SYRIZA Minister and chief negotiator Mr. Tsakalotos declared on a televised interview that the PM called the referendum because the deal offered “would never have been ratified by Parliament and would have brought down the government.”

As we speak, there are two demonstrations starting in Athens, one for YES and one for NO. People in their thousands are standing around, waving flags. Whatever happens, Mr. Tsipras cannot be proud that he’s managed to divide the Greek people. He cannot be proud of the scenes playing over and over on the television, of elderly people standing in line for hours, jostling and pushing, and in some cases in tears. image Odysseus managed in the end to escape both Scylla and Charibdis and survive. Let’s hope we can do the same.

Breaking News

Regarding the referendum he has declared for Sunday, late last night Greek PM Alexis Tsipras gave an interview on national television. He said the process of democracy should not be impeded and that Greeks had a right to vote on their future (Yes, we do.) Then he explained that a NO vote would give him greater bargaining powers and that our interlocutors had no choice but to find a solution because Greece, due to its history, geopolitical importance etc., could not possibly be kicked out of Europe.

He’s still expecting someone else to blink, then.

Not so sure….

Today, Mr. Tsipras left for Brussels with a new proposal, which seems already to have been rejected without discussion. The Germans have refused to discuss anything before the results of the referendum. However, by midnight, Greece will probably have been declared bankrupt. Everything’s on the boil.

One must realize that, historically, this is the first time since the war that a European country will be officially bankrupt. The elderly have been queuing all day outside closed banks trying to withdraw their pensions from ATM machines. Unbelievable scenes for our century.

It is by now obvious that the economic program foisted on Greece by the ‘troika’ (the European Commission, European Central Bank, and the IMF) has been abysmally disastrous. Of course, they have consistently refused to acknowledge this, or learn from their mistakes. Whatever the faults of the Greeks and their governments, surely they do not deserve this. Let him who casts the first stone, etc… Even the Germans were not left to rot after the war, and we haven’t exactly been going around killing people.

In spite of all this, people in their thousands have flooded into Syntagma Square in front of the House of Parliament, demonstrating for Europe. And the Euro. Whatever their political affiliation, these people are planning to vote YES on Sunday.

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As you can see in the photograph, the sky is dark. As we speak, rain is pouring down. A sign from Zeus? But what does it all mean? Even the Oracle of Delphi, obscure at the best of times, could not make a prediction about what will happen now.