Another Round for Greece?

The Greek Parliament agreed on a new austerity package on 12 November which they submitted to the Troika (the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund) in the hope of receiving more financial aid. Greece is losing more and more control over its economy and more changes to its society are being demanded of the government to meet its debtors’ requirements. The Greek government needs the money to avoid bankruptcy, but in making concessions it may be relinquishing its own role as leader of the country.

Image courtesy of Villiamcurtis, © 2011, some rights reserved.

The austerity plan submitted this month took weeks to be approved by the government. Divisions between the parties have become increasingly strained as they take different positions on whether or not to receive another bailout package and what is fair for them to concede. The head of the main opposition Radical Left Coalition party (Syriza), Alexis Tsipras, has again adamantly condemned the austerity measures, and this time he expects that Greeks will not even be able to afford basic necessities. He has criticized the government for being “incapable of negotiating” with the Troika’s demands. Part of his political platform six months ago was to encourage Greece to leave the EU and return to the drachma. Many feared this outcome because such a decision would throw Greece into the unknown and would totally undermine the credibility of the EU (though this is something that most Greeks are probably not concerned with these days). The elections of last June, if we remember, were extremely close and revealed the deep frustration and despair that millions of Greeks are still feeling, precisely because of the drastic cuts made to their salaries, pensions and insurance.

The leading party, New Democracy, however, supports austerity because of the need for another loan from the Troika. Without it, Prime Minister Antonis Samaras says, “Greece will run out of money.” Samaras was relieved that the plan was approved by the Parliament, believing that this next installment of 31.5 billion Euros is a “step toward recovery” and will lead to development with “a lot of work, with coordinated action [and] investments.” But the plan was passed with only 153 out of 300 votes. And more than 25% of Greece’s population is unemployed, protests and demonstrations are standard practice, and this is all a response to the austerity measures already in place. Even the parliamentary staff taking minutes during the deciding meeting threatened to strike when they realized that their jobs and salaries would be cut under the new plan. Economic ruin has lead to increased societal cleavages and the growing support for the fascist political party, Golden Dawn, illustrates that Greece in a very, very bad place.

Public animosity towards the EU should not be understated and it should not be viewed as an expression of resistance on the part of a Southern European nation to strict economic reform. Maybe the number of Greeks who have not paid their taxes is shocking, but really, whose responsibility is it to collect taxes? The Greek government has obviously made regrettable choices in the last couple of decades, not least of all fudging numbers on financial reports in order to obtain acceptance as a member of the EU, but it is important to ask, who is truly suffering now? Is it fair to the general public that governments in the past promised exceptional benefits, an early retirement age, extravagant pensions and highly enviable health insurance when in fact they could afford none of these things? And what about the fact that Greece could get into so much debt, unnoticed by the EU?

To me this seems to reveal the bigger problem of the current economic climate where countries rack up billions of dollars on credit. What if China suddenly asked the United States to start paying them back—wouldn’t America default in seconds? Greece has been playing the same game, but unfortunately for them they got caught cheating. It also seems to me unfair that those who bear the brunt of austerity are the people who had no part in the decisions that lead to financial disaster. As a culture, Greeks don’t save. And why? Because they have never had to. Magically, in the past, their governments have been able to provide them with benefits and wages. Well, the dream is over and now millions of people are not only left without hope, but are filled with anger about the poor decisions their governments made and also with the higher force that is seemingly responsible for the worst of their suffering.

The Troika has gained too much control over the fate of the Greek people. The government has just passed a plan that will cut even more spending, reducing to the bare minimum the number of jobs and wages it can afford. Beyond this, the government has approved changes to its labor laws that diminish the few rights that workers still have. During the debate leading to the parliament’s final vote, the question arose whether the reforms in question—that the Troika was demanding from Greece—are constitutional. The issue was decidedly put aside as the new austerity plan was sent off to the Troika so that the government could get the next installation it clearly wants. More austerity means more concessions to the Troika at the expense of the Greek people. Perhaps most problematic is the focus of the Greek government on their need to cooperate only to decide on a new austerity plan instead of implementing their own solutions, programs and policies to deal with the extremely serious problems their country is facing.