Listen to the cry of Athens

Instead of treating Greek officials as outcasts and their constituents like the plague, European leaders, and particularly Germans, would be better off listening. Because, in attempting to prioritise the needs of the economy over those of democracy, they are undermining the Union’s foundations.

Published on 17 May 2012 at 10:32
Steve Bell's parody of Edvard Munch

We get used to cliches so quickly that we no longer see their more perverse consequences, and so we repeat them mechanically, as if they were irrefutable truths, while the purpose of them is to push us back into line. The danger of following the same path as Greece, for example: it has now become the slogan that has turned us all into bewildered spectators observing some rite of penance, where a scapegoat is sacrificed for the collective good. Those who are different or deformed have no place in our city. And if the new elections that have just been called do not provide the majority needed by their partners, Greece’s destiny will be mapped out for it.

How many times have we heard leaders whisper darkly: "You don’t want to suffer the same fate as Greece, do you?" The exit from the euro area was not foreseen by treaties but it can easily be surreptitiously achieved. In truth, Athens has already fallen into the twilight zone of non-Europe. Already it's the bogeyman to frighten children.

The real root of the problem ignored

Perhaps Greek secession is inevitable, but at least shed a little light on the real reasons why: if it's inevitable, it is not because rescue is too expensive, but because democracy has come into conflict with strategies that were supposed to save the country. In the May 6 elections most voters rejected the austerity pill that the country unsuccessfully swallowed two years ago and that, to the contrary, triggered the recession in Greece that has proved disastrous for democracy. A recession reminiscent of Weimar Germany, with military coups on the horizon. Forced to go back to the polls in the absence of agreement between the parties, voters will reaffirm their rejection and give more power to the radical left, the Syriza party of Alexis Tsipras. And again, clichés proliferate: Syriza is a negative opposition force, against austerity and against the Union, while Tsipras is portrayed as the ultimate anti-European.

The reality is different. Tsipras does not want to leave the euro nor the EU. He wants another Europe, just like François Hollande. He knows that 80 percent of Greeks want to keep the single currency, but not under these terms, not with these national and European politicians who have impoverished them while ignoring the real roots of evil: the corruption of the ruling parties, the state and the public sector who are slaves to politics, the wealthy who have been spared [by austerity]. Tsipras is the answer to these ills, yet nobody wants to get burnt by talking to him. Not even Hollande, who refused to meet the leader of Syriza when he rushed to Paris after the elections.

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And have you heard the European left, who claim to have solidarity in the blood, supporting George Papandreou when he said he had Europeanized the Greek crisis to find a solution? Who took him seriously when he addressed the German Greens in December, after resigning as Prime Minister? The idea he had outlined remains today the best solution to overcome the crisis: "For the member states, austerity. For Europe, policies to spark growth."

Papandreou's words went unheeded, as if it were shameful to listen to a Greek these days. As if there were no thought to the astonishingly off-hand manner with which the country, the birthplace of democracy, was transformed into a pariah state as its merciless degeneration was watched from the sidelines: oligarchy, the dominance of the market resulting in plutocracy, the freedom with which the law and justice are disregarded.

Athens' expulsion, Europe's failing

If we had just a little memory, we would better understand the Greek soul. We would understand the writer Nikos Demou when he voices aphorisms on the misfortune of being Greek: "The Greek people feel the terrible weight of their own legacy. They grabbed the superhuman level of perfection in terms of their words and forms of old. It overwhelms us: we are more proud of our ancestors (without realising it), than we are concerned about ourselves." Those who mention the Christian roots of Europe forget the Greek roots and the enthusiasm with which Athens, once it turned its back on military dictatorship in 1974, was welcomed into Europe as a symbolically important country.

What our leaders do not say is that the expulsion of Athens will not only be the result of its own failure. It will be the failure of Europe, a nasty story of voluntary inaction. We have not managed to balance economic needs with those of democracy. We have not been able, even by bringing together our resources and intelligence, to overcome the first lesson from the old nation states. Europe did not do as did former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton just after the American Revolution, when he decreed that the central government would assume the debts of each state, thus uniting them in a strong federation. Europe did not make Greece a European affair. It did not see the link between crises of the economy, democracy, nation and politics. For years, it has been courting a corrupt Greek establishment and now here it is stunned to find its people do not accept responsibility for this disaster.

This distance between Union and democracy, between Us and Them, will have painful consequences. With their death, a little of us would die too, but the decline lacks the self-knowledge that Athens has taught us. It is not the Greek death that Ajax the Great spoke of in the Iliad* : "A black fog envelops us all, men and horses. Father Zeus, deliver us from this darkness, the sons of the Achaea: clear the heavens so that our eyes can see and if, in your rage, you want us to lose so be it, but at least give us light so that we can see! "

*Iliade (XVII 645- 647)


Ditching austerity is an opportunity

Inan interview with Romanian website CriticAtac, the Greek Secretary General of the Organisation of Black Sea Economic Cooperation, Leonidas Chrysanthopoulos, remarks that in view of the current situation Greece no longer has anything to lose: "in a country where the middle class are rooting through bins to find food, how much worse can the situation become? We've already been categorised as junk". According to Chrysanthopoulos, "Greece will progressively pull out of the euro, and this move will be accompanied by a complete write-off of public debt. This is the only strategy that will give the euro a chance of survival, and at the same time, allow Greece to relaunch its economy".

The career diplomat acknowledges that the support for the radical left coalition, Syriza, which is now the preferred party of Greece’s under-40s, is unprecedented, but insists that it did not come as a surprise: "I do not like to describe certain Greek political parties as radicals. They simply have another opinion, and their approach is legitimate and even beneficial. Whoever wins power after the elections will be taking over a country on the brink. […] Given that austerity did not work, perhaps the move to set it aside will amount to an opportunity".

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