Extracts from yesterday’s State Of The Union talk on BBC Radio 4
Part 5: The View From Greece by Ersi Sotiropoulos
“Autumn this year in Greece is darker than in other years – a season of insecurity and distress. The signs of recession are everywhere: in the centre of Athens shops are closing one after another. Immigrants squat in dilapidated buildings, the trash piles up in the streets.
The decline has been swift – meanwhile immigrants continue to arrive in a country where there is no work and no social security. What will happen to all these people who are coming here already hungry and exhausted? Hunger brings violence, we know that. The party’s over, I say to myself, and and Greece will be (only) the first to fall.
I walk through a collapsing city, a city paralysed by the strikes, where rubbish from the past several weeks still sits uncollected in the streets and wonder – is this place really a part of Europe?
In 1981 Greece was accepted into the European Community, primarily for cultural reasons and certainly not on the strength of its ecomony or its manufacturing sector. The image of Greece that was projected during those years was primarily of a touristic, folkloric place. We became a vacation destination – the people of Retsina and Moussaka. Money began to flow into the country and for a few years we seemed to be approaching the European model.
But even before the Athens Olympics of 2004 I had a feeling that things were headed for collapse – the mediocrity, the cowardice and the arrogance of the powerful were plain to see. And suddenly two years ago the countdown began. The Greek government found itself obliged, in the course of a few months, to enact a series of rushed austerity measures demanded by the IMF and the European Central Bank.
Steep cuts in Greek social programmes, wide cuts across the public sector, tax increases requiring even minimum wage workers to pay much higher taxes, cutbacks in pensions, so-called reforms… Greece’s state assets were to be privatised and sold to priavte banks and investors at heavily discounted prices. The telephone company, Greece’s two main ports and the National Lottery etc.
These decisions were made without any kind of consensus, and what the government was being asked to achieve was close to impossible. People weren’t prepared to accept the measures and took to the streets. The protestors feel doubly betrayed – not only by successive administrations which through waste, abuse and mismanagement brought them to this point – but by their European partners who borrow at rates of 1.5 to 3% and then lend to Greece at 5 or 6%, making money from Greek misfortune.
Then there is the German Question. Of all the European nations, Germany is the most strident in demanding that the Greeks be punished for their fiscal irresponsibility. Yet Germany was the world’s largest debtor after both World Wars – and in both instances owed its economic recovery to debt relief on a massive scale. The Greeks have reopened the matter of Germany’s debts to them, which date back to World War II.
When it occupied Greece, Germany confiscated all the gold in the State Treasury as a “war loan” to cover the costs of the occupation. Today this loan, which was never repaid, would be worth $95 billion US dollars. The only reason Germany refuses to pay it back is that this would create a precedent – in other words, other countries might seek a similar restitution.
Amidst all this turmoil, the Greeks feel abandoned, confused: their country is on the brink of disaster. In their panic, some people are stockpiling canned food and milk in their homes. Others have withdrawn all their savings from the bank. If years of corrupt governments, clientelism and favouritism prevented Greeks from developing a sense of citizenship, that doesn’t mean that all Greeks are corrupt or thieves.
Though we know that other countries on the periphery of the Eurozone will soon follow in Greece’s wake, that doesn’t make us feel any more European… The Treaty Of Rome – intended to create a peaceful Europe, independent from the U.S. and founded on mutual support and development – seems today like empty words. There is no solidarity between member states.
Europe, Euro, Eurozone, Eurobonds… the more we talk, the less meaning the word seems to have.”
Listen to the whole essay by Ersi Sotiropoulos on the BBC iPlayer here.
Ersi Sotiropoulos was born in Patra and now lives in Athens. She is the author of ten works of fiction and a book of poetry. Her novel Zigzag through the Bitter Orange Trees (Peter Green’s English translation of which was published in 2005 by Interlink Books) was the first novel ever to win both the Greek national prize for literature and Greece’s preeminent book critics’ award.