November 9th, 2012 • In the media it received only limited attention, but this week the whole of Greece was turned upside down as a general strike paralysed much of the country just as the Greek Parliament was giving its agreement to the latest round of austerity. The economy is shrinking, people are getting poorer by the day or emigrating. With the situation so explosive, we present this short report.
SYRIZA MPs protest outside the Greek Parliament (photo: SYRIZA)
The seventy-one MPs from the Greek opposition party SYRIZA left the national parliament on Wednesday evening to join the 100,000 demonstrators in and around Syntagma Square. For two days a strike continued throughout Greece in protest at the austerity package which will plunge the Greek people still further into poverty. Not only political parties and trade unions took to the streets, but also students and organisations representing small businesses turned out in force to make known their displeasure with the austerity plans.
The new austerity proposals from the Troika – the European Central Bank (ECB), the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) were in the end put to the vote on Thursday morning. Commenting on the Parliament’s decision, SYRIZA Euro-MP Nikos Chountis said: ‘The vote was completely undemocratic. The proposal was 300 pages long and contained, amongst other things, decisions on the privatisation of dozens of state-owned enterprises at much too low a price, and this was sent to the Parliament a day and a half before the vote. SYRIZA had tried to have the proposals declared unconstitutional but the vote on our motion was delayed by the president of the Parliament just long enough, so that the governing parties had drummed up enough members.’ The massive pressure on MPs to vote for the measures was more than the SYRIZA members could take, which is why they walked out on Wednesday evening. The governing parties also put pressure on their own MPs, with members from the social democratic PASOK and centre-right New Democracy who nevertheless dared to vote against the Troika proposals suffering immediate expulsion from their parties.
On Thursday also the latest Greek unemployment statistics were published: 25.4% - over a quarter – of the workforce is now unemployed, the 35th month in succession that the number of jobless has risen, despite the entirely different tale told by German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the European Parliament just the previous day. Merkel asserted that ‘Greece had, as a result of the austerity measures, managed to find its way back up.’ The Chancellor’s visit was seized on by left Euro-MPs as an opportunity to protest against Merkel’s austerity agenda. SP Euro-MP Dennis de Jong called on his fellow MEPs to listen to the European people rather than swallowing Merkel’s one-sided, sugar-coated story. In particular, he proposed that a conference be organised at the EP on poverty in Europe, with trade unions, anti-poverty networks, and religious and solidarity organisations.
That the situation is hopeless, especially for the young, is something to which Ioannis Passalis can attest. He has spent the last few months trying to rustle up some kind of income through several different part-time jobs. In the end, just like thousands of other young people, Ioannis left Greece to look for work elsewhere. ‘I took all the jobs that I could but often I couldn’t find more than a few hours work a week,’ he says, ‘not enough to pay for necessities.’ Youth unemployment has exploded since 2008, rising from 20% to 58 %. When a few months ago the squat where Ioannis was living was burnt to the ground under suspicious circumstances, he was out on the street. He is now in Brussels, looking for work.
Panayota Maniou and Nikos Chountis of SYRIZA (photo: Olivier Hansen)
There is no reliable estimate of the number of Greeks looking for work in Brussels and other European cities, but it is clear that numbers are increasing. The effects of the exodus, however, can, according to Panayota Maniou fairly clearly be guessed at. Maniou works for SYRIZA in the European Parliament and has given accommodation to an unemployed Greek, despite the fact that she is herself expecting a child. ‘The situation now is worse than it was in the ‘50s,’ she says. ‘Greek workers were at that time leaving for Western Europe, because wages for work in Belgian mines or Greek restaurants in European cities were attractive. These were poor working people who could build a better and freer life in the West. Now it’s the well-educated young, precisely the people who should be putting the country back on the rails. This is a double crisis: for Greece now and for Greece in the future.’
According to Ioannis Passalis the hopeless situation in Greece is causing not only an exodus of well-educated young people, but also an enormous polarisation in Greece itself. The extreme right is gaining a following amongst young people who can’t find jobs and blame foreigners for this. ‘What’s sad is that there is some truth in this,’ he says. ‘Employers prefer Albanians and Bulgarians, who are happy to work on the black for less than the minimum wage and have no interest in joining a union. A friend of mine who speaks a few words of Albanian and was desperate pretended to be Albanian and well, he got a job.’
Dennis de Jong is extremely concerned about developments in Greece. ‘This so-called rescue package is a lead lifebelt,’ he says. ‘In order to repay Greece’s debts to the banks decades of economic growth must be achieved. All these spending cuts mean, however, that the economy is only shrinking more. The debts must be restructured so that the banks pay for the crisis. Privatisations must be halted immediately. Deep-rooted corruption in Greece means that the sale of state-owned enterprises will personally profit the super-rich at the expense of the people. Public administration, which relies too often on nepotism, must be cleaned up. Only when there’s some progress towards sound administrative practice can aid from Brussels via the structural funds be deployed effectively to get the economy back on its feet.’