Greece, on the Cliff Edge?

Interview with Archimedes Sidiropoulos

A rise in taxes and a decrease in pensions are both expected in Greece after a new austerity package came into effect in May. This is the 12th such package of economic measures approved by government between 2010 and 2016. Discontent continues, yet the Prime Minister, Alexis Cipras, who previously fought a ‘war of independence’ with the IMF, has decided to force the measures down the communal Greek throat.

How does the government manage the austerity policy? How much support does Syriza have?

2015 was the year of great victory, as well as a Waterloo, for Cipras’ party. He won the parliamentary elections with 36% of the vote and beat the traditionally strong, New Democracy party by 10%. Cipras was so sure of the result of the referendum on the austerity measures that before the referendum he declared that if there were a negative result he would still respect the outcome. That was not the case and he simply deceived voters, who expected a different kind of politics from him. Thus, in 2017, SYRIZA party support has fallen back to 15% and the largest opposition party (New Democracy) has support close to 33%.

Today, the average Greek citizen has fallen on hard times and those who dream of a Greece without any creditors, where people can proudly proclaim their ‘Greekness’, where they can walk with their heads held high and be proud of their three thousand year old culture, are live in a dream world. The citizenry has sobered up and is looking for some kind of anchor, a point of reference. However, the EU is still dictating to the Greeks. The latest EU demand is to lower the level of tax-free income.

Greece is known for the influence of its interest groups. The bureaucracy is large and the trade unions add to the influence of the interest groups. The conditions imposed by the creditors aim at disabling the working of that system. How are the reforms progressing alongside the austerity measures?

Syriza never reached a position in its two years of government where they could convincingly prove they were genuinely not corrupt. As investments have decreased to a minimum in Greece, the country is not building and it does not have the time or the resources to do so. Harbours, airports, all the resources that increase GDP are under foreign ownership. What is there to finance corruption with? Knowing the long-term behaviour of the eastern European communist-socialist systems, where corruption was elevated officially to a state level, it is easy to imagine that a moderate left wing party could pursue totally different politics if they had took power not during a crisis but under normal circumstances (as PASOK or New Democracy did).

Last year the IMF recognised and admitted that they would not find solutions to the Greek crisis through austerity measures, so today they have set the country tough conditions again. The leaders of the IMF also acknowledged that the application of the economic programme demanded by them came with a great price to Greek society because it significantly increased poverty and unemployment, and delayed the reforms. They demand reforms, the initiation of higher-level growth and manageable debt, in parallel with the new measures. That is like trying to get blood from a stone.

In Germany’s view, Greece should either accept the further restrictive measures or should declare bankruptcy and leave the Euro-zone. However, the true leader of the Eurozone is the Euro group, which is demanding further restrictions: a further decrease in pensions, the taxation of tourism, and a ban on new wage agreements, etc.

Currently, unemployment is over 20% and public debt is 175% of GDP. Will the country stay in recession for many decades or is there a solution?

The transcendent liberal leaders of the European Union have laid their hands on the cradle of European culture. The European Central Bank has discredited the Greek financial system. The Greeks have fallen into a debt trap. Both the responsible leaders of the Union and the Greeks are afraid to say that they must leave the Eurozone, although that should have been done long ago and now there could be an independent Greek economic policy.

Unfortunately, Greek debt has reached a level that has produced total hopelessness both in the political sphere (in the thinking of the ‘decision makers’) and in the various strata of society. According to the surveys, close to 90% of the citizens are depressed and think that things are going downhill and the mood of society is much the same in regard to the maintenance of living standards. The fact that increasing numbers of young people are leaving Greece should be taken as a serious warning.

Apart from the economic crisis, the arrival of migrants in huge numbers is also affecting Greece. With the support of the EU, hot spots have been created, but still more people are arriving than leaving. How do the Greeks cope with the mass migration? 

Obviously, if the mass migration continues, Greece will be come to a point where it will no longer be able to handle the situation, as the majority of the European states have closed their borders and the migrants cannot reach their desired destinations through the Balkans. Furthermore, contrary to the agreement, they are still arriving illegally from Turkey. Greece is not in a position to find a solution to that problem. Citizens can only see that they have a government and a serious opposition party who are not fighting politically for the nation’s benefit but are drifting with today’s European current. That also puts Europe in an impossible situation.

Greece is also burdened by the economic crisis. The people are slowly becoming apathetic and disappointed in regard to fundamental social questions, so much so that their famous great resilience is disappearing and soon it will be impossible to motivate them in defence of their own interests. It can be said that the migrant issue has grown to such a size and entered such a phase, that it is impossible to determine its consequences.

The negotiations aimed at the reunion of Cyprus ended without result. According to the Greeks, the Turkish negotiator insisted that even after the reunion, Turkish troops should be stationed on the island. What importance does the island have for the two sides? Is there a solution?

Naturally, reunion has a lot going for it, including economic and political aspects. However, the Turks are not willing to acknowledge the Greek Republic of Cyprus and they are not willing to withdraw their troops from the occupied territories and negotiate over the assets. In fact, President Erdogan has made some interesting statements. He announced in the middle of the migrant crisis that he does not recognise the Lausanne Treaty of 1923, which was signed by Mustafa Kemal and increased the territory of Turkey. So, he does not recognise that and, in fact, he has marked the islands he wishes to occupy, including Cyprus. After that, no one can think that the recent months of negotiation hold any kind of reality.

In diplomatic circles, they dismiss the idea that Erdogan would any take steps similarly to the Russians’ policy in regard to The Crimea. At the same time, the exclusion of that raises the thought that the possibility of the use of force may have crossed the mind of Erdogan. In any case, the United Nations plans no further negotiations until September. Until then, Greece will try to find solutions for this acute question with the co-operation of the Republic of Cyprus, in which, according to international law, there will be one route for Turkey to follow: the recognition of Cyprus and the withdrawal of its troops. That is the only way to restart potentially successful negotiations, again.

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