8 Jul 2015

Calm defiance giving way to panic as Greek deadline looms

I sat last night with a Greek family and their friends as they heard the news that the Eurozone’s leaders had given a final ultimatum. A deal by Saturday or a specially convened EU summit to prepare for the collapse of the banking system, expulsion from the Eurozone and a “humanitarian aid” package to deal with the inevitable food riots, premature deaths and state failure.

The old took it with equanimity. They believed their government when it said a no vote would strengthen its hand in negotiations for a third bailout. Those who spoke of the way they’d voted had voted no, like 80% of people in the working class suburbs of Athens.

But behind the apparent calm Greeks are getting panicky. There is a rumour mill: vital factories producing medicines or baby milk are rumoured to be closed. Someone rings to check: it’s wrong. People breakdown suddenly in tears, overwhelmed by the stress.

If I give you three stories that were told to me yesterday by this extended group of family and friends, it will explain the pressure Alexis Tsipras is under to do a deal, but not one that humiliates his country.

Ms A works has a private sector job. Her bosses pressured everybody at work to vote yes, she tells me. When she told them she would vote no, the bullying became intense. It’s a non-union workplace, and half her wages come “off the books” so there’s no HR department to go to. Now, after the no victory, she’s been told not to come into work and will not be paid.
Ms B voted yes. She breaks down tearfully every so often. She has two bank accounts but only one has a bank card. She’s borrowing cash. She does some work as a teaching assistant: “one of the children drew Euro notes and cut them out and shared it with their playmates” she says. They are hearing on TV only about money, and how nobody has any. The stress is getting through to them.
Ms C voted no. She is supposed to take unpaid holiday each August, keeping her job effectively non-permanent, by arrangement. But now she has to take July off as well. Unpaid.
What strikes you – and must strike the heavily state-employed and pension-protected older generation around the table  – is the precarious nature of everything in these young people’s lives.
The family dinner table, with grandma, dad and mum working the barbecue represents the institution Greeks will have to rely on most in the coming days: the extended family and the village identity.
For many of the young the family has become a kind of soft prison: they live with their parents; those who don’t are relying grandma’s pension. Its a refuge, yet they have little privacy nor independence.
Here, with the barbecue smoking and the pot-plants withering in the summer heat, in a tiny apartment in a non-descript suburb, is the Greece whose fate will be decided on Sunday.
They are not surprised to be powerless. They’re a small country with a delinquent ruling elite. Nor are they surprised that, finally, after months of saying it was impossible, half the Eurozone is preparing to kick them out.
The only thing they’re surprised by is that Tsipras did not cave in. We’ll see if that lasts until Sunday night.