Published on 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.

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22 reader comments

  1. John Kerr says:

    Good piece. Brings it all back home.

  2. quentinc says:

    And you believe this “Ms A” story? Doesn’t it sound just a little odd? Is that really how you would react in the same position? If you are working for someone so corrupt… that they are going to tell you how to vote…. err well tell them what they want to hear… and do what you want to do anyway at the ballot box. It’s time to find another job, which could well be hard… so in the meantime, keep taking their money, tell them what they want and cough into their coffee if that makes you feel better.

    Picking a fight and not being paid… doesn’t sound very smart… and frankly is so dumb… it is hard to believe it is true.

    1. Margaret says:

      Obviously,and thank the gods,some of us have what are known as principles

  3. memnon says:

    It may be the case Mr Mason that they are now beginning to realise the harsh realities of the perilous position they are in.

    the Greek problem is the creation of the Greek people. They (over successive decades) voted in the politicians of all parties (but with PASOK the largest culprit) in building a monstrous state edifice that feeds and rewards corruption and penalises free entreprise and hard work.

    Syriza claim that they are not to blame for this state; in fact a big chuck of their support is from the “unreformed” former PASOK supporters.

    they voted for Tsipras in January who quite promptly reversed all the budding signs of economic recovery. they then voted “OXI” believing the chimera of Tsipras and Varoufakis who would restore everything back to glory in 48 hours.

    What they have not realised is that Tsipras and his party have always believed that they could only implement their programme outside the euro. Varounomics or Voodonomics.

    The rest of the Eurozone is right to insist on reforms that cut down the state and limit pensions.
    without these reforms no amount of debt writeoff will prevent the debt becoming unsustainable again.

  4. Izzie says:

    Superb last paragraph: proper, poignant and full of the moment. This is an important article about people on a day dominated by politicians.

    Your heart has to go out to the individuals whose stories are told here. And feel touched by their patience as much as their plight. Brave people! I fully understand Paul’s sympathetic protection of their identities… They deserve that.

    What is highlighted here is significant. How come a journalist knows you should protect the weak while the Eurozone merely sees them as collateral damage? How do they think ordinary Greeks, like those described here, can take any more cuts? It’s madness to speak of humanitarian aid to soften a disaster whose nature they’re debating and planning.

    And what on earth are those people who grind the anonymous rumour mill thinking? Theirs is an anonymity that deserves to be exposed – these fifth columnists are as bad as the Eurozone.

    Thanks for this. But I find it hard to believe it’s Europe.

  5. john fitzpatrick says:

    Paul in the stories you the operation of three scenarios that are illegal in most parts of Europe. These crimes are committed by so called “entrepreneurs”. These are the same people that are feted acroos the rest of Europe as being the saviours of people, pillars of society, and various other patriotic claims by many Eurozone governments.

    Yet the main stream media never cover these issues.

    Square that peg into a round hole if its possible, cos I just cannot understand why these people would be given so much “official credibility”.

  6. SN says:

    The extended family and the “village identity” are actually what is going to keep Greece together. It’s always been this way, but it’s strongly visible during crises. They are the main reason why the Greek community didn’t explode earlier, and had we not these strong family bonds, things would really be far more worse. Thank God this tradition stands still, caving in Western civilization much more slower than the rest of our lifestyle. Keep strong, everyone.

  7. Borna Alikhani says:

    As a one time collaborator with C4 news, i am appalled and embarrassed by Paul Mason’s coverage of Tsipras and Syriza and the role they have played in getting Greece to this point.
    Yes, the EU’s intransigence in reviewing the 2nd bailout and subsequent Syriza proposals is to blame also- but Tsipras lied through his teeth to take power through the elections and his platform was “no more bailouts”. Today Greece has been brought to its knees and is asking for a third bailout. Paul Mason, please don’t be seduced by the great access you have to Syriza. You are very knowledgeable on the situation in Greece and are doing your viewers/readers a great disservice by aligning yourself with this government of gross incompetence. I expect more from the solid editorial team at C4 news. Perhaps its time Lindsey Hilsum was brought onto this story.

  8. David says:

    Another excellent blog, I hope that they exit so they can devalue with the drachma and rebuild. The constant humiliation enforced on them must be too much.

  9. Mary Castelberg- koulma says:

    I’d just finished a Buddhist meditation class in Brighton today.We’d sent thoughts of happiness and wellness to ourselves and to spread out to all so Greece was in my thoughts – the country of my mother’s birth.I’m temporarily here in Brighton after spending the last 3 years in Athens.
    At the end of our meditation I heard a participant say ‘isn’t it wonderful what’s happening in Greece’.I was able to delight in her comment and feel solidarity with many people that see Greece’s stance as an alternative – a challenge to the austerity – sodden lot in Europe who don’t seem yet to get it
    It doesn’t work!!!!
    Most Greeks know there are changes needed to combat years – decades of corruption and clientelism which stifles and holds back the talents and potential of the country.The Syriza government needs a chance to reform this.
    How can the European Union justify its existence by punishing ordinary citizens of Greece? This is unhappy , sick economics and politics.Who wants to sign up to this state? There’s got to be a rational humane alternative than what the Brussels bureaucrats can offer.

  10. James says:

    First article I’ve read that makes it sound real and about people.Thanks

  11. mia gynaika says:

    Thank you so much for this and all your coverage. It is heartbreaking having to watch all that is going on and the fact that you have such a feel for the place and the people and are giving us such a vivid account is really important, many commentators seem to have little understanding. The importance of family and patrida was also there in the years of appalling suffering, still in living memory, during the war and after; nor is this the first time the Greeks said ‘No’ to the Germans and suffered as a result. I was shocked to read of your being trolled on the internet, there are many of us who applaud what you are doing. Please carry on.

  12. John B says:

    PAUL,
    THE BLOGS YOU HAVE DONE ON THIS ARE AS IT IS. Incisive and poignant. I have followed with interest.

    Frankly the best reporting on the situation.

    I live on a Greek island and to a degree life here is insulated from the machinations in Athens and Europe but methinks not for longI

    Island life means that the economy is based on tourism and to a degree agriculture. Locals look out for one another and a support network exists.
    People here work VERY hard are very proud of their nation and they look at Europe, the banks and the crisis and seems to be resigned to a grim time ahead.

    The summer is upon us and all are trying to earn as much as they can to get them through the winter.

    Germany postulating on Greece’s future is not that welcome

    A joke doing the rounds here is Ms Merkel turns up at the Greek border and the Greek passport officer asks to see her passport.
    THE PASSPORT
    He looks at the picture of Me. Merkel and asks. ,”Occupation?”
    Ms Merkel ponders for a moment….”not yet she says!”

  13. john corbett says:

    am i getting this wrong?

    There is a very interesting article from Fintan O’ Toole. in The Irish Times

    http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/editorial/fintan-o-toole-eu-has-taken-decisive-turn-from-democracy-1.2275438

    If you add to this that the Greek situation is, mainly, a German Banking issue and not Government one.
    The banks, mainly German, charged high rates to reflect the risk ( as they did in Ireland). They should have hedged the risk to reflect the risk – that’s why they charge high rates to allow the hedge to happen.
    If they did not then ….
    If they did then what’s the problem and are the banks looking to get get paid twice …. Or does hedging not work?
    Just saying !

  14. Mary Evans Young says:

    Enjoying (not right word) your coverage of Greek crisis. Thanks Paul.

  15. Julian Moseley says:

    I hope Merkel and Hollande etc understand the real need to bind Greece to Europe. Unless we can become more Federal and act as if we are a Union, then poor Greece will fall prey to … Putin? Islamic extremists? Chaos?

  16. Tim W says:

    The battered and disfigured Greek Can has been kicked down Eurozone Street and finally reached a dead-end with nowhere to go. The pain of the Greek nation is arguably strongly of their own making but the complicity of the rest of Europe, with Germany and France the principle culprits, as something that should be looked at with shame and dispair.
    That the Euro is a doomed political construct propped up by vacuous politics of liberty, fraternity and egality with conspiracy theorists also postulating Germany’s hand at dominating Europe by means other than total war is not hard to sympathise with. I have read Mr Mason’s previous blogs and many of the accompanying comments with interest and find him to be remarkably reserved about the manifest incompetence of the Eurozone leaders; talk about pigs with their noses in the Euro trough! Re-directing the financial waste and mad bureaucracy (such as 2 locations for the European HQs) would easily pay for bailing out Greece. That said – if Greece does receive this stay of execution it too must reform dramatically and put an end to tax dodging, protectionism and a bloated black economy.
    I admire the way Syriza (AT & YV) has played its poker hand and if exit is the only option I hope that their walk in the financial wilderness is as short as possible.
    Like most I can only see pain and misery for Greece whichever path is chosen for them by the Eurozone. I can’t help thinking that by leaving the Euro the Greeks could feel some comfort in inflicting probable collateral pain and political havok on those they perceive as having aided their ignominy and pariah status

  17. Jackie says:

    ‘People breakdown suddenly in tears, overwhelmed by the stress’ this is happening to me about 6 times a day…………….

  18. Alexander Hagen says:

    Keep it coming, Mr. Mason. Wish I was there. We left the day before the banks closed (by accident not design). Wonderful country and wonderful people.

  19. KURT says:

    Quick ‘Me’ Profile –
    German born American based in Athens since 2010 Jan 26th.
    Married, one child (girl), stay at home dad. Yes you hear me well. Home Maker. Household “CEO”, husband, father, mentor, coach, friend, good and bad cop (:- Quit workforce to do another, more important called, Parenting.
    I have lived communism, socialism, a federal, state and local government democracy plus the one which takes them all called Coalition of the Radical Left.
    If there is one thing I have learned hard along the way is that:
    ‘Ignorancia Legis Neminem Excusat’ or ‘Ignorance (NOT knowing) of the Law Excuses No One’.
    Yet when people of Greece were watching/& hearing a 40 Years Old, which did not work, neither volunteered, for a single day in his life time, with a Communist background, bragging that he will put everybody back to work into a non performing public sector which encourages nepotism rather than competition, maintain pensions which on average are +30% higher than any other top 10 economic power house countries in the world and do NOTHING to fight tax evaders (yam more cash=black money=Greek Party) you, well most of you, have choosen to VOTE for him. Why?

    Here in Greece, living day in/day out, things are not like you see on Telly. Visiting and interviewing whoever is not the reality it is only a perception. For e.g.: My landlord owns a four storey building with five apartments plus a vacation home three storey with three apartments.
    He had worked for the Customs Public Sector, now a retiree….(with 13 pensions a year; in Greece the year has 13 months for pensioners and 14 for the Public sector and Private too excepting ‘xenons’ of otherwise known as foreigners; only 12 for us).
    All the neighbours are owning pretty much the same.
    My question is: How in the world you can own so much?
    We have been busting our knees and elbows for so long, paying Big Time taxes here (instead of having 14 salaries the government has given us an extra Tax 2% called Solidarity Tax; now I heard rumors they will ask for some more like another 1,500 Euros (not percentage; fix amount)on the top of everything), We have been Paying Tax in the US too, and what is left still not enough to save & buy a Greek flat (not that I wish for one; as a matter of fact even if they would be throwing it to me for free I would not take it).
    I have so many other things to say about the so called “Humanitarian Crisis” but I have to stop here because it will work against me.Most of my Greek friends keep on telling me that I do not know anything about their history.
    My answer is always the same. History had been written, you cannot alter it neither change it, however what I always tell them is to forget living in the past, but instead look into the future.
    STOP pointing fingers and save your energy for doing something better for yourself, your neighbor, community and finally for Greece.
    P.S – the only true thing said by a Greek politician on television was a message towards Europe which was like that “Do not worry. 42 billion Euros withdrawn by Greek people from the banks did not go outside Greece. Are under their pillows, mattress, and buried in the backyard”
    Hopefully it is not The End.

    1. Dave Hansell says:

      Kurt,

      The well respected UK consumer magazine Which published figures in April 2013 comparing UK pensions with those of other countries.

      Of 15 countries Greece came 14th at 21% of Greek average earnings, with only South Africa having a worse level of state pension provision. The UK was 12th at 23.8% of average UK earnings. Those with vastly superior pension provisions from the state to that of Greece included Germany (2nd) at 89% of average German earnings; USA (4th) at 52.1% of average US earnings; France (5th) at 53% of average French earnings; Australia (7th) at 25.6% of average Australian earnings; Holland (9th) at 30.8% of average Dutch earnings; Ireland (10th) at 24.9% of average Irish earnings; and Japan (13th) at 19.1% of average Japanese earnings.

      Moreover, the Greek pension levels from the state are 14.2% of the level in Germany; 19.9% of the level in the US; 23.8% of the level in France; 50.2% of that of the UK (only 2 places above Greece); and 67.9% of the level in Japan.

      So I have a question.

      Could you please justify your claim that Greek state pensions are 30+% greater than any other top ten power house economies in the world? Are you serious in claiming that in the space of two years that Greece has climbed from 14th to 1st in this league table and that, for example, the state pension has gone from 14% of the level of state pension provision in Germany to 30 times greater in that period?

      I believe the Americans have a well known saying about telling something to the marines which seems both applicable and relevant in regard to the efficacy and validity of your claims.

  20. Fatema Patwa says:

    Thank you for bringing to us coverage that is insightful and caring.

    We should stand with the people for Greece by voting to leave the EU unless it is reformed, not as David Cameron wants, but one which respects the will of a Country’s citizens, is open and accountable and most of all, stands by its citizens instead of crushing them

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