The View from Athens: Greece Peers Fearfully Over the Brink
People in Greece have been looking to Brussels this week with a mixture of fear, hope and trepidation. The deadline for a deal is approaching, and nobody knows what might happen if one isn't reached.
The glass display cases belonging to the Athens currency and coin museum now stand where the discoverer of Troy, Heinrich Schliemann, once ate his breakfast. The city has carefully restored the archeologist's palace, complete with the Trojan swastika ornamentation on the floor.
On the front, the goddess Athena, on the back, an owl -- wisdom and cunning -- pressed into a piece of silver. Once its standing was even better than that of the euro, a model of stability and in circulation around the world. And before we can even ask, we have our answer: "The drachma is in the museum. And we hope that it stays there."
It's Thursday afternoon. In Brussels, a Euro Group meeting has just adjourned, with the body planning to gather again on Saturday to discuss a deal with Athens for the very, very last time. But in Athens, we are meeting with Greece's deputy finance minister to learn how he sees the ongoing negotiations.
Dimitris Mardas is sitting in his office behind a desk that is covered with little yellow post-it notes. As a result, it looks like a game of Concentration. In response to our question about the goings on in Brussels, he looks helplessly to the television hanging over his head. It has been switched off. In the last five months, Mardas has developed a reputation for always being able to scrape together a few hundred million euros when needed -- even if it means invoices from suppliers don't immediately get paid. But nowadays, his ministry isn't even ordering pencils anymore.
Only Three Cents More
Mardas doesn't want to be quoted before an agreement is signed. But he is certain that a compromise will be reached, if not today then tomorrow. What else should the person responsible for the state's coffers say just days before the last deadline expires?
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras announced a proposal last weekend containing spending cuts and tax hikes -- an offer that was described in some papers the next morning as a capitulation. But that was the beginning of the week.
"The businesspeople hate us for this deal. Why? Because we are fairly dividing the burden onto everyone's shoulders," says Nikos Filis, floor leader for Tsipras' Syriza party in Greek parliament. "Will the poor have to pay higher taxes? Yes, but less than the IMF proposed. A package of spaghetti, for example, will only be three cents more expensive."
These are the kinds of arguments Filis will have to rely on in order to convince his faction to swallow the potential deal in Brussels. He calculates that a reduction of the primary surplus would make 14.2 billion more available for the Greek budget over the next four years -- euros, not drachma.
As Filis takes a phone call, his assistant feels the need to clarify something. "There haven't been any attacks on Germans," he says. "Please, write that."
"Greece will accept the deal," Filis then says. "And my faction will too."
The deal. In Greek, the work sounds misleading: "symfonia." But there is no harmony, no ingenious bit of inspiration in the possible pact. Nikos Filis puts it this way: "The 'symfonia' establishes equilibrium in the face of the balance of power." Greece, he says, found itself up against the status quo.
Cross-Outs in Red
Shortly thereafter, the status quo once again reasserts itself in the form of a fax from Brussels. It contains additional demands and counterproposals, primarily from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). They are simply written into the Greek proposal, with cross-outs and revisions in almost every paragraph. In red.
The paper clearly reveals a growing weariness with courtesies and diplomacy. Entire sentences from the Greek proposal are simply crossed out. In the section dealing with health care, for example, the formulation "... with exceptions, as determined by the national and European Medicines Agency" is replaced with "without exception."
The document is five pages long, and is copied in parliament and handed out to the various party factions. It spreads not unlike a virus, again calling everything into question. Nikos Filis believes the balance has shifted once again for the worse and speaks of blackmail on television.
"Out of 200 million in defense spending cuts, they made 400. They simply crossed out the number," says Marina Chryssoveloni, spokeswoman for the right-wing populist Independent Greeks, Tsipras' junior coalition partner. "That is unacceptable." Above her head hangs the only bit of decoration in the room, a silver Madonna.
The Independent Greeks have threatened to back out of the coalition if a certain "red line" is crossed -- an increase in VAT tax on the islands, for example, for the potential negative effect it could have on tourism. "The islands are national matter," Chryssoveloni says.
More than anything, though, with heads of state and government set to meet for a summit, there is no indication that a debt haircut may be forthcoming. Yet for Marina Chryssoveloni and a majority of parliamentarians, such a cut should be the core of any agreement. "If there is no clear agreement to reduce debt, I can't imagine the deal getting through parliament," says the party spokeswoman. As of Thursday, such an agreement was not part of the negotiations.
Chryssoveloni is aware, of course, that her party doesn't have a chance of ever again becoming part of a government should Tsipras fall. For the moment, though, she has another problem. A photo is slowly emerging from the printer in her antechamber. It shows the gate to Auschwitz. Someone in her faction had replaced the sign reading "Arbeit Macht Frei" with "We Are Staying in Europe." Later, Chryssoveloni distances herself from the photo in the name of her party.
Protesters and Dozing Dogs
The offices of both parliamentarians, Niklos Filis and Marina Chryssoveloni, have windows facing Syntagma Square -- a swarm of sesame ring sellers, tourists, protesters and dozing dogs.
Syntagma Square in the center of Athens and, as such, likely the heart of Greece. Dimitris Papapoulios has set up his stand directly in the middle of the square. Papapoulios is a pensioner who once worked for Olympic Airways. Now, to support his grandson, he sells books -- Dostoyevsky, Kafka, the memoirs of Greek actress Melina Mercouri -- for 2 per title. Seventy-two years old, Papapoulios cast his vote for Tsipras, full of hope. He feels that what is currently taking place in Brussels is unfair. "Negotiations have been extremely tough. We have to pay an additional 8 billion in taxes."
And then there are the refugees searching through the garbage cans in Piräus Street for something to eat. All of that, he says, is Europe's fault, not Tsipras'. "I misjudged Europe. They look down on our small country with its unrivaled cuisine, its hospitality and its sky. They don't have that in Brussels," Papapoulios says. He points up to the Greek-blue sky overhead, so glowing and uncritical -- and completely clear. Either the sky is a great liar or it has seen enough to know that nothing Earthly, and certainly not an agreement, is ever applied as written.
Peter Economides is sitting about 50 meters away from the Villa Maximos, the seat of the prime minister. He once helped create the Apple advertising campaign "Think Different." In spring 2012, as his homeland Greece was again teetering on the edge, he founded an initiative called "Ginetai," or "It can be done." The name is a play on words, an answer to the phrase that Greeks so often use: "Den ginetai," or "It won't work anyway."
In Athens, the phrase is once again being used with particular frequency. This time, as solace in the face of the impositions coming from Brussels.
Unfortunately, the Ginetai project, which hoped to provide financial and legal help for start-ups, was quickly overtaken by various problems. As a result, the state sold the property they had promised to the initiative, and Economides now runs his initiative from the basement of the Dutch embassy. A low room filled with desks and corner sofas from which 60 small companies are being looked after.
Economides, born in South Africa to Greek parents, was never a leftist. But when he heard Alexis Tsipras' speech, full of confidence and free of complaints, that January evening after Syriza's election victory, he thought: That could be it, the vision. Tsipras' sentences were powerful and filled with fight. He thought it was the best speech by a Greek politician that he had heard in years.
All of which makes his weariness all the greater. The wrangling in Brussels and the clamoring in Athens, he says, is a catastrophe. No vision as far as the eye can see. "It bores me. Instead of engaging in politics, the government is now doing one thing above all else: It is leaving things as they are. But things are not good as they are."
The state, he believes, could be the key to modernizing the country, but instead of jolting it into action, the government is cultivating its excesses. He says that even public servants who had been facing disciplinary proceedings are being re-hired. The government, he argues, gives the impression that the only things close to its heart are the public sector and its employees, and that the private sector is essentially an enemy.
Instead of implementing much needed reforms, he says, the government has but one plan, and not an especially original one: raising taxes. Especially on entrepreneurs. "The message is clear," says Economides. "Above all else, don't be successful in Greece. Devastating." Luckily, he says, the IMF has now vetoed the raising of corporate taxes on business with profits greater than 500,000.
But even Peter Economides, who is not exactly a typical Syriza supporter, is against further austerity measures. The fiscal power struggle between Greece's creditors and the Greek government in Brussels makes him tired too. Complaints about the European institutions are getting sharper -- not only on the left, but among conservatives and liberals as well. Nobody in Greece speaks positively of the austerity measures imposed over the last few years.
Indeed, even the newspaper Kathimerini -- previously a voice of reason in the largely hysterical Greek journalistic landscape -- is publishing opinion pieces branding the creditors' demands as a "political impossibility." For Peter Economides, the enemy is in the minds of the Greeks, the idea that civil servants cannot be fired. This mentality, more than anything else, he argues, is keeping his country from moving forward.
Then he tells the story of a hard drive he accidentally left on a Swiss train. After a few days, the Swiss Federal Railways got in touch with him to say that the hard drive had been found and would be sent to him via FedEx. Economides drove to the customs office at the Athens airport order to pick it up, and when he stepped into the office, five officials were sitting in front of glasses of cold coffee. Economides explained the situation with the hard drive, and the officials nodded, shrugged their shoulders and pointed at a chair. After half an hour, Economides stood up, asked if someone could maybe check about the hard drive because, he said, that's why he was there. The officials didn't react.
Economides became angry, "You are the public service. I am the public, so give me your service!" Two hours later, around noon, he was given his hard drive for a fee of 150. From an angry official. "Why are you angry?" Economides asked. Because I have been sitting here since 9 a.m., the woman replied according to Economides. Such stories are not uncommon.
Thursday. In Brussels, Wolfgang Schäuble is just in the process of booking a hotel room. The negotiations will continue. In Athens, on the warm marble tiles of the parliament's colonnade, stands Giannis Michelogiannakis, smoking. The pants of his suit hang a bit low and his jacket is wrinkled. The Syriza lawmaker, a cardiologist from Crete, is a popular interview subject, ever since he described some of the demands in the latest paper by the creditors in Brussels as "criminal."
Michelogiannakis has no problem with being the center of attention. He reads his conditions from a stained sheet of paper. First, a tax cut, or, as Michelogiannakis puts it: "The restructuring of Greek debts." Second, the debts his country has with the European Central Bank should be transferred to the EU bailout fund. Third, "a sizeable investment and growth plan, financed with money from the Juncker Plan and additional ECB funds." In other words, more money.
Only when these three conditions are met, he claims, will Syriza parliamentarians vote in favor of the "symfonia." And what if they aren't met?
Weeks ago, Alexis Tsipras charged Minister of State Nikos Pappas with bringing the party lawmakers into line. Those who didn't vote in favor of agreements negotiated by Tsipras would lose his or her seat, Pappas threatened. And if the deal is only passed with the help of opposition votes, Tsipras said on the radio, he would call for new elections. Even Energy Minister Pannagiotis Lafazanis, a spokesman of the party's leftist wing, known as Aristera Platforma, has vowed to go along with the leadership.
'We All Stand Behind Alexis'
Giannis Michelogiannakis quiets down when this question arises. No, he's not really worried that a majority of the lawmakers won't vote for this agreement when it comes down to it. "We all stand behind Alexis," he says in a whisper.
And the symfonia? What will become of it? What will come of this wrangling -- in which both sides want the same thing, a deal, but everybody is afraid to lose face? Alexis Tsipras' ambitions are stronger than his ideological reflexes. He would like to be a statesman, not the person who led his country out of the euro against everybody's wishes. He probably won't even need votes from other parties to pass the deal, even if some elements of the opposition, the left-liberal Potomi Party, for example, will almost certainly support a deal.
In a rhetorical sleight of hand, that actually only he can pull off, the head of Syriza will pose as both the savior of the Greek euro and the victim of Europe's misled rescue policies. For Alexis Tsipras, the inclusion of even just a single sentence pertaining to the restructuring of Greek debt would be a trophy. Even if he doesn't get one, the important thing is that he fought to the end. Maybe then the drachma can also stay in the museum.
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