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Greeks in the Crisis: 'We Need To Explain Ourselves'

Photo Gallery: Speaking about the Greek Tragedy Photos
AP

What hopes and fears has the new government in Greece awakened, and how bad are relations with Germany? Four weeks after the election, SPIEGEL sat down to discuss the situation with six Greek people from different walks of life.

With tensions between Greece and Berlin having been significant in recent weeks, SPIEGEL decided to invite six prominent Greeks to a roundtable discussion at Katzourbos tavern in Athens' Pankrati neighborhood.

The state minister is the first to arrive, 10 minutes early. Alekos Flambouraris, 72, wears a black suit, no tie and the kind of open-collared shirt made fashionable by the governing Syriza party in recent weeks. Flambouraris is a close confidant of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. "We need to keep up our contacts with the Germans. We want to explain ourselves," he says.

Athens' politically independent mayor, Georgios Kaminis, 60, arrives shortly thereafter on foot -- an inconspicuous man wearing a corduroy suitcoat. The others are: Natassa Bofiliou, 31, a famous Greek pop star who has been threatened by supporters of Golden Dawn because of her vocal opposition to the party; Christos Ikonomou, 44, whose book "Just Wait, Something's Happening," is a compilation of short stories about everyday life in Greece during the crisis; entrepreneur Aggeliki Papageorgiou, 50, the owner of a small ice cream spoon factory that is on the verge of shutting down; and journalist Xenia Kounalaki, 44, who writes for the center-right newspaper Kathimerini and has been disappointed thus far by Syriza's behavior in Europe.

The guests conduct their discussion in Greek and the event is moderated by SPIEGEL editors Manfred Ertel and Katrin Kuntz as well as co-moderator Angelos Kovaios, a journalist with the weekly newspaper To Vima. They spent three hours discussing developments in the country over Greek wine and Cretan cuisine.


SPIEGEL: What are we drinking to here -- Syriza's election victory, the compromise reached in Brussels or German-Greek relations?

The Minister: I'm drinking to the welfare of all people in Europe. Our negotiations and the compromise in Brussels also shows that this isn't just a problem for the Greeks. Democracy is also at stake, with the standard of living declining in many countries. I'm drinking to better days.

SPIEGEL: That sounds rather florid. The debt crisis is about hard figures. It's our impression that the governments and the finance ministers in the euro zone haven't yet found a common language.

The Minister: With the compromise, we have established a foundation we can build on -- and also common language. Still, the media and government in German also has a duty to properly inform the German people about our country.

SPIEGEL: Are you trying to suggest that the German media is responsible for problems in relations between Athens and Berlin?

The Minister: No, politics also conveys this image and in that sense we're all guilty. That's why I am here today. Things have gotten better. Many Germans no longer believe that it is only us Greeks who are responsible for the crisis.

The Mayor: Our common language is the rules of the European Union. And they have suffered. Because Germany carries the biggest burden for austerity policies, we deal with each other too aggressively. This applies to both sides -- to the newspaper Bild as well as the Nazi caricature of (German Finance Minister Wolfgang) Schäuble.

The Minister: The caricature was a serious mistake.

SPIEGEL: If it hadn't been published by Agvi, Syriza's party newspaper, we probably wouldn't even be discussing it. You must have known what that would look like abroad.

The Minister: It got played up politically. The newspaper has since offered an apology and I also apologize. We should just forget the whole thing.

The Journalist: I think that the tough positions taken by Schäuble also had to do with the caricature. It hurt his feelings. And then comes Finance Minister (Yanis) Varoufakis, who has been accused of being pedantic with his European partners. But when one person is new and the other has been in office for 25 years, they're obviously going to have different demeanors and arguments.

The Singer: I like Varoufakis. He knows what he's talking about, he's brave and it's fun listening to him.

SPIEGEL: Why was Schäuble so tough in negotiations? Was he trying to teach a lesson?

The Minister: For me it's not the issue of whether Greece was to be chastened. I hope that our negotiating partners understand that aid for Greece is also aid for Europe. Tragic mistakes were made with the austerity measures. What's worse, though, is that people are still insisting on continuing with them.

SPIEGEL: How bad do you think Greek-German relations really are?

The Entrepreneur: I have the feeling that the Germans view us with distrust, but there's no reason for it. We work hard and we have a clear conscience.

The Author: We can't view the Greek-German relationship isolation. I'm worried about developments in Europe. It appears to me that Europe has transformed into a giant bank and its people are divided into lenders or borrowers. The Irish, the Finns and the Belgians say: The Greeks owe us money and it can't be allowed to disappear. This is a bad development. Germany is the leader of this policy and it has always viewed Europe as the garden behind its own house. I don't think that is going to change in the future. The agreement in Brussels means that we Greeks can relax a little bit more, but we will be having the same discussion again come June.

The Mayor: Only now will we see what this government is capable of. We hope to see a serious effort to combat tax evasion and corruption. We finally want to see a different treatment for the oligarchs. We need to reform the public service sector.

SPIEGEL: Alexis Tsipras said he wants to give Greeks their dignity back. What does that mean?

The singer: As an artist, these words really please me. Unfortunately, it's a fast throwaway remark from politicians, its populist consolation.

The Minister: This is not about the Greeks' or the Germans' dignity, it's an issue of having a dignified life. But how can one speak of such a thing if people don't even have money to pay their bills? When one has to help one's son study by candlelight. When people rummage through the trash for a rotten tomato?

The Entrepreneur: Take me, for example. I was arrested because my company was insolvent and I couldn't pay my taxes. My purse had been stolen and when I wanted to report it to the police, they put me in a cell. They took my fingerprints and locked me up. The next day I was taken to court. I wanted an extension on paying my taxes, but it wasn't allowed. The whole procedure stripped me of my honor.

The Author: The dignity of many Greeks has been violated. Just look at the poverty and joblessness. I understand it when people say they just want to make ends meet and that they don't care what currency we have.

SPIEGEL: Do you think it would be better if Greece were to leave the euro?

The Minister: We don't want that. No one wants that. If we have 1 million living in poverty today, we would have 6 million if we left the euro.

The Singer: I only want the euro if I can see that it is better for my life. And I only want to be a part of Europe if I don't have to keep wearing a debt sign around my neck.

The Journalist: Polls show that 70 percent of Greeks want to remain a part of the euro zone. But that isn't possible without commitments. But the loan agreement has failed -- it brought us the right-wing radical Golden Dawn party, which led to a slide into a nationalism in which Europe is viewed as the new enemy. I am very worried about this. Europe also means compromise. It's not about whether Wolfgang Schäuble or Yanis Varoufakis emerges victorious.

The Author: I am dismayed that Europe is being equated with the euro today. It's purely about money, debts, bonds and loans. We are viewed as an economic unit, not as people. That's disappointing and it's taking away my hope of a European future.

The Mayor: Europe is always portrayed as being a give and take. But there's much more to it. It's about security and stability, freedom of movement and bringing our societies together. But Europe also requires effort.

SPIEGEL: Who should be making that effort?

The Mayor: Our country has never succeeded in forcing the major tax evaders to pay. Instead we targeted the easy victims, the ones who couldn't defend themselves. We take the money where we believe we can get it -- and we don't care if it's right or wrong.

The Minister: It was a political decision made by earlier governments to take from all and not just those who could pay. It was also a political decision to say: We're not going to go after the people on the so-called Lagarde list, which includes information about 2,000 Swiss bank accounts.

SPIEGEL: You are the coordinator for the new government. Can you understand criticism about its casual style?

The Minister: The new government and Alexis Tsipras have already achieved a lot. We went up against 18 other countries by ourselves, but we have found alliance partners and solutions. We will now attempt to implement the pending reforms even if they won't all happen at once.

SPIEGEL: What we really meant by that is the appearance of some of your colleagues in the cabinet.

The Journalist: That's all of course, very sympathetic. I found it almost sweet that the international press was suddenly addressing the way Varoufakis wears his shirts. I have no problem with that.

The singer: I don't understand at all why the Germans would be fascinated by an open-collared shirt. Members of the Green Party (in Germany) also wore them back in the day.

SPIEGEL: What would a Grexit mean?

The Entrepreneur: We produce packaging for food products. Earlier, we used to mostly make plastic spoons for ice cream companies. Then the Bulgarians suddenly brought a lighter plastic spoon onto the market. We could no longer compete because we didn't have the money to buy new machines. Honestly though, I'm not seeing any growth right now, and that's why I don't really care if we have the euro or not. Earlier I was proud of being Greek. We had our small company; we purchased our building and our machinery. But then the crisis came and we risked not only losing just our factory, but also our private property.

The Singer: We are a country of entrepreneurs. My father also had a factory. He manufactured mail boxes. He had the same problem. You don't even have to ask these people about the currency. The only thing that interests them is just surviving.

The Minister: Europe as a place that believes in the social system has taken a step backwards. Cultural Europe has as well. When it was created, the EU was intended as an economic union, but later other things were added. But now, once again, it is just about the currency.

The Mayor: Even if we view Europe at the moment as a spoiled child, we have still learned a lot from Europe. We cannot forget that we belong to the 35 countries that are the most developed in the world. Our critics also shouldn't forget that Greece is the cradle of European culture.

SPIEGEL: But now Athens is criticizing Europe and flirting with Russia. Do you have more in common with Moscow?

The Singer: I have never been to Russia, so I can't say if we have much in common with Russia or not.

SPIEGEL: The suspicion has been fueled by the fact that Alexis Tsipras' government threatened at the very beginning not to back new EU sanctions against Russia over its role in the Ukraine crisis. Syriza shouldn't be surprised.

The Journalist: I think the new foreign minister, Nikos Kotzias, with his complaint about the EU decision, just wanted to make sure people were taking Greece seriously, that it wasn't being ignored and that it must be informed about important steps in Europe. Of course our partners, immediately worried that our next step would be to knock on Russia's door.

The Minister: That's not the case -- and there's no Plan B. We are a part of the European core and despite this find ourselves at its margins. That's why we should take advantage of the opportunity to act on our own. I'm not even thinking about Russia, but rather an exchange program with China, for example.

SPIEGEL: Do you find it helpful as a radical leftist party to be in a coalition government with a right-wing populist party like Anel, whose chairman boasts of his own contacts to Russia oligarchs?

The Writer: Anel bothers me a lot. I understand why it was done, but it still bothers me because Anel, the party of the defense ministry, is shady and unprogressive.

The Minister: What other party could we have had a coalition with? We wanted to build a government to rescue the country. This is not about us supporting Anel's politics. We have our own political platforms and we will not budge an inch from them. The Anel party is 100 percent signed on to these platforms. Besides, Anel was the only party other than us that opposed the austerity program.

The Mayor: Anel was a mistake. As a radical leftist party, you cannot work together with the populist right wing and then provide them with the post of defense minister. For many, that came as a regrettable surprise.

The Singer: I hope that there are snap elections soon and that Syriza will be able to form a government on its own.

SPIEGEL: Why isn't there any kind of true public spirit in Greece or true civil society?

The Author: We Greeks don't want a state. We don't want to be patronized. Our attitude is that the state must provide for us but that we have no responsibility to the state. That's different in Germany. That's also why it is difficult for you to understand us.

The Mayor: That's true. We Greeks have a strained relationship with our state. That goes back to the days of the Ottoman Empire, to the occupation. For 400 years we lived under a despot. Think about it: The general right to vote was first passed here in 1943. And we built a state on the basis of clientelism. We didn't have a revolution in the middle class and that's the reason for today's problems.

The Author: We have an identity problem. We want to be Europeans, but we want it "á la grecque". And nothing is going to change that. Now we're going to have to live with the fact that we have a problem with the other Europeans because they say, "But you still have to implement the European regulations." But it doesn't work like that with us.

The Mayor: The love-hate between the Greeks and their state is in fact a problem. It goes so far that the people, individually, think, yeah, why should I work hard and pay my taxes on time if the state at some point forgives half the debt of those who don't pay? Or when state institutions like schools and hospitals no longer provide service in return?

The Journalist: It won't be very easy to eliminate this distrust between the people and the state. And it is indeed true that the people are paying higher taxes while at the same time the state provides less services.

The Minister: One has to understand that the Greeks never had the feeling they were getting support from their state. That wasn't just a product of the Ottoman Empire. After liberation in 1821, we had a political leadership that lacked a national conscience for decades. In that sense, the government was not able to build up an honest relationship with the people. The leaders of the 1821 revolution were eventually hauled to jail. That shows that the Greek state has been built on the wrong foundations.

SPIEGEL: Is that also why family is so much more important to Greeks than the state?

The Minister: That's right. That first changed when Greece began to develop. Society wasn't ready because the cultural preconditions hadn't been fulfilled. This is the reason everything was regulated on a personal level. That's how this clientelism was created and blossomed.

SPIEGEL: New governments usually have 100 days before their first report card. But this reboot of the Greek government has been so radical that we want to ask already now: What do you think about the new government's start?

The Journalist: I have a negative impression. I find the cooperation with the right-wing populists to be unacceptable. I don't like the overtures to Russia. And the government didn't succeed in pushing enough through in the negotiations with Brussels. The problems have simply been extended. We are no longer speaking of the troika but of the "institutions". Do they think we're fools? It's exactly the same people.

The Mayor: The government still has to find itself. They made promises and issued statements too quickly and, in doing so, got entangled in contradictions. That's bad.

The Minister: I see things differently. The government made Greece a global issue during its first 20 days. What we achieved is that people want to help us now and people think one should not pass judgment on us prematurely. One significant apprehension did not come to pass: namely that Greece would go under if Syriza got elected.

SPIEGEL: We thank you all for this interview.

Article...
Comments
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1. The only instrument that will work!
SHBasse 03/02/2015
To turn Greece around using the traditional methods way will take decades. The only dynamic instrument that will function is dooing like they have always done in Norway - make firms and individuals tax payments public, then everybody can see weather the tax payments are in balance with business activity and individual living standards! Then it will not be the Troika, the government, the taxcollector bnut your neighbour that reacts if you do not contribute reasonably to society!
2. Some comments on the article views
Constantinos 03/03/2015
1. Serious decline of health care system (it was never "healthy'') has to be mentioned as another reason of lost dignity in Greece. People in Germany could hardly imagined the position of a (not rich) Greek having turned ill. 2. Instead of Anel, Syriza could have probably collaborated with the "River", being rather close to Germany and EU according to indications. But what would then happen in case of a serious confrontation in the negotiations? Anel have taken ministry of Defense, so actually they are not directly involved in economy or foreign policy. 3. Greek politicians should have made (a) country's peculiarities understandable to EU, (b) EU systems understandable to Greeks..... On the other hand Troika (and EU behind it) seemed not to have had an understanding deep enough on Greek conditions. Europe Unification requires more work and thinking, far from dogmatic doctrines. As Elytis says " much work is needed to change sun's road".
3. Perhaps a different currency union
John_Banister 03/03/2015
I notice that Bulgaria is an EU member that does not use the euro. Perhaps if Greece was in a smaller currency union with Bulgaria, the Greek people could sell for lower prices and so sell more products.
4.
cjjoy 03/03/2015
This affair will end badly , not once did the Greek side mention their good faith efforts to pay back the loans .\They even don't recognize them as obligations .
5. Common Currency
peter_martin_2001 03/03/2015
The problem isn't so much cultural differences in Europe. There's always going to be those. It is more that the way a common currency has to operate cannot be on the basis of loans from the richer parts to the poorer. The poor end up with debts they can never repay. The taxpayers in the richer countries, not all of whom are themselves wealthy, resent what they see as a waste of their taxes. The EU economists need to take a look at how it works in the USA. They might know who the poorer states are there. Mississippi and Louisiana. But who knows that New Jersey is the wealthiest? That is as it should be. New Jersyites don't have the same negative opinion of those who live in the South as the Germans and Dutch have about the Greeks and the Italians. But if the fiscal flows which do exist in the USA, and make the system work, didn't exist and instead the poorer states relied on loans, which they'd never repay, then exactly the same negative attitudes arise in the USA too.
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