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Where is My European Union?

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Alex AndreouLondon, UK and Athens, Greece
Where is My European Union?
As Greece prepares for a monumental decision, there is only one certainty: the European Ideal has been irrevocably damaged

I am a Europhile. Not only that, I am a product of the Union. I have structured my life around the idea of free movement; my identity around the notion that I can be more than one thing: Mykonian, Greek, Londoner, British, European. For the first time in my life, I am beginning to wonder, whether the European project is now simply too broken to be fixed. 

Do not misunderstand me. I am passionate about the notion of a Europe of partners, united around principles of solidarity and trade. I just think we have taken wrong turns. So many and so wrong that I feel very uncertain as to whether we can ever find our way back. 

I am not alone in feeling like this and it is not of consequence only with regard to Greece. I have had numerous messages in the last few days from pro-European friends here in Britain, telling me that the way the institutions have treated Greece, have convinced them to cross over to the "out" camp for the forthcoming UK referendum on European membership. 

I am not in the deluded camp who think that national sovereignty is a magic bullet that will restore some nationalist utopia which only ever existed in our minds. Governments have been captured by corporate interests, so completely and at every level, that all EU exit changes is the field on which necessary battles must be fought. No flag provides protection from that, however tightly we wrap ourselves in it.

Neither do I want to suggest that the project hasn't been a success. Before it was captured by this fatal monetarist fever, it achieved decades of unprecedented peace and prosperity, extraordinary advances in working and consumer rights, and a mingling of cultures and populations which has enriched us all. But I know, in my heart, it is now irrevocably damaged.

The choice being presented to the Greek people is a difficult one. Stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea, as they say. On one hand, continuing a programme which has decimated the country and its economy, plunged millions into poverty and has killed many thousands. On the other, the complete unknown. No, not automatic Grexit, as some would have you believe. But certainly the possibility of it. 

The side which supports saying "yes" to the disgraceful agreement being offered, in exchange for staying in the Euro, paint it in two ways: First, as a battle between certainty and uncertainty. But that is misleading. Because, by examining our country's trajectory over the past five years, the certainty being offered by a "yes" is a certainty of more misery, more poverty, more humiliation, more degradation. Those recommending "yes" to taking more of the medicine being extended to us, do so in the full knowledge that this medicine is poison. 

Second, the choice is being painted as one between emotion and reason. It is, of course, not unusual for the established to be presented as reasonable and the radical as emotional. It is pretty much the whole basis of conservatism. But fear is also an emotion. And what drives the "yes" camp seems to be a very clear terror of the notion that the unknown might be even worse. It is the logic of locking yourself inside your cabin on the Titanic, because the lifeboats are small and the ocean frozen.

***

Last winter, I stood outside the Opera House in the centre of Athens looking at the posters in the window. I was approached by a well-dressed and immaculately groomed elderly lady. I moved to the side. I thought she wanted to pass. She didn't. She asked me for a few euros because she was hungry. I took her to dinner and, in generous and unsolicited exchange, she told me her story.

Her name was Magda and she was in her mid-seventies. She had worked as a teacher all her life. Her husband had been a college professor and died "mercifully long before we were reduced to this state", as she put it. They paid their tax, national insurance and pension contributions straight out of the salary, like most people. They never cheated the state. They never took risks. They saved. They lived modestly in a two bedroom flat.

In the first year of the crisis her widow's pension top-up stopped. In the second and third her own pension was slashed in half. Downsizing was not an option - house prices had collapsed and there were no buyers. In the third year things got worse. "First, I sold my jewellery. Except this ring", she said, stroking her wedding ring with her thumb. "Then, I sold the pictures and rugs. Then the good crockery and silver. Then most of the furniture. Now there is nothing left that anyone wants. Last month the super came and removed the radiators from my flat, because I hadn't paid for communal fuel in so long. I feel so ashamed."

I don't know why this encounter should have shocked me so deeply. Poverty and hunger is everywhere in Athens. Magda's story is replicated thousands of times across Greece. It is certainly not because one life is worth more than another. And yet there is something peculiarly discordant and irreconcilable about the "nouveau pauvres", just like like there is about the nouveau riches. Most likely it shocked me because I kept thinking how much she reminded me of my mother. 

And, still, I don't know whether voting "yes" or "no" will make life better or worse for her. I don't know what Magda would vote either. I can only guess. What I do know, is that the encounter was the beginning of the end of my love affair with the European project. Because, quite simply, it is no longer my European Union. It is Amazon's and Starbucks'. It is the politicians' and the IMF's. But it is not mine.

If belonging to the largest and richest trading bloc in the world cannot provide dinner for a retired teacher like her, it has no reason to exist. If a European Union which produces €28,000 of annual GDP for every single one of its citizens cannot provide a safety net for her, then it is profoundly wicked. If this is not a union of partners, but a gang of big players and small players, who cut the weakest loose at the first sign of trouble, then it is nothing.

Each one of us will have to engage in an internal battle before Sunday's referendum. I will be thinking of you, Magda, when I vote. It seems as honest a basis to make a decision as any. 


Note from Byline: Alex Andreou is crowdfunding his ongoing coverage of the Greek Crisis. Please consider contributing a few pounds here 


#Greece, #Referendum, #Austerity, #EU, #Solidarity, #Poverty, #Tsipras

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Flore DUPUIS DE LA BERGERIE

2 years ago

PEDRO NO FACTUAL MISUNDERSTANDING ON YOUR PART, RYAN AND ALL OF THOSE WHO AGREE WITH YOU, YOU ARE ABSOLUTELY RIGHT. YES THE GREEKS HAVE BROUGHT IT UPON THEMSELVES BUT UNLIKE THE PORTUGUESE THEY WILL NEVER ADMIT THEIR RESPONSIBILITY AND WILL CONTINUE TO BLAME EVERYBODY ELSE! I HAVE KNOWN AND LIVED IN GREECE FOR OVER 3 DECADES AND DO GREATLY ENJOY MY LIFE HERE HOWEVER JUST LIKE THE GREEKS ARE A FRIENDLY POPULATION, ONE AMONGST MANY OTHER GOOD QUALITIES, THEY ARE ALSO EXTREMELY “PROUD” AS IN THE ANCIENT GREEK MEANING OF IT I.E. Hubris also hybris, from ancient Greek ὕβρις) meaning extreme pride – which was severally punished in ancient Greece), proud TO THE POINT OF BEING TOTALLY AND UTTERLY ULTRA-NATIONALIST (IN THE STRICTEST SENSE OF THE TERM): ANYTHING THAT IS NOT GREEK IS NOT GOOD, OR IS NEVER EVER GOOD ENOUGH! IF THEY TAKE EVERY OPPORTUNITY TO REMIND THE REST OF THE WORLD THAT THEY GAVE IT “DEMOCRACY”, WHICH IS NOT ENTIRELY TRUE SINCE OTHER ANCIENT POPULATIONS ALSO HAD THEIR FORM OF DEMOCRACY, WHAT HAVE THEY DONE WITH IT SINCE? IF ONE ASKS THEM THIS QUESTION THEIR ANSWER IS “YOU CANNOT UNDERSTAND, YOU’RE NOT GREEK” I UNDERSTAND THAT WE ARE ALL IDIOTS AND THAT ONLY GREEKS CAN UNDERSTAND GREEKS, GREECE AND THE REST OF THE WORLD. I TOO HAVE STUDIED GREECE AND HAVING LIVED THERE HAS GIVEN ME A VERY GOOD INSIGHT INTO THEIR LIFE AND WAYS. ANOTHER OF THEIR FAVOURITE ANSWER IF CONFRONTED WITH THE PLAIN TRUTH NOT IN THEIR FAVOUR IS “IF YOU DON’T LIKE GREECE WHY ARE YOU STAYING HERE ? BUT IS LOVING ONES COUNTRY BEING TOTALLY OBLIVIOUS AND BURYING ONES HEAD IN THE SAND TO AVOID SEEING AND ADMITTING THEREALITY? AGAIN THERE ARE MANY GOOD THINGS HERE, BUT THE FACT REMAINS THAT GREEKS HAVE DONE NOTHING OVER THE PAST DECADES TO MAKE ANY NECESSARY CHANGES TO SLOWLY MODIFY/IMPROVE THEIR ADMINISTRATION AND TAX SYSTEMS. ONE GOOD EXAMPLE IS THE LAND REGISTRY: GREECE IS THE ONLY COUNTRY IN THE EU NOT TO HAVE ONE! AN ATTEMPT 2 OR 3 YEARS AGO WAS SO DISASTROUS THAT EVEN THE GREEK GOVERNMENT REJECTED IT! OR WHY HASN’T THE CURRENT GOVERNMENT IMPOSED A LIMIT OR BETTER STILL, ALL TOGETHER STOPPED MONEY TRANSACTIONS THE DAY AFTER THEIR ELECTION THEREFORE PREVENTING GREEKS TO TRANSFER AND/OR REMOVE THEIR MONEY/ASSETS FROM GREEKS BANKS? WHY WAIT 6 MONTHS? BECAUSE IN THE MEANTIME THEY HAVE RECEIVED MORE MONEY FROM THE IMF, ECB & EU! MONEY THAT WILL NEVER BE REIMBURSED AND FOR WHICH SOME OF US HAVE PAID ADDITIONAL TAXES AND FOR THE CURRENT GOVERNMENT TO MAINTAIN THEIR PLACE. WHAT THE IMF, ECB & EU AND THE POPULATIONS OF OTHER EU COUNTRIES KNOW AND ARE NOT FORGETTING IS THAT GREECE HAS RECEIVED BILLIONS AND BILLIONS SINCE IT JOINED THE EU AND MORE MONEY SINCE IT HAS BEEN ACCEPTED IN THE EURO ZONE, OF WHICH PRACTICALLY NONE HAS BEEN SPENT AS AGREED AND EVERYBODY – NOT JUST GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS – POCKETED SOME OF IT ONE WAY OR THE OTHER. IT IS A WAY OF LIFE HERE. OVER THE YEARS I’VE HAD TO USE A PLUMBER OR ELECTRICIAN, ETC. BUT NEVER RECEIVED AN INVOICE, FOR OVER 3 DECADES I NEVER HAD A LEASE FOR HOUSES OR APARTMENTS I RENTED; A FRIEND OF MINE HAS DONE FOR 130 000 EUROS WORTH OF WORKS IN HER HOUSE ALL WITHOUT BEEN HANDED AN INVOICE AND EVEN IF YOU KEEP ASKING FOR IT YOU WILL NEVER OBTAIN IT. THEY ALL KNOW EACH OTHER SO EVEN IF YOU COMPLAIN TO THE TAX OFFICE NOTHING IS DONE AND THIS GOES ON EVERYDAY. I COULD BORE YOU WITH HUNDREDS OF EXAMPLES. ONLY A SMALL FRACTION OF THE POPULATION PAYS TAX AND ACT AS GOOD CITIZENS. AS SEVERAL ECONOMISTS HAVE INDICATED, GREECE’S PROBLEM IS ITS NON-WILLINGNESS TO CHANGE AND MAKE THE NECESSARY TAX REFORMS! WHY ARE THE SHIPPING COMPANIES STILL NOT PAYING TAXES? WHY IS THE CHURCH PAYING REDUCED TAXES OR NO TAXES AT ALL ON THE VAST MAJORITY OF THEIR BUSINESSES? WHY IS THE LAND REGISTRY NOT DONE YET? BECAUSE IT IS A SURE WAY TO KNOW EXACTLY WHO OWNS WHAT AND IMPOSE TAXES LEVIES. IN FEBRUARY 2015 THE CURRENT GOVERNMENT REQUESTED AN INDEPENDENT STUDY FOR “THE TRUTH ABOUT THE GREEK DEBT”; I HAVE READ THE REPORT WHICH INDICATES THAT THE DEBT IS QUOTE “ILLEGAL, ILLEGITIMATE, ODIOUS AND UNSUSTAINABLE” AND IT MIGHT WELL BE TRUE SINCE THE IMF, ECB & EU RE NO ANGELS, BUT THE REPORT NEVER INDICATE ANY RESPONSIBILITY ON THE PART OF GREECE. I CAN ONLY THEN THINK THAT GREECE WAS CONNED & FORCED INTO TAKING THE BILLIONS GIVEN! CONCLUSION OF THE REPORT: “People’s dignity is worth more than illegal, illegitimate, odious and unsustainable debt Having concluded a preliminary investigation, the Committee considers that Greece has been and still is the victim of an attack premeditated and organized by the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, and the European Commission. This violent, illegal, and immoral mission aimed exclusively at shifting private debt onto the public sector.” So on the one hand we have Greeks who are not clever enough to have seen the conspiracy so took the money and on the other we have all these bright people that formed the commission (most of them being Greek) who are clever enough to demonstrate the malicious ways of the IMF, ECB & EU technocrats but were not clever enough to warn Greece in due time to not get involved with them and not to take this “illegal, illegitimate, odious and unsustainable” dirty money! Mind you I must admit that in their grand dishonesty the Greeks were clever enough to have taken as much money as they could and to now run away! …… I could go on and on and I’m sure there will be many good honest responsible Greeks to deny everything…. Oh before I forget: to those who might think that all of the above is a simplistic way of analysing the current situation I would suggest to come over here for a while and see it for yourself, furthermore my use of “Greeks” is intentional since the Greeks are responsible and not just their government. They vote for their government and if their not happy with it, it is up to them to change it. It is up to them to say stop to corruption, favouritism, tax evasion, tax avoidance etc. and make it happen. I have never seen nor heard of a demonstration against such ill practices. Why? Because the vast majority of Greeks is taking part in it and wants & intends to continue. See this link: http://www.theguardian.com/public-leaders-network/2015/mar/24/greece-technology-corruption-brain-drain-fraud-tax-evasion I have a lot of respect and compassion for the Portuguese who have accepted their responsibility and the austerity measures that are extremely hard on the population, but aiming at making the necessary changes to better their country hence their life while remaining honest and keeping their dignity intact which is more than can be said for the vast majority of Greeks. People’s dignity is not kept by being dishonest and the Greek government & commission for “the Truth about the Greek debt” are not concerned about people’s dignity they are only concerned with themselves. Here are a few interesting quotations from well known Greeks that never get cited by today’s Greek population: “We are what we repeatedly do.” Aristotle “Dignity consists not in possessing honoUrs, but in the consciousness that we deserve them.” Aristotle “Where there is an income tax, the just man will pay more and the unjust less on the same amount of income.” Plato, Greek philosopher, c. 400 B.C. “Think not those faithful who praise all thy words and actions; but those who kindly reprove thy faults.” Socrates “The partisan, when he is engaged in a dispute, cares nothing about the rights of the question, but is anxious only to convince his hearers of his own assertions.” Plato, Dialogues, Phaedo It is not always the same thing to be a good man and a good citizen. Aristotle, 'Nicomachean Ethics,' 325 B.C. Liars when they speak the truth are not believed. Aristotle, from Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers “WE HANG THE PETTY THIEVES AND APPOINT THE GREAT ONES TO PUBLIC OFFICE.” AESOP

Boris Kaeski

2 years ago

And now, can you imagine 20+ years of blockade because of Greek veto for Macedonia joining EU? What do you think has happened in that period of time to macedonians? Well, we're governed by same politic elite who are getting richer, and people are on the edge of poverty, many young people have never seen sea or went out the national borders... all thanks to Greek veto! Well, same as in Macedonia, people are the ones who are electing those political scumbags, and reason why both countries are poor, but Macedonia even poorer!

Pedro Oliveira

2 years ago

@mr. Pina - a you say that the vast majority of portuguese people support the Greek government, this is not correct. the only way to measure this is looking who is supporting the current government or not, if we had elections today in Portugal the party in the government would win (according to the last polls), this after 5 very thought years. @alex you know the Greek situation details mich better than I do, but looking for the numbers of the minimum wage, average wage and average pensions I can see that you are still better than us, so I can assume some work can be done there. I keep reading about nonsense retirement age, massive tax evasion, corporate misconduct (naval industry for instance)

Ryan Miller

2 years ago

As an American, a third party of sorts in this whole debacle, I want to feel sorry for the Greeks and laugh at them at the same time. While you guys may have made compromises and may have made attempts to try to reconcile your debt, respectable of you, you have nobody to complain to, nobody to blame, and nobody to cry out to except yourselves. Your government has knowingly spent outsides of its means for a period long enough for the citizens to understand that they a living off life way outside their means. You guys remind me of the kind of people who, upon receiving their first credit card, think they have discovered the never-ending money machine. When I look at this situation in that sense, it becomes hard for me to feel remorse for Greeks. I hope this ends in the best manner possible for all parties involved. Also this commenting box is shit, something needs to be done about this.

Alex Andreou

2 years ago

Dear Pedro - while I respect your opinion, I think it is based on several factual misunderstandings. Here is a good starting point on why austerity didn't work for Greece. http://www.forbes.com/sites/timworstall/2015/02/26/the-reason-austerity-in-greece-didnt-work/ To say that there have been no compromises is, I think, the biggest misconceived notion in your comment. Greece in the last few years has closed a deficit of over 15% to nearly zero, while our economy contracted by over a quarter. Nothing like this has ever been achieved anywhere else. It has been a gargantuan effort. The sticking point is that the debt is not viable. Now, if you think that the responsible thing, the thing that shows respect to other EU taxpayers, the prudent thing is to continue to accept loans and pour them down an abyss of private banks in trouble, while everyone curses at us as if we are using it to buy caviar, it is an opinion I cannot agree with. The point is not - and this is something I have been saying since 2011- that Greeks want the loans without the conditions. It is that we do not want any more loans. I happen to think THAT is responsible and brave.

Trevor Miles

2 years ago

Of course the human tragedy is tough to witness and live through. But we have to ask how much of the woman's life style was funded by unrealistic spending dating back for years. and what is the evidence that they did pay their full share of taxes? I have a colleague in the US that moves from state to state to his different houses so that he is never in one state long enough to qualify for state tax. This is legal, but, in my opinion, immoral.

dipa adikara

2 years ago

greek like indonesia 98th when reformation spread in everywhere cause politic, economic,social and human right . imf just false to build fine our country and also make poeple living in hell but slow but true we free from the crisis one policy in the system 1. justice 2. good governence 3. coruption reform and 4. unity

Filipe Pina

2 years ago

The portuguese comment bellow does not represent the portuguese general public opinion and sentiment regarding Greece. I am portuguese and I can assure you most of the people here support the Greek and their struggle. Soon we will be in the exact same situation, I just don't get how can some portuguese like Mr. Pedro Oliveira (and like our prime minister, Mr. Pedro Passos Coelho) support what is being done to the Greek people. Portugal is being sold to foreign corporations to pay its debt, we have nothing more to sell!!! People die in the hospital waiting for medical care. I see the exact same people like Magda described in the article begging in the streets of Lisbon. There is still the ghost of corruption wandering in my country's public and government institutions, despite what Mr. Pedro Oliveira says. People are poor. I am from Lisbon and I am one of the youngsters that was forced to leave the country last year (I am now in Switzerland) and like me I see thousands of portuguese arriving to Switzerland every month. Just last year (2014), 134 thousand of portuguese left the country looking to survive somewhere else. Our hearts are with Greece and I feel sick for what people like Mr. Pedro and some other portuguese write in social and media networks criticising the great and honest(the majority) Greek people. Portugal will soon be the new Greece, I am truly convinced that in 3 or 4 years, we don't want the rest of the Europeans criticising Portugal like our right-wing government criticises Greece. Please be tolerant and let's fight for a democratic Europe. Please learn from good examples, take a look at the Swiss model where the people get to decide EVERY law that is put through, EVERY new project where millions are spent, EVERY new big decision. Yet, Switzerland, a truly democratic country, is a rich and prosper country. Take care and be tolerant please.

Luis Rodil-Fernández

2 years ago

Thank you Alex for your passionate and insightful reflection. I am Spanish and in my mid thirties, so I grew up looking out to the Union as an inspiring humanist project where my future would play out and that's what it was for many years. I am a product of the Unionist project as well and feel Asturian, Spanish, Londoner and Amsterdammer in equal measure. I feel that I have left as much of an imprint in the places where I have lived as these places have left in me. A united and solidary Europe is a stronger Europe that is more prosperous and more plural, I have absolutely no doubt about it. The current trend towards nationalisms is a disease that Europe has suffered before and only mutual destruction has ever come out of it. I sincerely hope that the waters calm down a little and that some sense is brought into the scene of this horrifying drama. My heart is with Greece. and all those who suffer from this union that prioritises banking interests over humanist values.

HarryAlffa

2 years ago

Puzzled why so few get behind this - http://bailoutswindle.com/QuestionsProtestationsAnswered.html

Peter Herold

2 years ago

http://www.richardcorbett.org.uk/greece-dont-take-it-at-face-value/ I feel really sorry for the unenviable choice you have to make. However as this article and Portuguese comment below say, it's not just the Institutions who are to blame. Their programmes have worked in Ireland, Spain and Portugal - not perfectly, but these countries are not voting to leave EU.

Pedro Oliveira

2 years ago

Although I am really sorry for what happened to Magda and Greece I don't agree with you conclusions, this is not the first sign of trouble for Greece, the first signs were visible in 2008-2009. Since then there were many elections in Greece, many options and solutions came around. I'm portuguese and I know what this crisis means in person, but I'm thankful for a government that was able to be strong enough to make some of the reforms that the country needed (I think the Irish think the same). Honestly I don't think the European union should have unlimited funds for countries like ours, being realistic corruption is still an huge problem in southern europe and this crisis was able to clean it up (we have our former prime minister in jail for example). I would love to see all the prosperity we had in the past back, but I wouldn't fund Greece anymore if Greeks are not able to compromise, there are simple too much talking and little action. About European Union, I believe it can live without Greece (or Portugal), think of a greater good 350M vs 10-20M people.

Joey Tranchina

2 years ago

Thank you, Alex for this disturbing view of life in Greece and the consequences of decisions by our EU. As an American who enthusiastically both moved into and embraced the European Union, as a refuge from 40+ years of activism in the US, your elegant reflection forces me to consider my political responsibilities here. Living in a place with no Starbucks has made me less aware of the cancer of corporatism here in Europe. Thanks to you, I can no longer be so blissfully oblivious.

testedbylife

2 years ago

Thoughtful and moving. We, the people, need to rethink the project. It is our project.

editorialmuse

2 years ago

Thank you Alex for a deeply moving piece. I agree with everything you say and I do believe that the damage done to the idea of European unity is irreversible. Magda's story reminds me on some level of my parents. As someone who's split their life between the US and Greece, my parents never wanted me to leave for the US. They're now in their '80s and in 2012 they told me "you should leave Greece." I did. I'm an only child and they need me now more than ever, yet I had to choose between having a livelihood and being close to my family.