The media witch hunt goes on: stop austerity in Greece!

  • June 4, 2012

Capitalism & Crisis

Three years down the line, with Europe steadily driving Greece to the brink, the international media continues its smear campaign against the Greek people.

“Connie, how is the situation there in Greece?”
“Well, people are quite afraid of the future. I notice there’s a lot of concern.”
“Where do you notice this, Connie?”
“Well, I spoke to a lady in the supermarket, and she was not really reassured about the future at all. The situation is also very difficult, of course. After all, there is no government yet and the problems are enormous.”
“So the people are having a tough time. There’s little hope. You can feel that very clearly over here.”

Thank you. That was Connie Keese from Athens. Now we turn to student house The Anchor in Delft, which houses a number of Greek students:

“How do you experience the situation in Greece?”
“Well, we are very worried. My parents and aunt and uncle are having a very hard time. And if Greece leaves the euro it will get even harder.”
“So you are not reassured?”
“No, everyone, even friends and other family members, are telling us that the situation just keeps getting worse.”

Just an excerpt from the Radio 1 news broadcast here in the Netherlands. Meaningless nonsense. Zero news. No insight, Not an ounce of analysis. Interpretation? Forget about it. And that from a nationally renowned news outlet like the NOS public broadcasting service! Because it’s not the correspondent who is at fault — I know her, and she has much more to say. No wonder that journalism of this pathetic level fails to provide the average ‘news consumer’ with quality information on Greece. Exactly one year ago, I wrote a fiery essay against the easy, superficial and generally downright anti-Greek coverage on Greece. Now, a year later, hardly anything has changed. The right-wing press continues its witch hunt against the Greek people with lies and falsehoods, and the majority of the mainstream media establishment blindly parrots this nonsense, too.

It’s clear that major Dutch newspapers like the centrist NRC Handelsblad and center-left Volkskrant — which have, in the meantime, begun to sketch a slightly more nuanced picture — still do not find the crisis in Greece, which has brought all of Europe to the precipice, important enough to station a permanent correspondent in Athens who at least speaks the language. Invariably, in all articles, even those of De Groene (which shines as a lone quality star on the flop media firmament here in the Netherlands) are structurally misspelled names of Greek newspapers, politicians, political parties and cities. I could repeat my story of last year word for word — it’s still just as topical. Amazing how, a year later, most Dutch people still think that all Greeks retire around their 50th, and that Dutch taxpayers are “giving” money to that “garlic country full of lazy parasites”, instead of lending it an usurious 5.5 percent interest rate to a country where, according to official EUROSTAT figures, people work the longest hours of all the 27 EU Member States.

The average Dutch citizen still does not seem to have realized that Italy and France were much more fraudulent with their figures when they joined the euro than Greece. While several very good documentaries have been made laying this out in great detail, it’s still something you have to explain repeatedly: the introduction of the euro in 2001 suddenly enabled the ‘PIGS’ countries to borrow money on the same terms as Germany and France. A downright irresponsible gamble of the EU elite, which, through the ECB, gave over a trillion euros in support to the banks, which subsequently lent that money to countries under the “olive border”, failing to develop the local economy but actively encouraging the widely condemned Greeks to “live beyond their means”.

Still almost no one seems to understand that, “thanks” to the Brussels bailout, all the expensively borrowed money is going straight back to the European banks, not a single cent to the reconstruction of Greece, while the socially unjust and much too severe budget cuts, relentlessly imposed by the ‘Troika’ (Brussels, ECB and IMF) and hitting the weakest members of Greek society hardest, haven’t helped even the tiniest bit. On the contrary. Greece now suffers a severe recession with no hope of recovery: an official unemployment rate of 23 percent (in reality 32 percent) — over 50 percent among young people, even the highly educated, who are now emigrating en masse.

It doesn’t take an economist; a toddler could have predicted the current disaster. Reducing government spending caused the economy to stagnate. The government stopped the payment of projects in construction, education, energy, etc.. Over 100,000 companies went bankrupt as a result. Overall unemployment increased dramatically, even in small and medium enterprises, and combined with strong cuts in salaries and pensions, this led to a decrease in consumption of Biblical proportions. Despite enormous tax hikes, forcing average households to pay an annual salary’s worth in taxes, despite stricter enforcement and an unprecedented fanatical pursuit of Greek tax evaders, tax revenues are declining as a result of growing unemployment.

The number of homeless and hungry people in the big cities rises by the day. The government can no longer afford rising healthcare costs. Although Greek banks received over 150 billion euros in financial “support” in the form of subsidies and guarantees, they refuse to pump money into the economy through new loans. The economy is now completely on its ass. Bravo! The measures really helped. Continuing down this disastrous path of austerity, as Merkel cum suis still want us to do, really means: “the operation was successful, but unfortunately the patient has died.” Cuts have been made and European banks have been rescued, but Greece is broken, its people mired in poverty.

Last week, 60-year-old Antonis Pressis pushed his 90-year-old mother from the roof of his apartment building in Athens before jumping down after her. His mother had Alzheimer’s. He possessed a unsaleable apartment, but had no money to buy food or care for her. The only solution he saw was to plunge to death together. The latest tragedy in a wave of crisis-related suicides. In the past two years, the number of suicides in Greece has tripled. Of all the phone calls that desperate or suicidal Greeks make with SOS helplines, three out of four deal with families whose electricity was cut off, who can no longer cope financially, who risk losing their homes, or whose children are starving. Already in October last year, Médecins du Monde rang the alarm bell and made a call to organize massive food aid for Greek children.

Not only has the pension of my 98-year-old neighbor over here on the Greek island of Hydra now been reduced to 300 euros from 660 euros, her monthly check hasn’t arrived in three months. Can’t help it. Her 75-year-old daughter, who takes care of her 24 hours a day without any help whatsoever, comes over to me to ‘borrow’ money for food. She can’t even go to Athens herself for a necessary heart scan, because Greek health insurance has stopped covering the costs. There is simply no money, even though she dutifully paid taxes all her life. Also, she recently received news that the tiny piece of land she once bought as a nest egg is being expropriated for a ridiculously low compensation, in the latest government craze to obtain whatever money it can get.

Like many Greeks, her 42-year-old daughter has been under heavy anti-depressants for over a year. She starts every day with two hours of crying. Her husband, who has three jobs — two as a waiter and one as a doorman at a nightclub (he sleeps 3 hours a day) — once used to earn 1,800 euros per month. The same work now only lands him 918 euros. Recently, he was told that it’s going to be 660 euros. That will be the end of their rented home. What then? End up on the street? A dying man in the neighborhood here was only hospitalized after he paid the hospital 10,000 euros in cash. Budget cuts in healthcare have left many hospitals without enough money to even cover the most basic expenses on personnel and drugs. Patients are forced to negotiate hard for a bed and treatment. Don’t have money? You will die.

Property taxes and electricity are no longer established by region and consumption, but on the basis of the square footage of your house. Even a large segment of those from the highest echelons of the middle-class can’t pay both at the same time. Well-known TV presenters explain the government’s long list of electricity bill increases. No one seems to understand them anymore; just that they constantly lead to unjustifiably high amounts. The foreign newspapers constantly file reports about a run on the banks and the fact that, after the failed elections of May 6 and amid fears of a so-called ‘Grexit’, depositors have already diverted over a billion euros abroad. I haven’t seen anyone queuing up in front of the two local banks here, but what I have seen are the occasional lines in front of the two pharmacies on the island: desperate people who moan and cry out for much-needed medication. Here on Hydra, it’s remarkably quiet for the time of year. Hardly a tourist in sight. Empty terraces. Extinct tavernas. Compared to last year, when tourism across the country was already down 20 percent, it dropped by another 15 percent this year. If this trend continues, 300,000 jobs will have disappeared from the tourism sector by the end of the summer. At the same time, I see people — whose lives have deteriorated relentlessly over the course of the past two years — taking care of one another: cleaning, cooking and sharing food, repairing homes. Touching. And admirable.

In the international media, there is still insanely little compassion for the Greek people, who have become the victims of 30 years of corrupt government and the irresponsible financial policies of Greek politicians and European technocrats alike. Brussels is still refusing to take ‘co-responsibility’ for standing by for 30 years, earning money from Greece and doing nothing, or for the miscalculation of introducing the euro, which is really only suited for Northern Europe and not for the South. As Keynes once rightly pointed out, “when you owe the bank five thousand pounds, you’ve got a problem; if you owe the bank fifty thousand pounds, the bank has got a problem.” It takes two to tango. This also applies to the problem of corruption in Greece. Siemens paid Greece millions in bribes, as did the French weapons industry. But in the eyes of foreign powers only Greece is to blame for these shady practices. And Merkel still doesn’t want to hear a word about cutting Greece’s military expenditures — which, as a result of the the country’s arms race with Turkey, are twice as high as those of other NATO member states. After all, she wouldn’t be able to sell any German submarines for a fortune anymore.

European politicians also remain insensitive to the plight of the Greek people. While this was to be expected from the right-wing parties, the silence and lack of support from the Left is deafening. Not a word of solidarity. No concern for Greek workers, who have had to give up 30 to 40 percent of their income, something that would be unthinkable in Germany, France or the Netherlands. And if the EU plans go ahead, it will again be the ordinary, hard-working Greek whose income will be cut. Not a word on the minimum wage, which is set to be reduced to 320 euros, or the crushing new labor laws. Not a trace of indignation about the fact that Greece has been forced, under threat of penury, to sell profitable state enterprises for peanuts. And that while Leftist parties claim to be concerned about social and democratic principles!

I don’t know a single Greek who does not think that his country is a mess; that the government is too big and dysfunctional. Everyone here wants and demands reforms, just like Brussels. Everyone here understands that the debt should be reduced and loans must be paid. As Peter Mertens, author of the eye-opening book on the European crisis, How dare they? wrote in a blog post: “The Greeks have done their best.” He believes the Greeks deserve a compliment, even though the thumbscrews on Europe’s black sheep, the naughty little boy in the euro class, are constantly being tightened. Indeed. The primary deficit (the deficit before interest payments) dropped from 10.5 to 2.4 percent in just two years. A historical record that no other country has yet managed to rival. “Eight times as good as Margaret Thatcher,” one astonished British newspaper wrote. According to the latest official figures, the labor cost per unit of production declined 13 percent since 2009. Better than Ireland, which, after similar support from the Brussels emergency fund, has been touted as a “success story”. While the Irish have been praised, the Greeks are still portrayed as scroungers who live beyond their means and who will have to bare the consequences of their own defects. And they get no respite — no, the costs per unit will have to go down another 20 percent, to “improve” Greece’s competitive position.

The Greek people can’t give anymore? They have reached the end of their rope? They have little or nothing left to lose? They will protest desperately in the streets, and Athens will burn?

None of our business! They shouldn’t have made the mess in the first place!

It’s clear by now: the inhumane neoliberal austerity policies of Brussels to bail out the banks (fundamentalist capitalism) are at odds with democratic principles. When Giorgos Papandreou, the Socialist former Prime Minister, in an attempt to enhance the legitimacy of the unprecedented cutbacks by proposing a referendum, Merkel and her former accomplice Sarkozy exploded. Papandreou was shamelessly bashed. How could you, as a representative of the people, even consider  consulting them? Shame on you! Neither are the financial markets very fond of a democratic state of affairs: Papandreou calls a referendum? “Bloodbath on the stock exchange.” Papandreou cancels the referendum? “Rates soar to record highs.”

The market reacts hysterically to referendums and elections, serves only its own interests, and now determines what happens and doesn’t happen in a democracy. Whoever still believes that at this moment politicians in Greece, Europe or anywhere else actually rule, is engaged in self-deception. The financial sector and the banks dictate how society should behave. Not the interests of the people — and the social rights they achieved through a centuries-long struggle for a certain degree of civilization — but those of the banks are prioritized.

The taunting and reviling of Greek parliamentary democracy continues relentlessly. After the Greek elections of May 6 failed to lead to a workable government to implement Europe’s austerity policies, the media were quick to judge. “Greeks commit collective suicide”, “Greeks thrust themselves into sea like lemmings”, “Greeks lose their future”, “Greeks have to choose: staying inside the euro and the EU and continuing the austerity measures, or ‘Grexit’.” The latter is not only a misrepresentation of the facts — as if Greece can only stay inside the euro by obeying Merkel — it also demonstrates a pertinently undemocratic attitude.

The European austerity camp of Germany, the Netherlands and other countries suggests that the Greeks cannot and should not choose; that there’s only one path to European paradise — the path of austerity — but that the Greeks are simply too stupid to choose that path. The pinnacle of undemocratic arrogance was the fact that Merkel, after the Greek people made a ‘wrong’ choice in the elections of May 6, proposed to stick a referendum to the next elections of June 17: to stay or not to stay in the euro. An unmatched feat of foreign interference. The news was reported by a spokesperson for the Greek President Papoulias and then rapidly denied by Merkel’s spokesperson in Berlin. Of course.

So in the last elections, the Greeks ruthlessly punished their traditional major parties, the conservative New Democracy and the Socialist PASOK, responsible for 30 years of mismanagement, excessive debt build-up and uncritical acceptance of the disastrous neoliberal austerity policies of Brussels? Shame on you! Shame! There is a new ‘radical Left’ party, SYRIZA, which to everyone’s surprise (sic!) came in second place on May 6, that does want to stay in the euro, but that wants to reopen negotiations about the cuts? Unheard of! Alexis Tsipras, SYRIZA’s new leader and a rising star on the Greek political scene, says he wants to (and will) convince Brussels to change its policies? Who the hell does he think he is! Filthy red populist!

Brussels and the market tremble and shiver at the idea that the second round of elections on June 17 may produce the same ‘schizophrenic’ result as that of May 6; that those stupid Greeks, who according to opinion polls want to stay inside the euro by an overwhelming 85 percent, will once again by overwhelming majority vote for parties that question the present austerity measures imposed by Brussels. For those two can’t go together. And the possibility that SYRIZA might well become the biggest party in Greek parliament after the next elections is an abomination for Northern Europe.

This is why, in the run-up to June 17, it appears to be raining threats and doomsday scenarios. The German Minister of Foreign Affairs, Wolfgang Schauble, has announced several times that if Greece fails to live up to its commitment to continue these excruciating cuts and the sell-out of the country, “it will have to bear the consequences.” With this, he means to say that Greece won’t receive the next disbursement of the EU-ECB-IMF bailout package in June, meaning the country would immediately — i.e., by the end of this summer — go completely bankrupt. Completely, because Greece is actually already bankrupt. Brussels continues to claim that everyone strives to keep Greece inside the euro, “but that a ‘Grexit’ is being taken into account”, and “that preparations for a controlled exit are being made.” And in Greece itself, Nea Demokratia and PASOK, the old parties that fell from their pedestal and are still in shock because voters turned against them so decisively, loudly proclaim that a vote for SYRIZA could spell the end of Greece.

It’s all fear-mongering. Because, while nobody really knows what the consequences will be, while no one really has an idea or  insight into what will happen in the case of a ‘Grexit’, one thing is crystal clear: it will be disastrous and could spell the beginning of the end of the euro. There is a very real threat that the other weak countries in the Southern axis of the eurozone, such as Spain, Portugal and Italy, would follow. Greece makes up only two percent of the European economy. If the EU can’t even resolve the ‘issue’ of Greece, there is no hope whatsoever for the much and much bigger troubled economies of Italy and Spain. Alexis Tsipras, the new popular leader of SYRIZA, is only now doing what the old PASOK Prime Minister Giorgos Papandreou should have done: pull the disastrous ‘Grexit’ card on Brussels, instead of posturing as a meek lamb on its way to the austerity slaughterhouse.

Three years too late.

Luckily for the “unruly Greeks’ — who are doing nothing more than asserting their democratic right to voice their opinion — the stone-cold façade of the Austerity Union is starting to show cracks. There’s a reason that euro bonds, a hybrid system to divide the debts of weaker countries over 17 nations, are finally being seriously discussed for the first time. Germany, Austria, Finland and the Netherlands are all strongly opposed to it, but at least the issue is now being debated. And of course the electoral defeat of Sarkozy and the victory of Francois Hollande was grist to the Greek mill. Hollande doesn’t want any more cuts without growth. Finally, someone suggests a kind of Marshall plan may be needed for Greece; finally someone states that money should be freed to stimulate the economy, to create jobs. Hollande has already indicated that Greece can count on his support to limit the cuts and renegotiate Europe’s austerity pact. That in itself is encouraging. But Hollande’s movement is limited and he might not make a big difference in the end: French banks hold the bulk of Greek debt and will exert great pressure on Hollande not to renegotiate the commitments in question.

It is to be hoped that Brussels — that’s to say, Merkel and her followers — will show more flexibility in the future. For Greece, but also for Europe. In the next elections, the Greeks will show once again that they cannot and will not live with more austerity. And a self-respecting Europe will, whether it likes it or not, finally have to listen to the voice of the Greek people. Otherwise you might as well do away with the idea of a democratic Europe altogether.

Ingeborg Beugel

Ingeborg Beugel is a Dutch journalist who was formerly based in Greece as a foreign correspondent for various Dutch media. She regularly appears on Dutch television and in print to comment on the Greek debt crisis.

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