Greeks rage at erosion of sovereignty while leaders haggle over deal
Resentment of ruthless austerity programme may not be enough to prevent bailout package
Patrick Cockburn is an Irish journalist who has been a Middle East correspondent since 1979 for the Financial Times and, presently, The Independent. He was awarded Foreign Commentator of the Year at the 2013 Editorial Intelligence Comment Awards.
Friday 17 February 2012
Greek leaders express frustration and anger at the rapid erosion of their country's sovereignty by German and eurozone leaders, but see no alternative but to accept quasi-colonial control in return for the €130bn (£110bn) rescue package.
Greece's capacity to take the important decisions on its future is becoming very limited as decision-making on such matters as the choice of the Greek prime minister, the date for the next general election and the supervision of the expenditure of the bailout shifts to Berlin and Brussels. Greeks are now about to be hit by the sixth austerity package in five years.
Acrimony reached a new peak in the last few days, as the German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble expressed doubts about Greece sticking to its promises and saying its appetite for foreign funds was like "a bottomless pit".
"Who is Mr Schaeuble to insult Greece?" the Greek President Karolos Papoulias said furiously. He berated other eurozone critics, asking: "Who are the Dutch? Who are the Finnish?" But, despite openly expressed hostility, Greek political leaders and the public see little alternative but to submit. George Tzogopoulos, of the Bodossakis, Foundation think tank, an expert on Greek public opinion and its response to the financial crisis, said that people's attitudes are more realistic on the question of meeting the demands of the Troika – the EU, European Central Bank and IMF – than they were four months ago.
An opinion poll a week ago showed that the EU-imposed technocratic Prime Minister Lucas Papademos has 45 per cent support. He said that Antonis Samaras, the conservative leader likely to be the next prime minister, has "totally changed his aggressive behaviour towards the Troika since June". Mr Samaras signed a letter promising to implement the rescue-package terms earlier this week.
For all of Europe's scepticism about Greece's willingness and ability to carry out changes demanded by the Troika, the Greek political élite will do almost anything to avoid a default. "In my view the election [in April] will be postponed because of EU pressure," Mr Tzogopoulos said. "When it does come it will be important to see how many people abstain because of disillusionment, angst and lack of hope."
Even new parties like the Democratic Left, founded in 2010, which has benefited from distrust in the present political leadership, appear to lack a solid core of supporters or to have a realistic programme with new ideas. It may be some comfort to Mr Papademos that the delay in agreeing the bailout package immediately had repercussions on international stock markets and on the price of oil. This suggests that an uncontrolled Greek default would have an explosive impact on international financial confidence and inflict serious damage on the rest of the eurozone.
If there is an election in April, there will be no outright winner, according to the latest opinion polls. This might mean that Mr Papademos would continue or that there would be a period of political bargaining and possibly a second election, according to Mr Samaras, whose New Democracy Party has 27.5 per cent approval in the latest polls. The Democratic Left has 16 per cent. Pasok, the centre-left party formerly ruling alone until it was forced into a coalition, would like to avoid a poll until it can regain a measure of popularity.
As the economic experts and negotiators of the Troika remain shut off in the Hilton Hotel in Athens, the number of people depending on soup kitchens rises by the day. "Things are going from bad to worse," Mary Piny said as she organised food-distribution in the forecourt of a school. "If wages go down to €400 a month, how will people pay for electricity, food and water? Already children are arriving at school hungry, dirty and with fleas in their hair. The Health Ministry should be taking care of them. The state is not present at all."
Aided by the Greek Orthodox Church, she feeds 1,500 people a day, half of them Greeks and half of them immigrants. One elderly Greek woman, who gave her name as Vasilia, said she had a pension of €300 a month as an unemployed widow but gave this to her five sons and daughters who were jobless. The church in her town near Piraeus was too poor to feed her, so she took a bus every day to central Athens and would get a plate of beans and lentils at the feeding point.
Asked about her life, she said: "It is nothing but horror."
Death of a currency (but not the euro)
France will officially wave au revoir to the franc today, the last day banks will exchange the former currency into euros.
At the end of 2011, Banque de France estimated that about 50 million notes were still in circulation, worth around €600m (£498m). The government expected €500m to be exchanged, with about €100m lost to the ages – or held onto in the hope that the currency will become a collectors' item.
In the last few weeks, online trading sites have seen a boom in transactions of old francs, with French trading website PriceMinister reporting a 40 per cent increase in sales in January.
But those hopeful of hitting the jackpot by holding on to notes will be disappointed, as experts say the bills are unlikely to become collectors' items. Michel Prieur, at Compagnie Générale de Bourse, said: "We think that after 17 February a 500-franc note will probably be worth five euros."
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