Friday 28 October 2016

The Greeks are a people in waiting who still view all their problems as external

Published 16/07/2015 | 02:30

The flags of Greece and the EU flutter over the central market in the city of Chania, Cretetax
The flags of Greece and the EU flutter over the central market in the city of Chania, Cretetax

'Take the Acropolis - here, have it. Take some of the islands - here, have them, as many as you like. You want our ports? Help yourself. A war is being fought here and after war comes pillaging."

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The speaker is a Greek archaeologist, a married man in his late twenties. He is a member of the generation lined up to pay the price for many years following his country's third and most onerous bailout programme. "Programme" is a term with which Greeks have become all too familiar. You hear it scattered through sentences where nothing else is intelligible but this deceptively anodyne word.

The young archaeologist goes on. "What's wanted is total surrender by the Greek people." He turns to his friend for corroboration.

"Abject surrender," adds the friend.

The archaeologist nods. "Yes, abject. So much for European partnership or unity. This is domination, not alliance, and it's driven by Germany."

His fire dwindles and resignation enters his voice.

"War is nothing new here. For thousands of years, Greeks have spilled their blood into this land. Invader after invader has come here, from the Venetians to the Turks to the Germans.

"We gained independence with bloodshed. But now, war with weapons has been replaced by economic war. And that is harder to fight.

"Yet the Greek people tried. We stood up to the EU. We said no. Oxi. Today it is Greece but tomorrow it could be another European country. Yes, we will suffer more now. It will be harder. But we did the right thing in standing up to the EU where German voices shout loudest. Germany should remember its history. Greeks remember it."

It may be 70 years since the end of World War II, but that's a drop in time for a country which dates its civilisation back to Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Here in Crete, with its seasonal population of tourists, the impact from the financial crisis is less noticeable than in Athens. Even so, television screens in bars and cafes seem to be permanently tuned to images of Alexis Tsipras.

Support for the prime minister is less enthusiastic than a few weeks ago, when he was the hero Theseus setting out to slay the bullish EU Minotaur. Greeks appeared to have unreasonably high expectations of what their new, young premier could achieve in negotiations.

Currently, there's a sense of a people in waiting. Trying to continue as normal, especially in front of the holidaymakers, whose economic importance they recognise. But wariness is in the air. The tourist trade is brisk, and generating cash, which masks the underlying problem. Incidentally, none of that money is being lodged because the banks are still shut. Mattresses must be lumpy in business owners' homes on every Greek island.

With Greece nearing the end of week three of its banking closure, it continues to be all outflow and no inflow in the financial stream. Cash reserves must be experiencing pressure. And in a number of cases - enough to make me start watching for it - money taken in at shops and cafes is not going through the books. The transaction happens with the till lying open, no receipts and nothing recorded. Presumably, the tax take is collapsing.

In the larger towns, Chania and Iraklion, many of the tourists are Greek. Capital controls must make it difficult for Greeks to holiday abroad. At the 4,000-year-old ruins in Knossos, guided tours of Russians tramp round the remains of the sophisticated Minoan dynasty with its multi-storey palace decorated in vibrant fresco art.

Russian tourist numbers are increasing, but no Greek I speak to regards Russia as the answer to Greece's prayers. Besides, Russian President Vladimir Putin's support has been verbal rather than financial, and they realise they need money. A businessman makes the age-old symbol, rubbing the balls of his fingers against his thumb, as he dismisses Russian help as an option. Europe remains the preference.

But the EU wants reforms: monopolies broken, the tax base widened and efficiencies introduced. I'm travelling about the island by bus, and in all but one case there was a conductor onboard or a ticket-seller by the bus. Drivers could sell tickets just as easily, although the benefits of that efficiency have to be balanced against subsequent unemployment.

Sunday trading is another "reform" advanced by the programme, but isn't it inappropriate to promote change with wide-reaching social and cultural repercussions? It's one thing if a society chooses to embrace Sunday trading. But to seek to impose it? That's technocrats overreaching themselves.

During those bus journeys, I've been conversing with locals wherever possible. They are an engaging people. Clever, too. But what's striking is the lack of shared responsibility for Greece's predicament. All their difficulties are external in their eyes. They radiate bewilderment at the suggestion of any of the problems being internal.

Let's return to that young archaeologist fuming about surrender. Greece defaulted on its IMF loans twice in the past couple of weeks, I remind him. So here's a thought: perhaps European governments might struggle to justify to their taxpayers lending more money that may never be repaid?

Momentarily, he blinks. And then, as if I've said nothing worth considering, he returns to his anti-German theme. For a people of such wide-ranging talents, they show a somewhat narrow field of vision.

Irish Independent

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