Ian Stuart Donaldson Skrewdriver

Posts Tagged ‘Greece’

Greek Police Send Crime Victims to Neo-Nazi ‘Protectors’

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2012

Greece’s far-right Golden Dawn party is increasingly assuming the role of law enforcement officers on the streets of the bankrupt country, with mounting evidence that Athenians are being openly directed by police to seek help from the neo-Nazi group, analysts, activists and lawyers say.

In return, a growing number of Greek crime victims have come to see the party, whose symbol bears an uncanny resemblance to the swastika, as a “protector”.

One victim of crime, an eloquent US-trained civil servant, told the Guardian of her family’s shock at being referred to the party when her mother recently called the police following an incident involving Albanian immigrants in their downtown apartment block.

“They immediately said if it’s an issue with immigrants go to Golden Dawn,” said the 38-year-old, who fearing for her job and safety, spoke only on condition of anonymity. “We don’t condone Golden Dawn but there is an acute social problem that has come with the breakdown of feeling of security among lower and middle class people in the urban centre,” she said. “If the police and official mechanism can’t deliver and there is no recourse to justice, then you have to turn to other maverick solutions.”

Other Greeks with similar experiences said the far-rightists, catapulted into parliament on a ticket of tackling “immigrant scum” were simply doing the job of a defunct state that had left a growing number feeling overwhelmed by a “sense of powerlessness”. “Nature hates vacuums and Golden Dawn is just filling a vacuum that no other party is addressing,” one woman lamented. “It gives ‘little people’ a sense that they can survive, that they are safe in their own homes.”

Far from being tamed, parliamentary legitimacy appears only to have emboldened the extremists. In recent weeks racially-motivated attacks have proliferated. Immigrants have spoken of their fear of roaming the streets at night following a spate of attacks by black-clad men on motorbikes. Street vendors from Africa and Asia have also been targeted.

“For a lot of people in poorer neighbourhoods we are liberators,” crowed Yiannis Lagos, one of 18 MPs from the stridently patriot “popular nationalist movement” to enter the 300-seat house in June. “The state does nothing,” he told a TV chat show, adding that Golden Dawn was the only party that was helping Greeks, hit by record levels of poverty and unemployment, on the ground. Through an expansive social outreach programme, which also includes providing services to the elderly in crime-ridden areas, the group regularly distributes food and clothes parcels to the needy.

But the hand-outs come at a price: allegiance to Golden Dawn. “A friend who was being seriously harassed by her husband and was referred to the party by the police very soon found herself giving it clothes and food in return,” said a Greek teacher, who, citing the worsening environment enveloping the country, again spoke only on condition of anonymity. “She’s a liberal and certainly no racist and is disgusted by what she has had to do.”

The strategy, however, appears to be paying off. On the back of widespread anger over biting austerity measures that have also hit the poorest hardest, the popularity of the far-rightists has grown dramatically with polls indicating a surge in support for the party.

One survey last week showed a near doubling in the number of people voicing “positive opinions” about Golden Dawn, up from 12% in May to 22%. The popularity of Nikos Michaloliakos, the party’s rabble-rousing leader had shot up by 8 points, much more than any other party leader.

Paschos Mandravelis, a prominent political analyst, attributed the rise in part to the symbiotic relationship between the police and Golden Dawn. “Greeks haven’t turned extremist overnight. A lot of the party’s backing comes from the police, young recruits who are a-political and know nothing about the Nazis or Hitler,” he said. “For them, Golden Dawn supporters are their only allies on the frontline when there are clashes between riot police and leftists.”

Riding the wave, the party has taken steps to set up branches among diaspora Greek communities abroad, opening an office in New York last week. Others are expected to open in Australia and Canada. Cadres say they are seeing particular momentum in support from women.

With Greeks becoming ever more radicalised, the conservative-led government has also clamped down on illegal immigration, detaining thousands in camps and increasing patrols along the country’s land and sea frontier with Turkey.

But in an environment of ever increasing hate speech and mounting tensions, the party’s heavy-handedness is also causing divisions. A threat by Golden Dawn to conduct raids against vendors attending an annual fair in the town of Arta this weekend has caused uproar.

“They say they have received complaints about immigrant vendors from shop owners here but that is simply untrue,” said socialist mayor Yiannis Papalexis. “Extra police have been sent down from Athens and if they come they will be met by leftists who have said they will beat them up with clubs. I worry for the stability of my country.”

Seated in her office beneath the Acropolis, Anna Diamantopoulou, a former EU commissioner, shakes her head in disbelief. Despair, she says, has brought Greece to a dangerous place.

“I never imagined that something like Golden Dawn would happen here, that Greeks could vote for such people,” she sighed. “This policy they have of giving food only to the Greeks and blood only to the Greeks. The whole package is terrifying. This is a party based on hate of ‘the other’. Now ‘the other’ is immigrants, but who will ‘the other’ be tomorrow?”

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Greece Faces New Crisis – Waves of Illegal Immigrants

Sunday, September 16th, 2012

Already drowning in debt and struggling through a crushing economic crisis worsened by austerity measures demanded by international lenders, Greece is being overwhelmed with an inundation of illegal immigrants despite an ongoing crackdown to round up those who don’t have papers to stay in the country, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The paper noted that Greece is a favorite destination for immigrants because it is a gateway to the European Union and on the bloc’s southern border, with access from land and sea. The country quietly has become a steppingstone for a wave of Middle East and South Asia workers fleeing job markets ravaged by years of government turmoil.

In 2011, an extraordinary year because of the uprisings in North Africa, some 140,980 people were detected entering the EU illegally, up 35% from the year before, according to Frontex, the EU’s border-control agency. Of those, 40% came through Greece. Through July this year, 23,000 people were apprehended crossing the border illegally, roughly 30% ahead of last’s year pace.

Border control in Greece isn’t a new problem. But the country’s economic malaise and budget restrictions are hampering many of its efforts to reduce the flow of illegal immigration. Hoping to come to the rescue, the Europe Commission—the EU’s executive branch—began pouring €255 million ($331 million) into border protection for Greece over the past two years. But that is still less than it gives some countries with far smaller border problems.

And whatever it gives, years of bloated bureaucracy and now new public hiring restrictions in Greece have stalled some of the best-laid plans.
According to one confidential EU report, the country has hired only 11 staffers to help process asylum cases, despite funding last year for 700 positions. Only about one in 10,000 asylum applicants had been approved.

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Op-Ed: Poll—Greece’s Golden Dawn Gains Support as Other Parties Fall

Wednesday, September 5th, 2012

A new political poll published in Greece shows that support for each of the main political parties has fallen since the June 17 election. The only party to make a significant gain is Golden Dawn, increasing its share of the vote from 6.92 to 8.6 percent.

The latest poll shows that support for the far-left has declined over the summer, whilst the far-right has gained support. Golden Dawn (Chrysi Avgi) has come out of nowhere to become the fourth largest political party in Greece, with a larger support base than the Democratic Left which forms part of the coalition government.

This is in spite of concerted efforts in the international press to depict Golden Dawn as neo-Nazi, while supporters view it as nationalistic rather than extreme. The party maintains the attempts to malign them are not only ridiculous slander but libelous, noting the Greek people now understand correctly that they are a Nationalistic movement. Their continued distribution of food to needy Greeks suffering under austerity measures, has gained them support, though their efforts have been criticized as they only provide food to Greek citizens.

The contrasting figures are published below (election results from Keep Talking Greece)

New Democracy June 17 election results 29.66 Current 24.8, SYRIZA 26.89 (22.8), PASOK 12.28 (9.8), Golden Dawn 6.92 (8.6 ), Independent Greeks 7.51 (6.8), Democratic Left 6.26(5.2), Communists KKE 4.50 (4.7 percent.)

With social unrest expected in September as new austerity measures are introduced and taxes raised again, support for Golden Dawn is likely to increase as they develop their political style.

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Albanian extremist groups cause reaction in Greece

Monday, September 3rd, 2012

In late August 2012, a video that briefly aired on YouTube showed a band of around 5 Albanians in a mountainous location near Kukes in Albania, firing against a Greek flag with AK-47 (Chinese type) and issuing threats for mass assassinations of Greek citizens, as well as arsons. Incidentally, there were several arson cases in Greek forests during the summer period, and also in FYROM and Serbia and a number of local pundits blamed -amongst other- Albanian extremist groups as responsible for such illicit actions.

The video where the Albanian group was firing rounds with Kalashnikov was clad in paramilitary summer uniforms, with the insignia of the “SS”, a reminder of the 21st Waffen – Gebirgs – Division der SS Skanderbeg that was established in April 1944. Forensic security analysts in Greece have assured that this video was made for the purposes of “psychological warfare” and should be related with the inner workings of Neo-Nazi Albanian tendencies of extremist groups that are scattered between Albania, Kosovo and FYROM.


In Greece, a group of Albanians residing in the Kalavryta region of North-Western Peloponnese and in the Menidi outskirt of Athens reposted the video through their Facebook accounts. Subsequent investigation by the Greek state security revealed that the group was in the process of evolving into an extremist one as well, by mimicking the Neo Nazi tendencies of those in the original video. Scores of photo material was confiscated and one person was deported for being without legal documentation in the country. What’s most important though is that a wide-scale mobilization in the security forces was enacted in order to disband other groups before they became a threat in terms of social stability.

It is interesting to note that the group in Greece had organized itself through their common passion for motorcycles and named it “Motorristat-Fierak-Albanian-Stunt”. The Albanian (Mr. V.Z) who was mostly interrogated concerning the involvement of his group with extremist action within the country was also frequently travelling across the country using a Red BMW AXI-..##.93 & Hyundai coupe YZT-…##09 and stayed in the expensive Hotel Mont Helmos in mid-August 2012. The ease of capital and the existence of photo material revealing weaponry such as berretta’s is a lead that is still been reviewed by the authorities in charge, as to whether it is related with the organization of a “sleeping cell” in the country.

On April 2007, a paramilitary ethnic nationalist group known as UCC has claimed on a video their military actions and objectives against the Greek State in the Epirus Region. According to Research Terrorism Center in Washington, UCC is a known terrorist group with its first military action in Himara Region on 2003, killing a person, while in Northern Greece there has been an explosion in an electric station which links Italy and Greece in Egoumenitsa, which by some accounts was blamed in that group. The combination of Albanian nationalistic plans for a Greater Albania along with the abundance of smuggled weaponry and paramilitary personnel is an alarming indicator for the security forces of the region in order to avoid any potential crisis.

UCC is a by-product of the well-known UCK which has now evolved into the government of Kosovo and controls also most of Northern Albania in a delicate balance of powers with the President’s Berisha’s own clan support group. UCC is based in loosely connected cells in Vlore and in theory it can mobilize up to 5,000 men, although the nucleus is not more than a couple of hundred people at any given moment, many of those had combat experience of some sort in Kosovo (1998-1999) and FYROM (2001).

The Greek security forces are monitoring a dozen people, all Albanian immigrants residing in Greece, as possible UCC collaborators and espionage instruments. In parallel since 2007 around 20 caches and depots of armaments have been discovered by the authorities , especially in the region of Epirus, Boeotia and Attica and some 1,000 AK-47′s, hundreds of pistols (Berettas and Makarovs), as well as, over 500 Chinese made hand grenades have been discovered.

Moreover, in several cases of narcotics contraband in Greece where Albanian smugglers were involved, links were established as for the ulterior motive of the smuggling which included raising capital for extremist purposes. In similar fashion, a leading Greek journalist and security expert, Manos Eliades has showcased in a recent book of his, links and case studies of direct cooperation between certain Albanian immigrants to Greece and the Turkish intelligence service MIT.

For the time being it has been established that UCC, although still in nascent form, is being kept as a potential destabilizer regarding Greece and it is being supplied with weaponry from the Albanian black market. There is also support from radical Albanian-American groups and the Turkish intelligence service and the focus has been shifted from propaganda purposes into recruiting Albanian immigrants in Greece by using as a pretext the economic distress many of those have felt due to the ongoing economic crisis in the country and the lack of employment opportunities. Lastly small-scale paramilitary training is taking place in Northern Albanian and UCC serves yet another role -this time regarding domestic Albanian politics- by having the ambition of be seen in the South of the country as the “Long arm of the Kosovo Albanians”, which do keep their aims of uniting the rest of Albania with Kosovo and not vice-versa.

The countermeasures implemented so far by the Greek state include a variety of intelligence and security actions. One of those that is on an training level and it is going to be fully operation by the end of 2012, is the creation of rapid and heavily armed Police mobilization units to intervene in cases both of heavy criminality (armed robberies with the use of AK-47) and any potential paramilitary actions, as the hypothetical threat by UCC.

The men selected to join these teams have served previously in the Greek special armed forces and receive an extra training by the already established Greek-antiterrorist and special crimes unit (EKAM). They will be equipped with heavy defense body armor and defense mechanisms for their off-the road vehicles, and will have for offence purposes P-90 submachine guns, UMP submachinesMP-5 with penetrating bullets and FN assault rifles, along with MAG machine guns. Lastly the units will also use AK-47 (7,62×39 mm) and G-3 (7,62×51 mm). The units will interact with all the security and intelligence establishment of Greece and will be joined on occasion by other Army or Police units and have access to helicopters, airplanes and high speed sea transport. The rising organized criminality in Greece and the resurgence of Albanian organized crime involved in armed robberies by using machine guns played a decisive role into speeding up the process for the creation of such forces in the country.

Lastly, all available information points out that a mass of light weaponry has entered Greece through Albanian lately, and in a more worrying trend, the same development has been observed in FYROM, which according to many independent experts is a potential hot spot of any paramilitary action that will involve offshoots of UCK. In addition the Albanian government in Tirana is also fully aware around the developments and NATO itself is paying close attention in order to avert any potential destabilization caused by extremist groups that primarily live off by contraband, extortion and organized illicit activities and have as a hub of operations the territory of Kosovo. The upcoming USA elections in November 2012, whatever the outcome is, will bring back the American (and Anglo-Saxon) policy circles into re-examining their place in Europe (which for the moment has been reduced in expense of the rise of the German-Central European one). In parallel the dramatic developments in the Middle East, already have started to affect the “contraband routes” of heroin smuggling and illegal immigration into Europe. In addition the fragile political balance of powers in Skopje and the shift in international policies of Turkey, Bulgaria and Serbia are re-focusing the objectives in the Balkans of all interested parties be it state or supranational entities, legal and illegal ones. For all the above reasons, the security alertness in the region is increasing both for the countries located into and for the international forces serving there.

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Police vehicle carrying Pakistani man attacked

Wednesday, August 8th, 2012

In Greece, a police vehicle carrying a Pakistani man accused of attempted murder, has been attacked by supporters of an extreme right-wing party.

The Golden Dawn activists ran onto a ferry near Athens, as the vehicle carrying the 21-year-old suspect left the ship.

The man is accused of attempting to kill a 15-year-old Greek girl on the island of Paros and was being transported to a mainland prison.

It comes after Greek police said they were deporting hundreds of illegal immigrants, after a major crackdown in Athens. Dozens of people were sent back to Pakistan at the weekend.

Golden Dawn, described by opponents as neo-Nazis, won enough votes in a recent election to enter parliament.

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Greek Olympian Booted From Games for Tweeting Racial Joke

Thursday, July 26th, 2012

Greek Olympian Voula Papachristou has been kicked off her country’s Olympic team for a racial joke she posted toTwitter.

The triple jumper posted this tweet earlier this week, which roughly translates to: “With so many Africans in Greece…at least the West Nile mosquitoes will eat homemade food!!!”

Papachristou later apologized for the message with a post that read in part, “My dream is connected to the Olympic Games and I could not possibly participate if I did not respect their values. Therefore, I could never believe in discrimination between human beings and races.”

According to Isidoros Kouvelos, the head of Greece’s Hellenic Olympic Commission, Papachristou wasn’t contacted before or after the committee issued a press released booting her from the Games.

Papachristou’s gaffe also had repercussions for Greece’s remaining athletes: a spokesperson told theAssociated Press that Greek Olympians are now banned by the country’s Olympic committee from talking about anything not related to the Games on social media for the remainder of the event.

While the IOC has a series of social media rules restricting what athletes are allowed to post to social media during the Games, Papachristou’s message doesn’t violate any of those and her punishment appears to be an independent decision by her Olympic team.

American swimmer Ricky Berens — an active social media user and advocate for Olympians’ ability to post freely during the Games — told Mashable in an email that he could see why the Greek committee took the action it did.

“I myself am enjoying what everyone has been posting and seeing what other Olympians are doing,” he wrote. “I hope that it stays that way and people aren’t freaked out by this. There is a line that you don’t cross and she crossed it.”

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Europe urges Greece to probe legality of neo-Nazi party

Sunday, July 15th, 2012

In an Interview with Greek newspaper, To Vima, Muiznieks labeled the Golden Dawn as the “most overtly extremist and Nazi party in Europe“.

The party, which won 18 seats in the 300-member parliament in last month’s election, has been accused of involvement in attacks on migrants and Greeks of foreign appearance.

The attacks on foreigners and refugees “are directly linked to the racist speeches spread” by the party, Muiznieks said.

Muiznieks added that the Council of Europe will also send a mission to Greece to assess if racism and xenophobia are on the rise in the country.

Human Rights Watch has also urged Athens to take urgent action to stem an alarming rise in attacks on Asian and African immigrants in the country, in a report called “Hate on the Streets”.

The lack of an official state system for recording incidents of racist violence in Greece has long been observed and criticized by organizations like Amnesty International and the Greek

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Greek police ignore rising attacks on migrants – HRW

Saturday, July 14th, 2012

Gangs of Greeks are regularly attacking immigrants with impunity across the country and authorities are ignoring or discouraging victims from filing complaints, advocacy group Human Rights Watch said in a report on Tuesday.

Greece is a major gateway into the European Union for undocumented migrants from Asia and Africa, and illegal immigration has become a hot-button issue as the country struggles through its worst economic crisis since World War Two.

A fifth straight year of recession and unemployment at a record high has helped fuel anti-immigrant sentiment, with migrants blamed for rising crime levels and accused of eating into a shrinking pot of subsidised services from the state.

Migrants and asylum seekers spoke to Human Rights Watch of virtual no-go areas in Athens after dark because of fear of attacks by often black-clad groups of Greeks intent on violence,” the report said.

“While tourists are welcome, migrants and asylum seekers face a hostile environment, where they may be subject to detention in inhuman and degrading conditions, risk destitution and xenophobic violence.”

Human Rights Watch said the true extent of xenophobic violence in Greece was not clear given many victims do not report the crime and since government statistics are unreliable.

The group said it interviewed 59 people who suffered or escaped a racist incident between August 2009 and May this year. That included 51 serious attacks and two of the victims were pregnant women.

Most of the attacks take place at night in or near town squares and are committed by groups of attackers in dark clothing, their faces obscured with cloth or helmets, Human Rights Watch said. The perpetrators have been known to wield clubs or beer bottles or just their bare fists, it said.

The victims consistently told the group that police discouraged them from filing complaints and that some were even warned they would be detained if they insisted on an investigation.

Many victims gave up after being told an investigation would be pointless if they could not identify the attackers or being told either to accept an apology or fight back, the group said.

Human Rights Watch also said there was evidence to suggest the perpetrators were members or associated with local vigilante groups and Golden Dawn, an extreme-right party elected to parliament this year – the first such development since the fall of a military junta in 1974.

The group said it had found no evidence that violent attacks are directed by the party, which denies it is neo-Nazi, but that Golden Dawn members have been implicated in specific attacks.

It quoted residents and a police officer saying party members were involved in beatings of migrants, and noted allegations of collusion between police and Golden Dawn members.

Golden Dawn, which campaigned on a pledge to rid Greece of all immigrants, denies carrying out attacks.

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Human Rights Group Urges Crackdown on Race Crimes in Greece

Friday, July 13th, 2012

A leading human rights organization is urging Greece’s new government to take “urgent action” to curb an “alarming” increase in attacks against Asian and African immigrants, including brutal assaults by gangs on teenage boys and pregnant women.

In a 100-page report issued Tuesday, U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said xenophobic attacks, including stabbings and serious beatings, in the capital Athens have increased over the past two years, leaving dozens of confirmed victims and possibly many more.

It called on the government to create a national strategy to combat race-related crime, including obligatory training for police officers, and surveillance methods used to fight terrorism.

“It is very shocking to see that scale of violence, of that frequency and that brutality in a European country . . . People face certainly the risk of an attack on a daily basis,” Judith Sunderland, the lead researcher and author of the report told The Associated Press.

“We spoke with 79 migrants and asylum seekers and out of those 59 had experienced some kind of an attack. And 51 had experienced an attack that caused actual harm. We are convinced this is the tip of the iceberg. Most people don’t report the violence . . . Undocumented migrants fear they will be arrested and deported,” she said.

Greece, suffering a fifth year of recession, is the European Union’s busiest transit point for illegal immigration. In Athens, many immigrants live crammed in small apartments in squalid conditions, in central neighborhoods that have seen a sharp rise in crime since the financial crisis began in late 2009.

Racially-motivated attacks, including raids on immigrants’ homes and stores as well as streets assaults, have surged in the past two years, and often follow public outcry over a violent crime blamed on immigrants, the report said.

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Greece pushed to the brink, pharmacist latest victim of violence

Friday, June 15th, 2012

Some Greek pharmacies will close on Friday, but not in protest against the relentless burden of austerity or the withering of state reimbursements for the drugs they sell. Rather, they are mourning for one of their own, a pharmacist who was shot dead in an apparent holdup.

Violent crime is more ingrained in many other societies, but the slaying of 54-year-old Spyros Poukamisas this week is the kind of sad event that cuts deeply into the Greek sense of community at a time of crisis and division. It is a symbol of the national handwringing about how far a country, steeped in glorious tradition, can fall.

“This is another atrocious crime, which shows that matters have come to a head. We have reached the limits of our endurance. Security is our first priority,” said Antonis Samaras, head of the conservative New Democracy party, which is locked in a tight race with the radical left Syriza party ahead of elections on Sunday.

Granted, the death of Poukamisas near his pharmacy in a gritty district of Piraeus port this week was a fleeting episode, conceived by two men who vanished in a getaway car. Greece and the globe are more consumed by the vote whose outcome, realists and doomsayers alike fear, could imperil the idea of European unity and menace the world’s biggest economies.

The immediate question is whether Greece, now under the stewardship of a caretaker government, will stick to traditional politicians like Samaras or empower Syriza’s Alexis Tsipras, a populist who has talked of scrapping an international bailout deal that imposed harsh cutbacks and reforms on a population used to a better life.

The bigger conundrum for Greece is what it will be in the long term: a state adrift, as it is now, or a viable nation with a production-based economy and social cohesion to match.

The land that gave logic, justice and geometry to the world in ancient times has, in its more recent history, contorted inward. State excesses and book-cooking, record unemployment and inflated crime rates have fed Greek dysfunction.

Greek media reported that Poukamisas, the pharmacist, had been mugged in the past and that he told his assailants, “Not this time, guys,” before they killed him. Pharmacies in the Athens area closed in protest for six hours Thursday. Most Piraeus pharmacies will be shut all day Friday.

A statement by the Greater Athens pharmacists’ association said the killing reflected an “unprecedented” situation in Greece and “proves that our society is in a state of collapse and has been surrendered to the mercy of uncontrolled criminal activity.”

While aspects of such rhetoric appear overblown, statistics show a deterioration in law-and-order during the economic crisis. The Public Order Ministry reported an increase in nearly all categories of crime between 2010 and 2011, with murder up 5 percent and armed robberies in occupied homes up 110 percent.

Greece accounts for a tiny piece of the global economy, but the threat of contagion — devastating spillover elsewhere in Europe and beyond — drives jitters in the markets.

A vulnerable nation like Italy, however, has a strong industrial base and a host of brand names coveted worldwide. Greece has agriculture, but its fundamentals are more limited. Tourism and shipping are among the pillars of its fortunes; both are under strain amid speculation about whether Greece will have to abandon the euro in a chaotic and possibly economically debilitating exit.

This month, thousands of Greek and international shipping executives gathered at a trade event at which Theodore Veniamis, president of the Union of Greek Shipowners, invoked an old saying from Chios, a Greek island in the Aegean.

“The sea gets sick but never dies,” he said. Veniamis asserted that Greek shipping remained internationally competitive, with a fleet of 3,325 vessels, but he lamented the impact of the global economic crisis on the freight market, as well as the administrative confusion caused by the abolition of Greece’s merchant marine ministry.

Tourism accounts for nearly one fifth of the Greek economy, and the government seeks to lure an increasing number of tourists who are reluctant to relax in a country seemingly on the edge. A state campaign, “The True Story About Greece,” touts antiquities, thermal springs and sun-splashed coastlines and islands.

Tatiana Karapanagioti, the culture and tourism minister, criticized the “gloom-and-doom myths” about Greece’s plight, noting that tourism arrivals reached a record high of 16.5 million visitors in 2011. She said the elections on Sunday, a replay of an inconclusive, first round ballot, are not a cause for worry.

“This is simply our democratic process in action, no different than any other country,” she wrote in a commentary in The Huffington Post this month. “True, the stakes of the coming election are unquestionably high. Yet, the birthplace of democracy is as safe, secure and calm as it has ever been.”

That last point is surely open to debate, or even derision among more seasoned critics. True, Greeks have had harder times. They put up with centuries of Ottoman rule, a schism between a king and a prime minister, a Nazi occupation, a civil war and a military dictatorship. But a nation whose pride springs from the intellectual exploits of ancient city-states has, for many, become a dangerously untrustworthy member of the global community.

This week, a debate in a London hall turned on whether Britain should return ancient Greek sculptures called the Parthenon Marbles, which were removed from the Acropolis in the early 19th century and are on display in London’s British Museum.

Tristram Hunt, a British lawmaker, said it was unwise to send back the fragile sculptures, long demanded by Greece, as it faces the “terrible prospect of economic meltdown.”

But author Stephen Fry alluded with irony to the Greek crisis in support of the motion to return them.

“We will never, ever be able to repay the debt that we owe Greece,” Fry said in praise of the contributions of ancient Greeks to world culture.

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Greek neo-Nazi MP presses charges against two female deputies he assaulted

Tuesday, June 12th, 2012

A Greek neo-Nazi MP who shocked the country last week by assaulting two female deputies on live television pressed charges against his victims Monday.

Ilias Kasidiaris, 31, who is himself on trial for alleged involvement in a 2007 mugging, claims the two women insulted him.

Kasidiaris is a former army commando and the spokesman of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn group, which entered parliament for the first time in Greek history in an inconclusive general election on May 6, winning 6.9 percent of the vote.

Another general election will be held on June 17.

Appearing on an early morning talk show on June 7, Kasidiaris threw a glass of water at Syriza party deputy Rena Dourou after she accused Golden Dawn of seeking to “drag Greece 500 years into the past.”

Kasidiaris then struck Liana Kanelli from the communist KKE party three times as she rose to push him away.

Accompanied to court by bodyguards on Thursday, he also filed a complaint against the TV station on the grounds of “illegal detention” because the network’s employees tried to keep him on the premises following the incident.

He further laid charges against a journalist present at the time, who called a prosecutor asking for action to be taken against him.

The prosecutor had ordered Kasidiaris’ arrest on the grounds of attempted grievous bodily harm. But a 48-hour deadline for his arrest on sight expired on Saturday, meaning he is entitled to walk free until his trial.

Kasidiaris was also in court on Monday for a hearing over the 2007 mugging of a student in Athens, which was postponed to September 3 due to the absence of his lawyer on other business.

The latest polls indicate Golden Dawn will remain in parliament after the June 17 elections, despite a slight drop.

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Thousands rally against Greece’s far-right party ahead of elections

Saturday, June 9th, 2012

Thousands have protested in Greece against the far-right Golden Dawn party after one of its members assaulted a woman on live TV, BBC News reported.

Demonstrators shouted “Neo-Nazis out” in rallies called by left-wing and anti-racism groups in Athens.

On Thursday, June 7 Ilias Kasidiaris, a Golden Dawn MP, was filmed hitting a left-wing politician during a chatshow.

The rally comes nine days before elections which could result in a Greek exit from the Eurozone.

In polls a month ago, Golden Dawn surprised many by winning 21 seats in Greece’s 300-seat parliament.

A second election is taking place as no party was able to forge a coalition.

Prosecutors said an arrest warrant has been issued for Mr Kasidiaris, whose whereabouts remain unknown after he fled the television studio on Thursday. The assault took place during a live debate on a daily morning political show on the private Antenna television.

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Neo-nazi lawmakers in Greece arrested following attack on foreigner

Sunday, June 3rd, 2012

Two freshly elected Greek MPs from the neo-nazi Golden Dawn party and its leader’s daughter were among six people briefly detained after an attack on a Pakistani immigrant, a police source said Saturday.

The two lawmakers, Ilias Panagiotaros and Ioannis Vouldis, as well as leader Nikos Michaloliakos’s daughter, were taken into custody but released for lack of evidence after the incident in Athens late Friday, the source said.

The 31-year-old Pakistani man needed hospital treatment after being assaulted by a group in helmets taking part in a motorbike demonstration “that started off from the headquarters of a political party,” police said in a statement.

The source confirmed this party was Chryssi Avgi (Golden Dawn), which sent shockwaves through Europe by winning seats in parliament in May 6 elections for the first time since the end of Greece’s military junta in 1974.

Michaloliakos, who has said there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz and has questioned the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust, is hoping to match or beat the party’s score of 6.9% in fresh elections on June 17.

Another Golden Dawn candidate, Themis Skordeli, has been accused of beating up, together with two other Greeks, three Afghan immigrants in Athens a year ago. A court case was recently postponed for the sixth time.

Rising levels of racism
Three Greek non-governmental organisations meanwhile welcomed a report by the UN Committee Against Torture (CAT) calling on Greece to act against what it said was a rising level of racism and related violence.

“Greece should strongly combat the increasing manifestations of racial discrimination, xenophobia and related violence,” the three groups, including Greek Helsinki Monitor, cited the CAT report as saying.

It called on Athens to condemn publicly all intolerance and violence and send “a clear and unambiguous message that racist or discriminatory acts, including by police and other public officials, are unacceptable.”

A report that 18 monitoring Non-government Organisations released in March had said that racist attacks in Greece mostly go unreported and unpunished and had published a list of 63 racist attacks in just two cities over six months.—Sapa-AFP.

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BLACK METAL MUSICIAN ELECTED TO GREEK PARLIAMENT

Thursday, May 17th, 2012

Look at that man above. The face paint. The bandolier. The studded armband. The devil horns. This is Giorgos Germenis, bassist for Greek black metal outfit Naer Mataron, and he is the country’s new parliament representative.

Beleaguered by years of overspending, governmental infighting and fiscal mismanagement, Greece is finally turning to the one group of people who can get s**t done: black metal dudes.

According to Blabbermouth, “Germenis… will represent the extremist Golden Dawn party, which is described as perhaps the most extreme of the far-right parties in all of Europe. Comparisons are made to Germany‘s neo-Nazi National Democratic Party and many say Golden Dawn’s logo resembles a swastika.”

Oh. Ummm. Yeah. This story’s not as fun anymore.

Like many of your favorite far-right extremists, Germenis thinks the problems with Greek’s faltering economy can be traced to those lazy, friggin’ immigrants and their sneaky, job-taking ways. “Greek factories must be reborn,” said Germenis. “Their chimneys must be filled with smoke once more, and of course all illegal immigrants must leave. If all the illegal immigrants left—and there are more than three million—there would be three million jobs for Greeks.”

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Greek media accuse far-right party of bullying

Wednesday, May 9th, 2012

Greek journalists on Tuesday accused the ultra-nationalist Golden Dawn party of intimidation after they became the first far-right group to enter parliament since military dictatorship ended.

At a news conference after securing 7 percent of the vote on Sunday, Golden Dawn members ordered journalists to stand to attention for party leader Nikolaos Mihaloliakos. Many journalists left the room in protest.

Mihaloliakos also marched down the street on Sunday flanked by muscular men with shaved heads and tight t-shirts, and yelling “liars!” at the foreign journalists following him.

“The Greek Federation of Journalists (POESY) warns Hitler nostalgics and especially the ‘brave boys in black t-shirts’ that no journalist will be coerced, threatened and above all terrorized,” the union said in a statement.

The Athens Union of Journalists (ESIEA) said: “Acting like bouncers, they showed their true colors. We are not afraid of you. We will reveal your role. You will not have your way.”

Promising to rid Greece of immigrants and with a swastika-like logo, Golden Dawn is the first far-right party to enter parliament since the fall of the military dictatorship in 1974.

The party, which denies that it is neo-Nazi, rose from obscurity in just over a year by appealing to Greeks who feel that a rise in crime driven by five years of recession has made the streets unsafe.

Many Greeks were shocked by its success, also fuelled in part by anger with the two parties that have been in power for decades and led Greece into its debt crisis: the conservative New Democracy and the socialist PASOK.

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In Tatters, Greece’s Middle Class Votes on Survival

Thursday, May 3rd, 2012

Greece’s disillusioned and despondent middle class looks set to send the country into unknown political territory in elections Sunday after seeing many of their dreams disappear in the nation’s ongoing economic malaise.

Disappointed with the way Greece’s political leaders have handled the crisis, a growing number of middle income earners are looking to fringe parties on the right and left for solutions, abandoning traditional support for the two main political parties — the conservatives New Democracy and the socialists Pasok.

Both parties have alternatively governed the country for much of the last four decades.

According to recent polls, Pasok and New Democracy combined will only muster about 37% of the vote, while the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party is backed by 5% to 6% of the electorate and the recently-formed nationalist Independent Greeks are supported by some 10% of the voters.

Among the left parties, the Coalition of the Radical Left, or Syriza, is supported by 11% of Greeks, the upstart Democratic Left party is backed by another 8.5%, and the Communist Party of Greece is drawing somewhere around 10% support.

It should be noted that the last official polls are from more than 10 days ago as Greek law imposes a poll blackout two weeks prior to the election.

A deepening five-year economic recession, record high joblessness, and slumping personal income have hit all Greeks hard. But it is the middle class, which has benefited mightily in the last 20 years from Greece’s fast-paced former economic growth, that is now facing the sharpest reversal in fortunes.

Up until the crisis broke out in late 2009, many Greeks were living the middle-class dream: working in well-paying jobs, driving shiny new cars, living in one of Athens flowery suburbs that ring the city.

Many owned vacation homes in the country, family holidays to the country’s spectacular islands were par for the course.

No more. That reality has now given way to record low consumer sentiment, soaring business bankruptcies and many of the country’s educated middle class is are mulling plans to move abroad. A recent study showed that seven out of ten young Greeks would like to leave the heavily-indebted nation.

“The essential collapse of the middle class is shaping the new reality in the electoral body,” Dimitris Katsantonis, president of research company To The Point, said in a recent newspaper commentary.

A closer look at the numbers behind the country’s crisis helps shed some light on why Greeks are opting for more radicalized political solutions.

In 2011 alone, real wages in Greece fell by more than 25% in 2011, according to figures from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Disposable income levels will be further hit in June when the new government approves additional cutbacks worth some €11 billion, in accordance with promises made to international creditors in exchange for further aid.

Jobs have also dried up at a fast pace, with the unemployment rate in the fourth quarter of last year hitting 20.7%.

This means that more than a million Greeks are out of work in a country with a total working population of some four million people. Among those with a university degree, almost 15% were looking for work, up from 9.7% in the same period a year earlier.

The real estate sector, a key source of wealth for the middle class, has also turned sharply lower as banks slash lending in a bid to get through the tough times. Figures from the country’s central bank show that apartment prices fell by an annual pace of 5.1% in 2011 after retreating by 4.7% in 2010 and 3.7% in 2009.

A previous source of stability during the country’s boom years, Greece’s middle class is now struggling for survival. No wonder they are angry and upset. And there declining fortunes is taking Greece’s establishment parties down with them.

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Greek elections to bring 10-party parliament: polls

Saturday, April 21st, 2012

Three opinion polls, the last to be published two weeks before the Greek general elections, showed on Friday that 10 parties could enter the parliament, while no party will get a clear majority.

The three polls conducted by Kapa Research for daily Ta Nea (The News), Marc for newspaper Ethnos (The Nation) and Rass for Eleftheros Typos (Free Press) revealed that neither the socialists of PASOK, nor the conservatives of New Democracy (ND) would gain an overall majority in the elections.

Due to the harsh salary and pension cuts, record high unemployment and other unpopular policies, the two main parties, which support the stability and growth program to exit the debt crisis and the transitional government of Lucas Papademos, have seen their popularity plummeting.

Their average difference is formed at about 6 percent, ranging between 21.9 percent to 25.5 for ND and 17.1 percent to 19.1 percent for PASOK. The two parties jointly win approximately 40 percent of the votes, according to the polls.

Leftwing parties that oppose the austerity measures, which have been introduced in exchange of vital international bailout loans to stave off a disorderly default, could jointly garner some 30 percent of the votes, according to the results.

In addition, nationalistic parties that also reject the current economic policies have also gained ground. If the forecasts will be reaffirmed, for first time, the neo-Nazi party Chrisi Avyi will enter the parliament, winning 15 seats.

A few days before the May 6 ballots, 25 percent of the electorate remains undecided, according to the pollsters.

Friday is the last day that political opinion polls can be published ahead of elections, according to the Greek legislation.

Another poll conducted by MRB on behalf of the Hellenic Republic Asset Development Fund showed that despite opposition to austerity, Greeks back change and structural reforms.

According to the survey, 76 percent of Greeks are in favor of the privatization program as part of efforts to slash deficits and restore growth.

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Greek protesters disrupt national day parades

Monday, March 26th, 2012

Greek police fired tear gas on Sunday to disperse anti-austerity protesters at national day parades to mark Greece’s independence from Ottoman rule in three cities.

The annual military parade to commemorate Greece’s uprising in 1821 was held under unprecedented security measures in Athens, preventing a repeat of minor clashes and heckling at previous celebrations, when protesters called President Karolos Papoulias a traitor.

The protests reflect public anger at the stifling austerity measures imposed by the government to secure the funding it needs from its international lenders stay afloat.

The measures, which include steep cuts to pay and pensions, have helped push Greece’s economy into its worst recession in four decades, driving unemployment to a record 21 percent.

In Athens, streets were cordoned off and about 4,000 police officers were deployed to the city centre, including snipers on the roof of parliament and other buildings on the main Syntagma square, the scene of violent anti-austerity protests last year.

The parade in the capital was concluded peacefully but tight security meant very few people besides officials and dignitaries were able to get close enough to watch it.

“Today Greek people are fighting a tough battle. After achieving the impossible back then, we will also succeed this time,” President Karolos Papoulias told reporters after the parade in Athens.

Greece, which faces elections in late April or early May amid a deep economic malaise, needs to stick to difficult economic reforms prescribed by its lenders – the European Union and the International Monetary Fund – to continue receiving aid under a second bailout deal.

In the western port city of Patras a group of about 50 protesters pelted police with bottles and stones after they were blocked from getting close the stand of dignitaries watching a student parade.

Police also fired tear gas at about 200 protesters who tried to disrupt student parades in the cities of Heraklion and Chania on the island of Crete. Police said 39 people were detained across the country.

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Greek Leaders Turn Focus to Preparing for Elections

Monday, March 12th, 2012

ATHENS — With the ink not yet dry on a complex agreement to write down more than $130 billion of Greek debt, Greece’s political leaders leaped into full campaign mode on Sunday to prepare for national elections expected in late April or early May.

Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos on Sunday submitted his formal bid for the leadership of the once-mighty Socialist Party; as the only candidate for the position he is all but guaranteed to replace the current leader, former Prime Minister George Papandreou.

Meanwhile, Antonis Samaras, the leader of the center-right New Democracy, now leading in the polls but not expected to win a solid majority, tacked hard to the right in a rousing speech on Sunday that tapped into fears of immigration and rising crime.

Mr. Venizelos, one of the government’s chief negotiators on the debt deal, is expected to remain the finance minister until a date is set for elections.

But the vote is likely to end the Socialists’ dominance of Greek politics. Two years of harsh austerity measures in exchange for foreign rescue funds have radically reduced Greek living standards, leading to the implosion of the Socialist party, known as Pasok, a crisis in New Democracy and the rise of groups on the far left and far right.

Analysts say the political landscape is so fluid that it is almost impossible to predict an outcome. “Nothing will surprise me in these elections,” said Takis Michas, a political analyst.

Undecided voters account for about 30 percent of the electorate, according to opinion polls. Also, turnout is expected to be low as voters reject the two largest parties that not only signed off on a loan agreement that makes Greece a ward of its creditors but also created the debt problem in the first place.

Economically and politically, Greece can ill afford costly national elections that may not yield a clear winner. But socially, it cannot afford not to hold them, as the political capital of the interim government of Prime Minister Lucas Papademos is running out.

Mr. Papademos, an economist, took office in November with a mandate to negotiate Greece’s loan agreement with a troika of foreign lenders — the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund — and to complete a deal in which private bondholders voluntarily took losses on about $131 billion of Greek debt. The new loan agreement was reached last month and the debt restructuring was completed last week.

But more pain is expected. Under the new agreement, Greece has cut the benchmark private sector minimum wage by 22 percent and has pledged to lay off public sector workers. Earlier austerity measures — mostly tax increases and wage cuts — have already caused such a rapid decline in living standards and confidence that the political parties have not at all caught up to the transformation.

A poll conducted by the polling company Public Issue in the last week of February found New Democracy to be leading with 28 percent, compared with 11 percent for the Socialists. It also showed a significant rise in left-wing groups that opposed Greece’s loan agreement. The Communist Party, which never broke from Moscow during the cold war, tied with the Socialists at 11 percent, while the radical left party known as Syriza was at 12 percent. The more moderate Democratic Left showed gains at 16 percent.

Addressing the party caucus on Saturday, Mr. Venizelos said that Pasok was open to cooperation, but not unconditionally. “When a country is in crisis, consensus is necessary but consensus is not carte blanche,” he said. In an indirect jab at New Democracy, with whom Pasok shares power in an uneasy coalition, Mr. Venizelos condemned those who he said “are in the government and opposition at the same time.”

Analysts say the only way to ensure political stability in Greece would be for the Socialists and New Democracy to form a new coalition government. But in an address to his party’s congress on Sunday, Mr. Samaras ruled out that possibility. “I want my hands free,” he said. “A clear majority is not crucial for New Democracy or for me, it’s crucial for the country to be governed.”

Mr. Samaras also struck a tough stance on crime and illegal immigration in an effort to stem defections from his party to far-right parties that have capitalized on popular fears on those issues. About half of Greece’s 11 million population lives in Athens, where crime and illegal immigration have caused alarm in recent years.

In recent weeks, support for the anti-immigration Popular Orthodox Rally, known as L.A.O.S. for its Greek initials, has been dropping. But the Public Issue poll found that the ultranationalist Golden Dawn group, whose members routinely perform Nazi salutes at rallies and whose base is among Athenians fearful of immigrants, is polling close to the 3 percent threshold needed to enter Parliament.

Mr. Michas, the political analyst, added that support for smaller, politically extreme parties would not translate into votes if the authorities managed a “smooth countdown to the elections,” by showing leadership in the face of attacks by angry citizens on politicians and other figures who supported Greece’s loan deal.

“The street has been taken over by small groups whose agenda is to use violence to stop debate,” Mr. Michas said. “The authorities have to claim back the street.”

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Want German lessons in Athens? Join the line

Thursday, February 23rd, 2012

ATHENS (Reuters) – Ruediger Bolz has 350 students coming through the doors of his German language institute in centralAthens each day – 20 percent up on a year go.

The rush among Greeks to learn German may seem odd after the war of words between the two countries, with Athens fuming at German accusations of financial mismanagement and some Greek media playing on Nazi caricatures of Berlin politicians.

Yet for Bolz, who has run the Goethe-Institut for the last six years, there is no mystery: his Greek pupils are happy to side-step politics and face up to harsh economic realities by acquiring new skills.

“Most of those coming to us are young students or academics and they are doing all they can to improve their professional qualifications,” Bolz said in his office at the state-run agency, which like the British Council or French Institute has the job of promoting national culture and language.

“No doubt some of them have plans to leave Greece but most of them just think they will stand a better chance of getting a job if they have a foreign language – in Greece or elsewhere.”

Greek unemployment has soared to over 20 percent largely due to the global slowdown and a first round of budget cuts demanded by lenders as the price for a first debt bailout in 2010 to save Greece from a chaotic default.

One youth in two is out of a job in Greece – and that rate will not improve as a result of the austerity cure imposed alongside the new 130-billion-euro ($172-billion) rescue package agreed by countries in the 17-nation euro zone on Tuesday.

That deal was won after Germany’s finance minister had likened the Greek public purse to a “bottomless pit” and Greece’s president, Karolos Papoulias – a veteran of resistance to Nazi World War Two occupation – bristled at German “insults.”

One Greek tabloid printed a computer-generated image of Chancellor Angela Merkel in a Nazi uniform, while the head of German manufacturer Bosch called for Greece to be kicked out of the European Union. A Greek electrical union has hit back by calling for a boycott of Bosch products.

Opinion surveys often indicate a certain Greek mistrust of Germany. A study this month by pollster VPRC released by Epikera magazine on Thursday showed 76 percent of respondents thought Germany was “rather hostile” towards Greece.

Bolz said the row had mostly passed his office by.

GOING NATIVE

While youths torched dozens of Greek-run businesses across Athens during protests this month, the modern concrete-and-glass building that houses the Goethe-Institut – which in 1952 became the first of around 150 such outposts of German culture around the world – was unscathed.

“We get one or two stupid emails a month, often anonymous,” said Bolz. “But all of our events are going on as usual.”

Brochures in Bolz’s office pay testimony to Greece’s long ties with a country that vies with China as the world’s top exporter. One shows an 1884 advert by an Athens restaurant boasting of its Bavarian beer, while another advert invites Greek gamblers to take part in a 1878 German-run lottery.

One blot in the German-Greek relationship came in 2000 when an Athens court ordered the seizure of the Goethe-Institut and other German state property in Greece to satisfy reparation claims by war-time victims. But a Greek minister stopped the order after a two-year legal wrangle.

Downstairs in the institute’s cafe, conversations inevitably turn to the privations felt by Greeks at the hard end of the budget cuts – the higher taxes on wages and the whittling away of the pensions of parents and grandparents.

Lisa Hamuzopulos, the German-speaking Swiss who has run the cafe for 13 years, said clients were spending less and that discussions on the crisis had to be handled with care.

“Not everyone accepts they bear some responsibility for this. As long as they don’t get that, it will be difficult for them,” she said. “But there isn’t any hostility to us – if anything, people are friendlier.”

Bolz, who has a Greek wife, said he has encountered no anti-German sentiment in Greece and says the more common feeling is that of hurt pride at the measures imposed from on high by the “troika” of EU bodies and the International Monetary Fund.

While admitting to having gone at least partly native after 25 years of close ties to the country, he said foreign lenders must accept that there is no quick fix to problems which most ordinary Greeks knew had been building up for years.

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lawmakers approve austerity bill as Athens burns

Monday, February 13th, 2012

Greece’s parliament approved a deeply unpopular austerity bill on Monday to secure a second EU/IMF bailout and avoid national bankruptcy, as buildings burned across central Athens and violence spread around the country.

Cinemas, cafes, shops and banks were set ablaze in central Athens and black-masked protesters fought riot police outside parliament before lawmakers voted on the package that demands deep pay, pension and job cuts – the price of a 130 billion euro bailout needed to keep the country afloat.

State television reported the violence spread to the tourist islands of Corfu and Crete, the northern city of Thessaloniki and towns in central Greece. Police said 150 shops were looted in the capital and 34 buildings set ablaze.

Altogether 199 of the 300 lawmakers backed the bill, but 43 deputies from the two parties in the government of Prime Minister Lucas Papademos, the socialists and conservatives, rebelled by voting against. They were immediately expelled by their parties.

The rebellion and street violence foreshadowed the problems the government faces in implementing the cuts, which include a 22 percent reduction in the minimum wage – a package critics say condemns the Greek economy to an ever-deeper downward spiral.

Papademos, a technocrat brought into get a grip on his country’s crisis, denounced the worst breakdown of order since 2008 when violence gripped Greece for weeks after police shot a 15-year-old schoolboy.

“Vandalism, violence and destruction have no place in a democratic country and won’t be tolerated,” he told parliament as it prepared to vote on the new 130 billion euro bailout to save Greece from a chaotic bankruptcy.

 

“SHORT-TERM SACRIFICES”

But he admitted that imposing the austerity on a nation that has already endured several years of cuts would be tough.

“Ahead of us, we have a complete and credible economic programme to exit the fiscal and economic crisis. It is a programme which safeguards, more than anything else, the country’s place in the euro,” he said.

“The full, timely and effective implementation of the programme won’t be easy. We are fully aware that the economic programme means short term sacrifices for the Greek people.”

Greece needs the international funds before March 20 to meet debt repayments of 14.5 billion euros, or suffer a chaotic default which could shake the entire euro zone.

Outside parliament chaos reigned. A Reuters photographer saw buildings in Athens engulfed in flames and huge plumes of smoke rose in the night sky.

“We are facing destruction. Our country, our home, has become ripe for burning, the centre of Athens is in flames. We cannot allow populism to burn our country down,” conservative lawmaker Costis Hatzidakis told parliament.

The air in Syntagma Square outside parliament was thick with tear gas as riot police fought running battles with youths who smashed marble balustrades and hurled stones and petrol bombs.

Terrified Greeks and tourists fled the rock-strewn streets and the clouds of stinging gas, cramming into hotel lobbies for shelter as lines of riot police struggled to contain the mayhem.

State NET television reported that trouble had also broken out in Heraklion, capital of Crete, as well as the towns of Volos and Agrinio in central Greece.

On the streets of Athens many businesses were ablaze, including the neo-classical home to the Attikon cinema dating from 1870 and a building housing the Asty, an underground cinema used by the Gestapo during World War Two as a torture chamber.

As fighting raged for hours, protesters threw bombs made from gas canisters as riot police advanced across the square on the crowds, firing tear gas and stun grenades. Loud booms from the protests could be heard inside parliament.

 

 

NO GOOD CHOICES

Before the vote, Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos told parliament that the alternative to the international bailout – bankruptcy and a departure from the euro zone – would be far worse for Greeks.

“The choice is not between sacrifice and no sacrifices at all, but between sacrifices and unimaginably harsher ones,” he told a stormy debate.

The EU and IMF say they have had enough of broken promises and that the funds will be released only with the clear commitment of Greek political leaders that they will implement the reforms whoever wins an election potentially in April.

Euro zone paymaster Germany ratcheted up the pressure on Sunday. “The promises from Greece aren’t enough for us any more,” German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said in an interview published on Sunday in Welt am Sonntag newspaper.

“Greece needs to do its own homework to become competitive, whether that happens in conjunction with a new rescue programme or by another route that we actually don’t want to take,” he said.

When asked if that other route meant Greece quitting the euro zone, Schaeuble said: “That is all in the hands of the Greeks themselves. But even in the event (Greece leaves the euro zone), which almost no one assumes will happen, they will still remain part of Europe.”

The bill sets out 3.3 billion euros ($4.35 billion) of extra budget cuts for this year alone.

It also provides for a bond swap to ease Greece’s debt burden by cutting the real value of private-sector investors’ bond holdings by some 70 percent. Greece would have missed a Feb. 17 deadline to offer a debt “haircut” to private bondholders if the vote had not been passed.

Many Greeks believe their living standards are collapsing already and the new measures will only deepen their misery.

“Enough is enough!” said 89-year-old Manolis Glezos, one of Greece’s most famous leftists. “They have no idea what an uprising by the Greek people means. And the Greek people, regardless of ideology, have risen.”

Glezos is a national hero for sneaking up the Acropolis at night in 1941 and tearing down a Nazi flag from under the noses of the German occupiers, raising the morale of Athens residents.

“These measures of annihilation will not pass,” Glezos said on Syntagma Square, visibly overcome by teargas and holding a mask over his mouth.

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Greece bailout: Cabinet approves draft bill on cuts

Sunday, February 12th, 2012

Greece‘s cabinet has approved fresh austerity measures demanded by the eurozone and IMF in return for a 130bn-euro ($170bn; £110bn) bailout.

The draft bill must now be passed by the Greek parliament and approved by European finance ministers.

Five ministers have resigned from the government over the issue, with one junior party in the coalition saying the demands were “humiliating”.

Unions began a 48-hour strike on Friday with protesters clashing with police.

Prime Minister Lucas Papademos has warned the country faces “uncontrolled economic chaos” if it fails to agree spending cuts and defaults on its debts.

“We cannot allow Greece to go bankrupt,” he told his cabinet, saying it was an “hour of historic responsibility”.

“A disorderly default would plunge our country in a disastrous adventure,” he said.

Ministers who disagreed with austerity measures could not stay in the coalition government, the Greek leader added.

Meanwhile, Greek conservative leader Antonis Samaras has said all his party’s MPs must vote in favour of the bailout law.

Mr Samaras, whose New Democracy party is a member of the governing coalition, said any rebels would face being dropped as parliamentary candidates.

Deputy Foreign Minister Mariliza Xenogiannakopoulou, who quit on Friday afternoon, is the most senior defection so far.

Her Pasok party, the largest in the coalition, also suffered the loss of a deputy labour minister on Thursday.

The cuts package will be put to the vote in parliament on Sunday, with some MPs from the governing parties expected to vote against, the BBC’s Mark Lowen in Athens reports.

But analysts say the package should still have enough support in parliament, because Pasok and its other coalition ally New Democracy account for more than 230 deputies out of a total of 300.

The austerity cuts include:

  • 15,000 public-sector job cuts
  • liberalisation of labour laws
  • lowering the minimum wage by 20% from 751 euros a month to 600 euros
  • negotiating a debt write-off with banks.

These were presented to a eurozone ministers in Brussels on Thursday evening.

But they want a further 325m euros in savings for this year and also insist that Greek leaders give “strong political assurances” on the implementation of the packages.

An estimated 17,000 union members and communists took to the streets of Athens on Friday, marching to mark the start of a two-day general strike.

Protesters also gathered near the parliament building.

Some demonstrators threw stones and petrol bombs at police, who responded by firing tear gas. A small number of people from both sides suffered minor injuries.

Efi Daridi, a teacher and union member who was protesting, said the results of further cuts would be “tragic”.

“In schools we didn’t have books up to the middle of the school year and not only that – we have children that do not really care about the lessons, because of all the problems at home.

“The ramifications in the whole society are immense,” she told the BBC.

The country is already reeling from the effects of an earlier round of austerity that followed a previous bailout – it is deep in recession, with unemployment rising above 20%.

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A global attack on democracy

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2012

Copy of nd occupy greece0_CITY_E1

REUTERS

First they came for Papandreou – and I didn’t speak out because I thought the Greeks are just lazy tax-dodgers.

Then they came for Berlusconi – and I didn’t speak out because I thought he was just a racist and sexist old roué.

Then they came for Zuma – and I didn’t speak out because he can’t apply his mind, and he’s still running the show.

Then they took away my vote – and there was no one left to speak out for me.

Some may feel that it may be a bit of a stretch to compare Pastor Martin Niemöller’s heartfelt reminder of the insidious way we can become complicit in fascism with the growing way we are invited to disdain democracy under the cover of exposing venal politicians, but recent events in the European Union (EU) tell us otherwise. And these threats also have resonance here in South Africa.

The court ruling that President Jacob Zuma “could not have applied his mind” in his appointment of Menzi Simelane as head of Public Prosecutions has strengthened perceptions that democracy is under threat. His appointment of Willem Heath, who has now resigned amid controversy, to replace Willie Hofmeyr is further evidence of Zuma surrounding himself with toadies whilst his securocrats champion a new veil of secrecy under the banner of the Protection of Information Bill, otherwise known as the “Secrecy Bill”.

And so when Zuma and ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe raise the question of the courts becoming the new opposition to the ruling party, then the hysteria level amongst certain sections of the public goes up, as the picture of a growing threat to democracy becomes clearer.

Two things need to be said about this:

l One is that democracy should not be viewed a la Fukuyama’s End of History or the World Bank’s approach as a set of prescriptions, which simply code what a democracy is, “finish and klaar”. Instead it is a matter of constant contestation in which ordinary people either actively engage in and expand its terrain – or their power and choices become more and more constrained by powerful and vested elites (whatever the institutions and constitutions, which apparently codify their rights).

l Secondly, whilst Zuma’s coterie and the Protection of State Information Bill are threats to democracy, there are also threats from an entirely different quarter – one which we are all being uncritically invited to be part of. This is the notion that elected politicians are simply not fit to govern and that technical experts and bewigged judges are better.

Elsewhere in the world, we are seeing an attack on democracy of historic proportions and yet it goes on insidiously – like Niemöller’s reflections on Nazism – under the rubric of something apparently so rational: “doing what is necessary to satisfy the markets”.

There is a business media war on “politicians”, which echoes that of the ratings agencies and economists’ attacks on venal politicians. Suddenly politicians are the ones responsible for the crisis!

Of course everyone hates politicians, but what does this mean for democracy?

There are two possible trajectories here. One is to seek ways to expand public power and accountability over politicians, and the other is to dispense with politicians and any semblance of democracy at all, and merely hand over all decision-making to the bankers and let Goldman Sachs, technocrats and economists run the show.

This latter trajectory is the story today of the EU and the rise of the “technocrats” into power in Greece and Italy where unelected people, ex-bankers, carry out the wishes of banks and fund managers against whatever electorates may have voted for.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have succeeded in getting 26 members of the EU to agree to revise the Lisbon treaty. Britain’s Prime Minister, David Cameron, opted out because British politics is all about protecting its bankers and speculators who occupy the financial square mile in London known as The City.

In terms of their plans, the European Commission will be empowered to impose austerity measures on Eurozone members that are being bailed out, usurping the functions of government in countries such as Greece, Ireland and Portugal. Bailed out countries can also be stripped of their voting rights in the EU, under the proposals.

The European Central Bank (ECB) will now be able to act in Europe like the IMF used to act in Africa – effectively become the force of governance, whilst leaving local politicians with being little more than rentiers and ceremonial figureheads. The ECB is effectively an arm of German and French interests, which is why Cameron could not countenance subjecting The City to its regulation.

No one knows, or cares what the French, German, Italian, Greek or British people think about this.

When a new EU constitution was first mooted, countries like France, Ireland and Holland had the boldness to say that they would submit the draft to referenda in their countries, to ask the people what they wanted. When the vote was overwhelmingly a rejection, the whole enterprise was threatened.

So this time there is no talk of consulting the masses. It’s an exercise that, of course, would never “satisfy the markets”. This is what outgoing Greek Prime Minister, George Papandreou, discovered when he spoke about having a referendum to find out whether the Greek public actually agreed with the idea that they must privatise utilities, cut hospitals and schools so that the bankers can get a return on their gambling in the bond market. That was the end of his political career.

Today Greece is a vassal state of Germany and the ECB, acting on behalf of the speculators who bought Greek bonds, but who are now deemed to be “too big to fail”.

Meanwhile, Mario Monti, the new, unelected, Prime Minister of Italy and former ECB technocrat – in the same year that a referendum in Italy gave an overwhelming no vote when the disgraced Berlusconi conducted a referendum on these matters – has just announced a new raft of measures under which people will work longer, pay more VAT and public services are cut and privatised.

The thrust of the responses to the global crisis of capitalism so far is not only more of the same – the consolidation of the banks and the rating agencies and their tame right wing economists that got us into the mess in the first place – but also a war on whatever imperfect forms of democracy have existed up to now.

Instead of the crisis providing a basis for seeking alternatives to capitalism and expanding the terrain of democracy we are seeking the opposite, not because there is a lack of ideas globally to do anything different but because there is as yet no social force, which can compel the elites to do anything different.

Of course such a social force is being re-born. The Latin American social movement tide of the noughties has jumped continents and we now see the ongoing Arab Spring of Tunisia and Egypt and its power to challenge long-entrenched elites. Elsewhere the indignant of Spain and Greece and the Occupy Wall Street movements are part of the same tide of public engagement.

But this is a movement still far from directly challenging the citadels of power. This is a movement rising up out of the ashes of decades of defeat since the 1980s, a period of mass disaffection with politics and neo-liberal triumphalism masquerading as common sense.

Even in Egypt that movement is finding that the enemy is hydra-like, with the toppling of Mubarak yielding the equally violent military and the first elections throwing up religious zealots. And so while the movement is growing, its transformative possibilities are still the music of the future.

Meanwhile, the global economic crisis is leading not so much to new forms of public power and popular accountability, but to rule by technocrats, with a compliant business media happy to serve as cheer leaders.

This has its South African echoes. Already we are one of the few countries in the world with a privatised independent Reserve Bank making decisions on public well-being. Already whilst there are ongoing public criticisms of Zuma’s democratic credentials, Pravin Gordhan’s decisions are unquestioned. While there was a justifiable outcry against the Information Bill not having a public interest clause there was no clamour for such a public interest provision when the Competition Commission gave its go-ahead for Wal-Mart to muscle into South Africa. The media were aghast that politicians should interfere in a business deal.

Back to Zuma who “could not have applied his mind” in the appointment of Simelane and the statements by Mantashe about the courts becoming the new opposition. This has resulted in much rallying behind the courts and the perception that Mantashe’s comments are entirely threatening to democracy.

In this scenario, the Constitution and courts are seen to be inviolate, experts in the field, the final moral arbiter. But this is factually incorrect. The courts only arbitrate against the law as the yardstick and the Constitutional Court only pronounces in respect of the Constitution, while the Constitution derives its authority from a particular balance of forces in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Back then, lest we forget, we had a mass movement that had the moral legitimacy without the capacity to overthrow apartheid, whilst the apartheid regime had lost moral authority but continued to have the violent power of repression. Out of that configuration flowed the best of the Constitution and the pre-eminence of the Constitutional Court as the final arbiter. But out of the same configuration flowed the checks and balances on democracy and redistribution that the old order wanted – heightened provincial powers, the obligation to honour apartheid debt, corporations as juristic persons etc. Much of the acting out of that balance was to be the subject of actual judicial decisions – which meant that the staffing of the judiciary, particularly in the Constitutional Court was going to be critical. Which is why we had a mix of human rights and struggle-aligned lawyers – fortunately the ones appointed into the Constitutional Court – within a pool of apartheid jurors and Bantustan prosecutors in other courts.

Now, we are witnessing the end of that phase of human rights lawyers. People like Edwin Cameron and Arthur Chaskalson have made way for the emergence of those who have no human rights backgrounds but who earned their spurs in the institutions of apartheid, such as Llewellyn Landers and Mogoeng Mogoeng. Will these be the new arbiters of morality in the land?

With all these caveats it is an important democratic victory that we have the forms of protection against state abuse of citizens that the courts can offer. But the democracy of a truly engaged people should be the highest form of protection, as well as the possibilities of popular power.

If the choice is between flawed and venal elected politicians and sophisticated technocrats satisfying the markets, I’m for the politicians any day.

In this sense, Mantashe is right. In the absence of an effective political opposition to the ANC – not an opposition which positions itself even more on the side of technocrats and satisfying the markets (which, given that these are also the ANC government’s pre-occupations) is no opposition at all – there is a growing middle class tide of celebrating the courts as the bastion of defence of democracy. This hides the real cause of the problem.

This vacuum is a challenge to all of us. Instead of seeking technocratic and judicial saviours, we need to accept responsibility for the current unchallenged status of the ANC and for the compliant nature of its alliance partners, and build a new movement of expanded democracy.

There was an old struggle slogan that used to be shouted at the funerals of activists killed by the apartheid forces: Don’t mourn…mobilise!

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Architects of a currency in crisis

Sunday, January 1st, 2012

PARIS – Ten years ago Saturday, the European Union celebrated the launch of the first euro coins and notes with fireworks, parties and solemn speeches.

Today, several members are on the edge of bankruptcy. First-world Europe is reduced to asking the IMF and China for help. The euro itself is at risk of unraveling.

How could it all have gone so wrong?

In a series of interviews with architects of the euro – a former president, a former prime minister, two former finance ministers, a former central banker, a former EU commissioner and a former EU Affairs minister – common explanations emerged.

The single currency would not have sparked the euro zone debt crisis, they argued, if the pro-European dynamic that led to its creation had continued into its first decade. But instead of launching an economic and political integration of Europe, the low interest rates and easy money that arrived with the euro led peripheral states on a path of profligacy, widening the gap with frugal, export-oriented economies of the north.

Meanwhile, as rapid enlargement made EU decision-making more cumbersome and as citizens’ enthusiasm for Europe waned, EU leaders hollowed out the authority of the European Commission, the union’s chief executive body and guardian of its treaties and of fiscal probity.

Most of all, some of the architects now admit that after the first few euphoric years, it became clear the euro itself was a flawed concept, laying a single currency over a group of countries that stuck to national sovereignty over their economies.

The euro was a dare from the get-go. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously spurned the currency as unworkable and a threat to sovereignty; Sweden stayed out, too. Euro boosters themselves pushed ahead with the project despite sharing misgivings about its inherent political and economic flaws.

“One thing was evident to me from the beginning,” said Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the European Parliament’s Alliance of Liberals and Democrats, Belgian prime minister from 1999 to 2008, and one of Europe’s most federalist politicians. “A state can exist without a currency, but a currency cannot exist without a state.”

From union to disunion

One of the driving forces of European integration is former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing. Now 85, he resides in a stately Parisian townhouse filled with museum-quality 18th-century furniture.

As president from 1974 to 1981, Giscard, with German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, helped create the European Monetary System and the European Council summits of EU leaders. Early last decade, he chaired the drafting of the European Constitution that later became the Lisbon Treaty, which governs EU institutions as they function today.

For Giscard, one of the key reasons for today’s euro zone debt crisis is the EU enlargement of the past decade, in particular in 2004, when 10 countries – mostly former East Bloc nations – joined the European Union. “By the time the euro was introduced, the group was no longer homogeneous,” Giscard said in an interview.

The European Union now counts 27 members and is set to receive a 28th – Croatia – in 2013. Enlargement has made the European institutions hard to govern, he says, notably the executive European Commission, which has a commissioner for every member country.

The crisis erupted first in Greece. Giscard, a hellenophile, did as much as anyone to bring Athens into the European Union. He championed its EU candidacy at a crucial moment in 1979, fending off German objections and European Commission reservations at the time against admitting the country just seven years after the fall of its military junta.

Greece joined what was then called the European Economic Community in 1981. Two decades later, in 2001, it joined the euro.

Standing in his ballroom-sized entrance hall, decorated with deer antlers and two enormous elephant tusks, Giscard now voices the unthinkable: Greece should consider leaving the euro.

Giscard said that a deflation, or economy-wide drop in prices, of 40 or 50 percent would be necessary to restore competitiveness if Greece remains in the euro. That is probably too hard for its citizens to bear, which makes a euro exit and consequent devaluation a more acceptable outcome.

The Greek people need to study “seriously and honestly” whether to go back to the drachma or stay in the euro. “It’s a Greek choice.”

Walks with a limp

On the other side of the French political spectrum is Michel Sapin, 59, who was finance minister in a Socialist government from 1992 to 1993 and dealt with Europe’s foreign exchange crisis of the early nineties. He is likely to hold a senior office if Socialist Francois Hollande beats conservative incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy in the April-May presidential election.

To Sapin, the euro zone’s problems stem from a fundamental design flaw in the 1992 pact that created the European Union and led to the euro, the Maastricht Treaty.

“The Maastricht Treaty was built on two pillars. The monetary pillar has been an extraordinary success, because, say what you want, there is no monetary crisis – the euro is strong,” he said. “The second pillar was the economic government. We knew from the start we had to build a second pillar for economic, budget and fiscal matters, because countries cannot share the same currency if they have divergent economic policies.”

European Investment Bank President Philip Maystadt, a veteran of EU monetary integration, could not agree more. He took part in the Maastricht Treaty negotiations as Belgian finance minister from 1988 to 1998. He recalls that Germany at the time was suspicious of unified economic government, fearing it would impinge on the independence of the future European Central Bank. But protecting the bank’s independence was not a good reason to abandon the concept of economic governance, he said.

“(Former European Commission President) Jacques Delors said the single currency walked with a limp – it had one strong leg, the monetary part, and one weak leg, the economic governance,” he said. “Clearly, this ersatz economic government was utterly insufficient.” TURNING POINT

European leaders were aware of the shortcomings of Maastricht. They spent two years negotiating the 1997 Stability and Growth Pact, which threatens escalating sanctions on states that fail to limit annual deficits to three percent of GDP and outstanding debt to 60 percent of GDP.

But the focus on these two indicators meant that other measures of economic health, such as private debt, wage costs and the current account balance, were ignored.

As a result, EU finance ministers overlooked the build-up of tensions in the Irish and Spanish economies. Their public finances looked to be in excellent shape by Maastricht Treaty standards, until Ireland’s banking crisis and the Spanish real estate collapse. Those implosions forced authorities to turn private debt into public debt, wrecking their nations’ finances.

Imperfect as it was, the Stability Pact was the one mechanism that could have kept the single currency on the rails. But it was discarded the first time it was tested.

When the 2002-2003 economic crisis pushed French and German public finance indicators beyond Maastricht limits, the two big EU nations cast it aside. Exceptions were made, and in 2005 the pact’s provisions were watered down further.

“That was a real turning point. When the other finance ministers saw what France and Germany were getting away with, that’s when they said, ‘Ah, ok, we don’t have to respect the Stability Pact’,” Maystadt said.

In the debt-fueled prosperity of the first half decade of this century, this did not seem to matter. Euro zone interest rates were low, growth was fast, stock markets went up. At the start of the decade it looked like the lack of policy coordination would only cause member states’ economies to be a bit out of sync.

From around 2004 that changed. It became obvious that two very different models were cutting Europe in two: export-oriented manufacturing with strong wage control in the north, and debt-financed consumption in the south.

Books have been written about this trend, but a picture says more than a thousand words: the charts of net foreign assets and current account balances in north and south look like mirror images.

The combined net foreign assets of Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria and Finland grew more than four-fold to nearly two trillion euros by the end of the decade, as their current account surplus swelled to more than six percent of GDP, according to figures from Thomson Reuters Datastream and French investment bank Natixis.

But net foreign debt in France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Portugal and Ireland grew to more than 1.5 trillion euros as the southern zone’s current account deficit widened to around four percent.

“When we voted the Maastricht Treaty, it was with the firm intention to continue on the path of political integration. Then there was a sort of sigh of relief when we saw that, actually, the single currency could work without it,” said Sapin, the former French finance minister. “It has taken us ten years to understand that it could not.”

After a decade of defying common sense and with their countries’ credit ratings crumbling, euro zone leaders are finally admitting that Maastricht was flawed.

In a letter to European Council President Herman Van Rompuy before the December 9 EU summit, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel made a remarkable admission: “The current crisis has uncovered the deficiencies in the construction of (European monetary union) mercilessly.”

Commission defanged

The letter does not mention how Sarkozy and Merkel, and their predecessors Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroder, gradually undermined the foundations of economic governance that earlier generations of EU leaders built.

One of the oldest debates in the European Union is over who should drive EU affairs: the supranational body that is the European Commission or by the heads of state or government of its member nations, represented in the European Council. First created as an informal discussion forum in 1974, the Council formally became an EU institution in 2009 as part of the Lisbon Treaty reforms.

During the long reign of Jacques Delors – three successive terms, from 1985 to 1994 – the Commission played a leading role. With the backing of socialist French President Francois Mitterrand, under whom he had been a finance minister, Delors drove a strong federal agenda, often clashing with eurosceptic EU leaders, most famously with Margaret Thatcher.

The Delors Commission created the single market, shepherded the Maastricht Treaty and set the continent on track for the single currency. None of his successors would have that kind of influence again.

“After Delors’ departure, the EU leaders did not want such an active Commission president again. They wanted someone who would not bother them,” said Yves-Thibault de Silguy, who was commissioner for economic, monetary and financial affairs in the 1995-99 Jacques Santer commission.

Santer, then prime minister of Luxembourg, was chosen after the UK had vetoed the candidacy of Belgian Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene, saying he represented an outdated tradition of centralism and “big government”.

“What happened was a progressive loss of confidence in the very thing that had made Europe successful: the community method,” de Silguy said.

Under this method, an independent European Commission makes proposals to the Council and the European Parliament, and implements them once they are approved.

But in the past decade, governments clipped the Commission’s wings year after year, in favour of an “intergovernmental” approach whereby governments make decisions for the Commission to execute, often in ad-hoc summits that rubber-stamp decisions prepared in an even closer circle of French and German leaders.

Intergovernmental decision-making itself is a source of delay and dilution, as it requires unanimity, giving each member state a blocking veto.

De Silguy said the intergovernmental approach explains a lot of today’s problems and is particularly inappropriate for economic matters.

“Europe needs fluid and homogenous markets, with a policeman to make sure the rules are obeyed, and that policeman is the European Commission. The entire European construct is based on that premise,” he said.

In October 2001, a group of elder statesmen led by Delors and including former German chancellors Helmut Kohl and Helmut Schmidt raised the alarm, criticising their successors’ growing tendency to bypass the Commission and micro-manage EU affairs. To no avail.

Giscard sums it up like this: “The Commission murmurs in Brussels and nobody listens.”

European hangover

The German and French leaders who bucked Brussels, to be sure, had a sound argument for doing so.

Their nations have the euro zone’s largest and second-largest economies and populations, respectively. But the European Commission gives each of the 27 nations one representative. That ties down Germany and France like Gulliver to their Lilliputian neighbors – a non-starter for their peoples.

“The problem with the Commission is that the Baltic states have a bigger weight than Germany,” said Giscard. “That is not reasonable.”

Indeed, the EU leaders’ increasingly nationalistic stance went hand in hand with a growing disenchantment of the European public with the federal ideal, as can be read from the EU’s “Eurobarometer” opinion polls.

Since 1974, the EU has asked citizens twice a year whether they think their country’s EU membership is “a good thing”. The percentage of people agreeing with that slipped from 63 percent in 1975 to 50 percent in 1981, the year Mitterrand was elected French president.

From 1981, positive feeling about European integration rose non-stop for a decade, to hit an all-time high of 71 percent in 1991, the year before the Maastricht Treaty was signed.

But in 60 years of European construction, the eighties and early nineties were the exception to a general climate of reluctant stop-and-go integration.

After Maastricht, pro-European feeling fell off a cliff, with the number of people considering their countries’ EU membership a good thing falling to an all-time low of 46 percent in the spring of 1997.

The launch of the euro as an accounting currency in 1999 and the arrival of the euro notes and coins in 2002 restored good feeling for a few years. But the rejection of the European Constitution in French and Dutch referendums in 2005 showed the tide had turned again.

Pro-European feeling slid from 59 percent in a Continent-wide poll in autumn 2004 to 50 percent in autumn 2005 and to 47 percent in spring 2011. It will likely hit a new all-time low in the next wave of measurement, according to an official involved with the poll. BRIDGE OF DISCORD

With a flawed single currency, an emasculated EU Commission, and an increasingly eurosceptic public, the euro zone would have hit a bump sooner or later.

But there was one euro side-effect that magnified all the other problems.

Besides being a medium of exchange, an accounting unit and a store of value, a currency is also a feedback mechanism for economic policy.

If a country’s policies are lax, and spending and wages are out of control, then its currency weakens and its interest rates rise, forcing the government to correct course with a devaluation or austerity programmes. With one currency for many states, devaluation is no longer an option.

The introduction of the euro brought a stable exchange rate, low interest rates and a flow of money to southern European countries that for decades had used devaluation as their main policy adjustment factor.

This caused speculative bubbles in real estate and banking, pushed up wages to uncompetitive levels, and led to a build-up of debt that in 2010 began to collapse.

One of the few founding fathers to have clearly articulated the euro’s flaws was Otmar Issing, the German former European Central Bank chief economist and board member. In a 1996 paper, he warned that inherent in the currency was the potential for requiring transfers of cash from wealthier states to poorer ones. That could spark political tensions, he warned. “There is no example in history of a lasting monetary union that was not linked to a state entity,” Issing wrote.

Fifteen years later he recalls that the warning signals appeared very early in the euro’s life – divergences in labor costs among euro members, the violation of the budget-deficit cap. “What I didn’t foresee was the dimension of the crisis,” he told Reuters.

Another thing few forecast was the degree of discord the euro-zone crisis would engender: the EU flag being burnt in Athens, Greek street theatre portraying German leaders as Nazis, and a French socialist politician comparing Angela Merkel to Otto von Bismarck, who unified Germany by waging war on France.

In this climate, Europe’s far-right parties have flourished, and few more than France’s Front National, led by Marine Le Pen. She is running for president in the 2012 election on a pledge to take France out of the euro.

With an acute sense of history, Le Pen organised a little ceremony at the river Seine. On September 6 this year, Le Pen and activists of her party threw fake 500 euro notes off the Pont de la Concorde, which connects Place de la Concorde, site of the guillotine used for public executions during the French Revolution, to the French parliament.

“I will put an immediate end to all bail-outs of countries that have fallen victim to the euro,” said Le Pen in front of a wall of cameras. “It is time for France to rediscover its national interest.”

In the months ahead, as today’s leaders hammer out a new treaty for deeper integration, they will have the voices of their predecessors ringing in their ears.

“The call for a more federal Europe has never been stronger than today, not out of conviction, but out of necessity,” said Verhofstadt, the fomer Belgian prime minister. “I hope we make the jump. If we dither, we’ll end up in the ravine.”

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