Europe’s last sick man


Greek austerity measures result in cuts of public sectors services with one exception – the police force
Nikolas Kosmatopoulos

Greece increased its police force with 2,000 policemen and recently bought new anti-riot equipment [EPA]

In the old days of the European colonial expansion eastwards, the Great Powers (England, France, Russia, and Austria) would rack their heads over the fate of what they called “the sick man of Europe”: The Ottoman Empire, whose bankruptcy – among other things – had brought it to the brink of collapse.
Agitated by the effects (and the opportunities) of such a scenario, the Powers embarked on a self-declared mission to protect their fellow Christian subjects of the Sultan from the sick man’s viruses. They demanded independence for the rebellious Greeks and when the Ottomans refused, the Powers dispatched their armies.
At the famous sea battle of Navarino, a joint European fleet crashed the Ottoman and Egyptian forces. The road was thus opened for Europe’s intellectuals to rediscover post-Ottoman Greece as Hellas, the invented historical birthplace of European civilisation.
Today, ten years before Greece’s bicentennial anniversary of independence, history repeats itself as a farce. The country’s dire economy could endanger the very unity of the European Union. “A member’s exodus will be disastrous for the entire EU,” warned Germany’s Chancellor Merkel in reference to Greece. To be sure, the Greek crisis has quickly transformed itself into the crisis of Europe.

It is telling that for the first time in the EU’s history, decisions about a Eurozone country are taken by European politicians and bankers together with the Washington-HQed IMF. At the same time, Turkey, the descendant of the Ottoman Empire, negotiates EU full membership. Today, Hellas is (said to be) Europe’s “sick man”; and the Big Powers of our times seem to have run out of remedies.

Who to blame: Culture vs economy

Despite global attention and exposure, public debate on the Greek crisis is mostly superficial, moralising, and crudely vindictive. On the whole, it oscillates between “internalist” (culturalist/psychological) and “externalist” (economistic) accounts; on one hand, internalists, proponents of neo-liberal globalisation, see Greece as lacking crucial psycho-cultural virtues: Citizens’ respect to the state and the law, a sense of “civil duties”, meritocracy, friendliness towards entrepreneurship etc.

For them, the austerity plans crafted by the “troika” (EU, IMF, European Central Bank) are a blessing against the Greeks’ rebellious and corrupt character; “Thank God we have the troika,” in the words of the vice president and finance minister, Venizelos. On the other hand, the externalist view – a peculiar mixture of social-patriotic and anti-Western discourse – presents the Greek economy as a mere victim of the world economy and global capitalism (and their local lackeys at home).

Although it may be right to reject culturalist explanations, the fixation on the (national) economy turns crucial topics, such as the consumerist frenzy of the past decades, the growing anti-immigrant sentiments despite the latter’s immense contribution to the country’s wealth, the on-going arms’ race with Turkey, etc. into taboo.

Unfortunately, there is hardly an analysis that touches upon all these interconnected elements. Instead, the debate is dominated either by narrow-headed economists, or by politicians-turned-inquisitors, now distributing guilt, instead of welfare, to the entire nation.

‘Who is ruling this place?’

“It is the ‘troika’ that not only dictates the austerity measures and directs the financial policy, but it also places its own inspectors in each important ministry with the task of overseeing decisions and results.

This famous question, initially posed by Prime Minister Karamanlis in 1963 (alluding to para-state criminal gangs, responsible for the assassination of pro-democracy activist Lambrakis) is once again invoked daily in the streets and coffee shops around the country. This time though, the answer appears more obvious than ever: It is the troika that not only dictates the austerity measures and directs the financial policy, but it also places its own inspectors in each important ministry with the task of overseeing decisions and results.

Ironically, high level members of the ruling Socialist Party, which came to power for the first time in 1981 with the promise of independence, welcome this takeover with schizophrenic expressions of relief: “Now that we have been placed under (troika’s) control, we can regain national control,” said Venizelos.

Yet, control proves to be only an illusion, since no one, government or troika, seems to have a plan.

In fact, everything demonstrates the exact opposite, namely a generalised loss of control, and of credibility: Government promises that the recent package of austerity measures will be the last one break every week; the newly set-up Bureau of Statistics in the Parliament was rocked by a series of resignations, legal suits and scandals over “cooking with numbers”; the new academic year begun, but only to reveal schools without teachers and schoolchildren without books; and the aggressive privatisation programme has not yielded results.

A sick man’s ‘foreign policy’?

The handling of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla by the Cypriot government in 2010 and by the Greek government in 2011 surprised many as both countries were known for the pro-Palestinian sentiments of their people. In 2010, the government of Cyprus banned the ships from approaching its shores and sent its police and port authorities to chase European MPs willing to board them.

A year later, the Greek government imposed an illegal embargo on the next Flotilla. Only a few weeks later, these moves proved to be part of the broader sea change in the region. Greece and Cyprus decided to engage in a strategic cooperation with Israel on a number of levels: Economy, police and military, intelligence exchange etc.

[The handling of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla] proved to be part of the broader sea change in the region. Greece and Cyprus decided to engage in strategic cooperation with Israel on a number of levels.”

One can only speculate on the reasons behind the warm embracement of Netanyahu’s Israel by Papandreou, the son of the very prime minister who sent Greek ships to carry the PLO out of besieged Beirut in 1982:

The rift between Turkey and Israel (the myopic principle “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” comes to bear), Papandreou’s total submission to the US (in exchange for the position of UN Secretary General for the next term, rumours have it), Freudian psycho-analysis (his problematic relationship with daddy, rumours again) and strategic interests, such as the exploitation of the Exclusive Economic Zones between Greece, Cyprus and Israel. The latter is the official explanation.

The latest outcome of this pact is currently played out in the waters around Cyprus, whose government insists on drilling in search of natural gas now, and for oil later. Papandreou announced that Greece will also drill for oil around Crete and in the Ionian Sea.

Such drills pose great risks: First and foremost, to the sensitive environment of the closed Mediterranean sea, in which any accident, even half as that of BP in Mexico, will create unprecedented ecological disasters. Second, to the delicate geo-political balance in the region, since the unilateral drawing of EEZ boundaries and the subsequent search for oil without the consent of neighbouring countries such as Egypt, Turkey, Libya, Lebanon and Syria could increase tensions dangerously.

Already, Prime Minister Erdogan declared that Turkey’s warships will escort similar drills to begin in North Cyprus’ waters soon; In response, the Greek Army began drafting soldiers to send to Cyprus and the Greek press predicts the increase in military service from nine to twelve months.

This escalation is not to be underestimated. Not the least because both Greece (due to economy) and Israel (due to the Arab revolts) have suffered significant losses of ground in their regional footing lately. There is nothing more dangerous than a government in panic siding with a government in constant war with its neighbours. The best outcome of such an alliance is a renewed arms race in the region; the worst is an all-out war.

Greeks protesting against the austerity measures are treated roughly by the security forces [GALLO/GETTY]

The war is here: State coercion and civil disobedience

Yet, for many households in Greece, the war is already here: In the form of daily struggle against poverty and humiliation. Social workers quote WHO sources depicting Greece as the first country worldwide in suicides’ increase (20 per cent rise in 2008 and 2009, compared to 2007).

In the Parliament, the secretary general of the Communist Party called upon “the people to declare war against the war that the government has already declared against them.” And when Papandreou travelled to Thesaloniki for the traditional speech at the opening of the International Trade Fair, the city mayor (supported by the ruling party) complained that the deployment of 7,000 police forces created “a war atmosphere” in the city.

The government’s major weapons in this undeclared, but on-going war, are mainly twofold: Blackmail over bankruptcy and brute state violence. The dilemma ‘austerity or bankruptcy’ keeps returning on a weekly basis to justify new measures: Tax on properties, rise of indirect taxes, cuts in pensions and salaries, sacking of public employees, fast-track privatisation of (often profitable) public companies etc. Yet, not all the public sector suffers cuts.

“US officers train Greek colleagues in ’emergency situations’, anti-riot equipment … [is] imported en masse.

Amidst new austerity measures, the government announced the buffing up of police forces with another 2,000 men; in fact, the police is the only public domain that seems to escape austerity: While US officers train Greek colleagues in ’emergency situations’, anti-riot equipment, such as water cannons, riot tanks, dogs, and new tear gas types are imported en masse from Greece’s new strategic friends in the region and beyond.

However, opinion polls show the blackmail strategy inadequate and mass protests often render police repression insufficient. On the face of these failures, it is worrisome to think that stirring up nationalist fervour against Turkey is not just the effect of the sick man’s dementia but rather a carefully selected strategy to divert growing frustration at home.

Indeed, on the face of broken promises and police brutality, new forms of civil disobedience emerge: The movement of the ‘squares’ may have subsided, but by the time these lines are being written, more than 200 university departments are on strike, and the Deans of 15 out of 19 big universities refused to sign the new law on higher education; the electricity company’s trade union declared that it will not collect the imposed tax on property that the government wants to pass onto the electricity bill; further, more and more people are joining the popular committees of the movement ‘I don’t pay’, that engages in a handful of practices of civil disobedience, ranging from openings of highway tolls and blocking of ticketing machines in buses and train stations, to disruptions of auctions in which banks sell back houses they acquired due to mortgage debts.

Undoubtedly, the ‘cradle of democracy’ is once again pregnant with history. However, it is still open whether the projected baby will help bring forth another Europe, based on direct democracy and social justice, or a catastrophic regional war in the Middle East or something in-between.

In any case, Europe’s latest sick man this time could very much determine Europe’s future.

Nikolas Kosmatopoulos is a PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of Zurich. He has conducted fieldwork on peace expertise in Lebanon and Geneva and is now visiting scholar at Columbia University and at CUNY.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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