The government has to stop taxing people and is in need of a long term plan, liberating entrepreneurs and also modernizing the public sector through technology and more qualified personnel. Social cohesion is eroding when there is no trust between the people and the state, but instead exertion and pressure.
This interview was conducted with Elina Makri, Journalist, Co-Founder and Media Project Manager of C.A.R.L. (Computer Assisted Reporting Laboratory) and the Youth Investigative Journalism Prize. Furthermore she moderated the #EuropeanTownHall Meeting in Athens. In addition Elina is engaged in numerous international networking and journalism platforms such as Dialoggers.eu. She has studied Law at the Université du Droit et de la Santé in Lille and European and International Law at the Université catholique de Louvain.
The financial crisis and the so-called euro crisis have had serious implications for the social structure of Greece. We are particularly interested in the current status of social cohesion: How has the economic crisis influenced social and economic disparities or discrepancies in your country?
Several youngsters chose to leave the country and to go elsewhere to work, others transferred their money abroad in a legal way and companies closed or transferred their seat in another country. Those phenomena are not only happening in Greece but they are accelerated in a country during a financial crisis. Then, those remained who chose to accept the situation, love life in Greece or could not move fast enough.
A big part of the middle class impoverishes with no flexibility. There was and still is a tsunami of taxes and no time to adjust to new measures like for example selling the property. The market is frozen. Goods get more expensive while salaries are dropping. I, for example, am working more than ten years ago and my income is decreasing instead of increasing, while my expenses rise and prices and taxes are getting higher. It is natural that people will get aggressive. They have changed all sorts of government (except far right, the nationalists) and nothing has improved, on the opposite, it is getting worse. To give an example: On the first day of the New Year, I invited friends to my home for the first lunch of the year along with my family. All of them are in their early thirties: lawyers, a pilot, people working in the private insurance industry and others.. The discussion turned to politics and we had a big debate. I was isolated. They left me standing and feeling like the fish that cannot see the water: “Thank god they can’t get us out of the galaxy. Every two months we are threatened to be kicked out of somewhere. First the Eurozone, then Schengen. Meanwhile, we have tested all governments, right, left, center; meanwhile economy and unemployment are getting worse, where do you see any sign of progress in this EU?”
In which way has the ongoing crisis affected the living standards, i.e. the risk of poverty or social exclusion for some groups?
When your obligations towards the state or “lenders” rise, but your rights diminish, then there is a clear deterioration of the living standards in terms of financial capacity. Payments are delayed; nevertheless the state needs you to pay taxes, but doesn’t care if you have the money to pay. And what they say about entrepreneurship as a solution is a carrot. There is no reason for a rational entrepreneur to open a business just in order to pay taxes, when you are at the same time having all the struggle that accompanies entrepreneurial life and are obliged to share your income with a state that just demands. On the other hand, Greeks love life, they are going out and in case you visit Greece, you will see the streets full of people. So people spend what they have.
The middle class and the weaker parts of the society were clearly affected most by the crisis.
When taxes are rising, the middle class is affected, no matter whether they are liberal professionals, pensioners or employees. And of course the poorer parts of the society are affected, the most vulnerable people, as prices are getting higher and purchasing power diminishes. Also thanks to an unnecessary rise of the value-added tax. This controversial reform introduced by the government is fatal, once more. They ask us to work in order to pay the state, no matter how much we gain. At the same time, there aren’t a lot of opportunities for work out there. So, once again, those measures will boost the black market and the shadow economy.
You already mentioned that qualified people are looking for a new perspective in other countries than Greece, the so called ‘brain drain’. How does this affect the economic situation in your country right now?
Greeks were always travelling, their history was about trading and there was a time when they were scattered around the Mediterranean Sea like frogs around the lake. The drawback of the brain drain is that the best and most creative minds want to leave with no plans of coming back. That is a huge loss of capital! During the first years of the crisis, you are romantic and you say “We will fight and come back to help the country!”. But after two or three years a fatigue starts.
Besides brain drain, what about the people that chose to stay here? I am based in Athens and I have been and still am, very active professionally. I started many projects and founded two companies that I closed. I have frozen plans to open a new one, because I see no point to open up something to feed the state taxes. How many people are thinking like that? A lot! So, naturally, this affects the country and its economy in a very negative way.
You are part of the younger generation in Greece, mainly not responsible for events or actions that have been among the triggers of the current crisis. How can the relation between the young generation and the one of your parents be described? Are there any conflicts i.e. within families or society in general in this context, maybe even an intergenerational crisis? Or is domestic solidarity a key issue in your country?
Of course there are conflicts, major ones! You cannot teach an old horse a new walking and at the same time you wonder why it cannot adapt to it. Also, the generation of 65+ has fewer arrows in their quiver. They are tired. So it’s up to the children to sustain them. And this is happening.
Domestic solidarity exists because southern societies have close family bonds, but at the same time this huge gap in mentality of doing things exists. This hides dangers as well. Even though younger people understand that the senior generation participated in something which was not viable, it doesn’t mean they see the Troika as savior “partners”. We have an expression in Modern Greek that came out of Odyssey: being between Scylla and Charybdis, two mythical sea monsters noted by Homer, is an idiom deriving from Greek mythology, meaning “having to choose between two evils”. One could think it is an overstatement, but I guess you can say that the younger Greek generation reflects somehow the situation of Greece itself: isolated.
What measures could the government implement to foster social cohesion within the society? And what role does the EU play in this regard?
The government has to stop taxing people and is in need of a long term plan, liberating entrepreneurs and also modernizing the public sector through technology and more qualified personnel. Social cohesion is eroding when there is no trust between the people and the state, but instead exertion and pressure. Then, EU and IMF should have abstained from asking more to do from every past and current Prime Minister. One day, we will head into new elections and the EU country ambassadors will once again ask themselves: “Why didn’t we see this coming?” Looking back with a safe distance, it was fatal to ask from Samaras in 2014 more and more things to do to a society and economy that was about to recover.
I have little hope that EU leadership has any real understanding of the situation on the ground. And let’s just take another example: the refugee crisis. Until this new crisis, I was a little bit like: “Well, whatever the rest of European leaders are saying, they are right. It’s Greek politicians’ fault.” But when I saw what really happened with the refugees and interviewed the head of the Greek police responsible for controlling the borders, he told me exactly this: “European leadership was reluctant to accept the changes in its borders. Back in 2014, it was the first time after 20 years that the influx of migrants reaching Europe with a refugee profile was almost equal with the influx of refugees having an economic profile. It was evident that Europe would face a problem. Leaders knew it, they just didn’t want to deal with it. And now they threaten to kick Greece out of Schengen even though we, as Greek police, in accordance with the Schengen code, are not allowed to exercise any preventive measures on people escaping conflicts!” And at the end of the day, we still have the blame game and the pontification from countries like Austria with not even a single mile of sea, trying to lecture Greece, a country with 13.676 kilometers of coastline – half the size of the entire African continent -, on how to protect its blue borders.
What is your assessment of the current German-Greek relations and what could the German government do to strengthen and renew the ties between both countries? How do you evaluate the development of those relations throughout the past few years?
Between Greece and Germany, the war – which is historically not too far away – has left many scars that affect how Greek society sees every German leadership. In contrast to the other countries of Southern Europe, Greece had a serious war fight with Germany. Italy withdrew from the war, Turkey and the Balkans were persuaded that Greece would lose the fight and had already clear plans on how they will divide the trophy-country. History had other plans. Today Germany is looked at with admiration in Europe. In Greece, Germany is not considered to be very admirable. There is a rational admiration for the economic performance and the administrative efficiency and the Greek intelligentsia recognizes that Germans were the deep thinkers of Europe, but in the collective consciousness, the scenario that Germany wants to pontificate on the others still prevails.
Greeks are not so easy going with these matters. I am aware of the German-Greek Youth Office, but Greeks perceive it more as a PR move than an authentic cause to engage with us. Like putting gold around the pill. I think that culture is a way to communicate with Greeks. Culture explains attitudes and therefore finally life. There is a great article of the Financial Times named “How Goethe’s masterpiece is shaping Europe”. I refer very often to this when I want to explain the German soul and their traumas to Greek people. Suddenly, you see people changing their minds rethinking their position. This kind of journalist approach is excellent, but it was a British publication. We rarely read this kind of articles in the Greek and German press. Both press scenes talk to themselves, not explaining or talking to the other population.
Do you see any similarities concerning social cohesion and related problems regarding the situation in other southern European countries?
In comparison to Spain, for example – and of course all the other southern countries except Portugal – Greece is smaller, in terms of population and economy and has a totally different history, which also plays an important role. If one takes a look in the Greek mythology and real life history, it is always about rebellions, contempt for the strong and a difficult and more capricious population to put in a box. People do not like to follow orders. If you add the geography as well, then you have a country of 9.000 islands and 70% mountains, uniquely situated in the crossroad of three continents and civilizations. Spain has no doubt that it belongs to the West. Greece has two heads. And probably that is the reason why it was and always is abundant of culture, attitude and civilization.