In the searing heat of a summer Sunday, Greece waited in resignation for finance ministers half a continent away to decide on a rescue package most thought would bring more humiliation for themselves and their country. – By Emma Graham-Harrison in Athens and Patrick Kingsleyin Thessaloniki – The Guardian
“I am old and uneducated but I know that when I was a kid I was proud to say I am Greek. I want the same thing for future generations,” said Charalabos Nikolaou, a 65-year-old selling snacks at a beach just outside the city. “But now the Europeans treat us like animals and our children will grow up in a destroyed country as prisoners, not citizens.”
Cafes and shops in Athens were mostly empty, except in the glitziest parts of the capital. Everywhere else the biggest crowds were gathered outside ATMs, waiting to get their daily ration of cash, which has effectively been cut to €50 from €60 because the banks have run out of smaller denomination notes.
For many people life has been put on hold while Europe’s leaders decide whether or not to offer Greece the bailout funds it needs to stay in the euro.
“I’ve cancelled my holiday, I was supposed to go next week,” said Giorgios Tzandis, who works in a tourist shop in Monastiraki market, selling olive oil and souvenirs from an alley with views of the Acropolis. “If they come to an agreement things will get a little better again, and maybe I will go. Everyone is just waiting now.”
Business has not been too badly affected because most of his customers are foreign tourists, but he has cut spending on everything but the basics, just in case the country does crash out of the euro.
“Then maybe I will be taking a very long holiday in my village,” he said with a laugh. “We worry, we wait. What else can we do?”
While the majority of Greeks say they want to stay inside the euro, and so reluctantly support the leftwing government’s unexpected last-minute embrace of new, harsh austerity measures, few think the country is getting even a half-decent deal.
“Greece does not deserve to pay what Europe is asking for the bailout,” said Natalia Maradou, a 30-year-old who is worried the multinational firm she works for will pull out of Greece because of the crisis. “We could ask for a better agreement if Greece wasn’t starving.”
The country’s creditors say the tax increases and service cuts are necessary to dig Greece out of a mountain of debt, built up and then concealed by earlier governments.
The costs though have been a shrinking economy, widespread impoverishment and devastating levels of unemployment. About half of young people are out of work, and a quarter of the population overall, and further deep cuts are unlikely to improve that.
“It’s a difficult situation. I want to stay in the euro but with jobs for all Greeks,” said Vasilis Kefalidis, a 47-year-old cameraman and sound engineer who has been unemployed since the television station he used to work for closed four years ago.
Educated and successful a few years ago, he is one of the thousands of Greeks who have been pitched out of the middle classes into a life of precarious poverty. His unemployment benefits stopped after a year, and now he scrapes by on a day or two of freelance work a month if he is lucky.
“In my craziest dreams I think maybe it can all get better,” he says, cooling off in a park with a friend who disagrees, saying those worst hit by austerity have been so cut off by the state, dependent on support from soup kitchens, charity clinics and other ad-hoc measures, that it makes little difference to them if there is a deal today or Greece decides to return to the drachma.
“There is no hope at all with this programme,” says Andreas Taseopolous. “It will be even harder for sure.”
On the beaches of eastern Thessaloniki, fury quickly rose to the surface. “He’s not human,” said Panagiotis Alexiadis, when asked about the German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble’s latest plan. “And the way he treats us is not human.”
Alexiadis, a pensioner, was setting up the tables outside his children’s beach-side cafe. He used to work for the state telecoms company, but came out of retirement to “work unpaid for my children because they can’t afford to pay anyone else.” European politicians think the Greeks are lazy, he says. “But Mr Schäuble should know that I am 67 years old and I have been working since I was nine.” It’s such a desperate situation, Alexiadis says: both austerity and Grexit will bring more pain. And then he starts to cry.
Farther down the beach, corporate consultant Peter Pappas looked up from a history of Istanbul to vent his own anger at the prospect of a temporary Grexit. “I’m just dumbfounded,” said Pappas, adding that the idea might cause the disintegration of the EU. “I expected there to be resistance, and I have no problem with them asking for more clarification [about Greece’s new proposals], and with their lack of trust. There’s understandably reasons for that. But Germany has to decide whether they want an EU or not. It’s a little strange, given that they’ve been pushing for years for it.”
Pappas had no issue in principle with Schäuble’s other new plan: to set up an independent body to sell off Greek assets such as ports and airports. “I don’t have a problem with privatisation,” said Pappas, as his novelist wife, Melanie Wallace, arrived back from her swim. “But why give them away now, when they’re worth nothing, rather than in a couple of years?”
Wallace agrees. “This is not even late-stage capitalism,” she argued. “It’s colonialism.”
But there was also anger on the beach-front for Greek politicians. Alexiadis, the pensioner, voted against more austerity in the recent referendum, only to see his government push for the opposite. “I feel betrayed,” he said. “It’s like they’re making fun of us.”
Pappas couldn’t understand what Alexis Tsipras, the prime minister, and his then finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, were playing at. “I’m of the left, but I’ve never seen anything like this referendum,” he says. “I thought they had a plan to go back to the drachma – but then Varoufakis resigns, and I thought: what on earth did they go to the referendum for? They wasted all this money and time, they closed down the banks. This is economic policy?”