A chance for Greece

A chance for Greece
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras addresses the nation on July 1, 2015.
PHOTO: Reuters

"Default, dear Alexis, is not in our stars but in ourselves, that we are underlings," a character called, let's say, Varoufakis might have said in a latter-day Shakespearean play.

It's not hard to imagine another character in the same play - and here there's plenty of choice: it could have been Christine Lagarde, Donald Tusk, Wolfgang Schauble or Angela Merkel - whispering to an aide: "Let me have men about me that are fat, sleek-headed men and such as sleep o' nights; yond Yanis has a lean and hungry look. He thinks too much: such men are dangerous."

The shenanigans of the EU would no doubt have provided plenty of material to a latter-day Bard for tragedies as well as farces.

It would take a formidable master of the art, though, to capture all the layers of irony in the EU's panicked reaction to the Greek government's decision to call a referendum on whether the bitterly beleaguered nation should accept the conditions attached by its creditors to a continued bailout.

The most petulant of ironies, arguably, came when European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, at a news conference on Monday, declared himself to be the aggrieved party. "I feel betrayed," he said.

"The Greek people are close to my heart … I say to the Greeks, don't commit suicide because you're afraid of dying." An estimated 11,000 Greeks have indeed committed suicide since the austerity measures were put in place.

The crisis has been brewing for years, and bubbling over more or less steadily ever since the Greek electorate, at the beginning of this year, voted in a government led by the anti-austerity Syriza.

The dictatorship of capital - embodied in EU institutions and the IMF - routinely punishes governments inclined to disobey its commandments.

Once upon a time, the rules of the game entailed 'structural adjustment'.

That tag was dropped when it acquired negative connotations, but the rules of the game remain pretty much the same.

One of the running battles between Athens and its creditors - or, to be more precise, predators - has been waged over pension 'reform', with the Greek government under pressure to further slash payments to the elderly, which have already been cut by 45 per cent over the past five years, with a substantial proportion of the recipients reduced to penury.

To its credit, Syriza put up a fight on this score, although a week or so ago, it presented proposals to Brussels that in the view of most observers provided the basis for a compromise.

In fact, quite a few of the Greek government's supporters felt it had gone much too far.

But the EU refused to budge - which in turn precipitated this week's crisis, with capital controls imposed and banks shut until after Sunday's referendum.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has characterised the EU's stance as a naked attempt to humiliate Greece and its people.

He may be guilty of understatement. A spokesman for Yanis Varoufakis has referred to next weekend's referendum as signalling the end to "five years of waterboarding".

Varoufakis is also fond of pointing out that whereas tanks were once the weapon of choice in carrying out coups, the inclination now is to use banks.

The waterboarding image is likely to resonate with many citizens in a country where the economy has shrunk by a quarter, unemployment has soared to 26 per cent, there is no safety net to speak of, the decline in public health services is taking a heavy toll and destitution, hunger and homelessness are on the rise.

These are the consequences of austerity and the prescription from Brussels essentially decrees more of the same.

A Greek exit from the eurozone is expected to entail chaos in the short term but holds out the prospect of a medium-term turn­around.

Syriza's noble stance against European bullying and blackmail appears to have earned it the respect of many Greeks who did not vote for it in January.

Whether its advocacy of a 'no' vote will carry the day on Sunday remains to be seen.

It's a tricky choice, but the sharply rising disillusionment in Greece with the European project may well carry the day - with inevitable repercussions across the eurozone, notably in countries such as Spain.

The EU and its stalwarts are petrified by the prospect of Athens setting a precedent.

However, for those who recognise the essentially anti-democratic nature of the monetarist authorities in Brussels, the July 5 referendum offers the opportunity for a historic break with an increasingly untenable status quo.

It must be hoped that the majority of Greeks will decide to take it.

"What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?" the poet John Keats wondered in his "Ode on a Grecian urn" some 200 years ago. "Heard melodies are sweet," he concluded, "but those unheard/ Are sweeter…" As of next week, those unheard melodies may well be imbued with distinctively Greek notes.

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