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Monday, 27 March 2017

A non-EU Greece

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My son making dakos in Budapest
On the 60th anniversary of the founding of the EU, my family was reaping the benefits of being a member of the EU. My son was visiting Budapest on an ERASMUS high school exchange trip (all expenses paid); my daughter was briefing a German exchange student who will be staying with us (after my daughter had visited her in Germany - again all expenses paid); we took a drive through a village in the Apokoronas region of Hania which had benefited from UK expat migration in the region; and we visited an English friend who came to Greece and ended up living, working, marrying, building a house and having children here. All the above were of course possible before Greece became a member of the EU, but not without the ease that they can all be done now.

I once visited Greece before it was a member of the EU, and I lived in Greece after it became a member. My husband was born before the EU was invented and he remembers the times before Greece was a member very well: he had studied in Italy for a year where he felt the stark differences between non-EU Greece and her EU neighbour. My husband also lived through the euphoria when Greece became a member of the EU in 1981 when he started working his father's taxi, and he remembers that first summer, when the town of Hania had never seen so many tourists before, and the tourist market suddenly took off, with the result that many local people's income increased due to the greater opportunities for work that came with the higher numbers of tourists.

At the time of Greece's entry to the EU, the EU looked like this:
File:EC10-1981 European Community map enlargement.svg
Greece had a cut-off disconnected look in her early EU days. Her borders did not connect with the borders of the other members of the EU, save the UK and Ireland, which were islands at any rate, and were 'close to' other members, geographically and politically. Her land borders were clearly connected to (at the time) communist countries, with one bit attached to Turkey. South across the sea was like another planet: North Africa was dominated by Muslim totalitarian regimes. The countries surrounding Greece were all regarded as 'poor', like Greece herself, except for Italy who, along with France and Germany, were considered 'important' countries: we could name major brand names for major products coming from them, like Fiat, Renault, Mercedes. This didn't quite match 'ouzo', the most well known Greek product in my days (a bottle of which was always in the drinks cabinet, although we never drank the stuff ourselves). The story that went round in our NZ home was that Greece was regarded as the birthplace of democracy, so it had to become part of the EU for moral reasons. In other words, Greece became part of the EU because she was pretty, which is in agreement with an informal remark made by Jean-Claude Juncker two years ago just before Greece's July 2015 referendum:
"Greece joined the European Community in 1981 because we didn’t want to see Plato play in the second division”. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jul/03/greece-in-europe-a-short-history
The more official reason given was that Greece was strategically located, a factor which is now treated as a joke, given that her sea borders were never controllable, hence the migrant influx of the last two years. Coupled with Greece's uncontrollable money problems, Greece is now regarded as a hopeless liability.

The fact that Greece escaped communism and became a member of the EU as early as she did cannot be underestimated. The EU was officially formed a year after Hungarians protested against communism, a revolution that was crushed by the Soviets. Greece had rid itself of a dictatorship well before Spain, who entered the EU after Greece. On the fall of communism, Greece was flooded with Albanian migrants, many of whom had Greek origins, crossing the border, their emaciated bodies draped in WW2 styles (see LiFO's recent photo essay on their arrival to Greece after overnight walks over mountains: http://www.lifo.gr/articles/photography_articles/137769). That was nothing compared to the blood that was being spilled over the breakup of Yugoslavia: of the former six Yugoslavian states, only Croatia and Slovenia are part of the EU (and only Slovenia is part of the eurozone).

Throughout all these periods, which are very recent in our minds, Greece has remained at peace (save two weeks of war waged over Cyprus against Turkey in 1974), and its economy has diversified from a mainly agriculturally based one. It was not the EU's fault that Greece's economy broke down: the reasons for this are well documented and still being talked about.

Rather than discuss the ways that Greece has benefited from being an EU member, I'd like to describe what I think Greece would be like right now if Greece were not an EU member. So let's pretend that Greece isn't in the EU, and therefore, not in the eurozone either. We also never experienced communism. What kind of country might we look like? Which other country may we resemble? That's a hard question to answer. It's also steeped in hypothetical thoughts, similar to most major mainstream newspapers, that seem to have absolutely no idea which direction the world is going towards. These days, we get very little 'real' news in the press - we only get opinions. So I would like to hazard a guess about what I think my country may look like as a non-EU Greece, given my knowledge of the countries that Greece is surrounded by (despite the fact that I haven't visited any of those countries myself, except Italy, over 25 years ago). I think we have direct examples of what Greece might be like now, had it not entered the EU. My opinion should be read in the same way that we read those major mainstream newspapers to gain more knowledge about an uncertain world that few are understanding at this moment.

A non-EU Greece would be a poor country. By poor, I mean that Greeks would not have been able to afford to build the modern homes they own, full of modern appliances, with expensive model cars in our garages or parked on the street. So they would not have been helped by modern technology to move away from a self-sustaining lifestyle. While supermarkets would exist, most products would be too expensive for most people. Those who would be able to afford supermarkets would be a certain sector of society that forms the ruling elite class, who would probably not allow the lower orders to gain access to power: we have very real examples of this pre-crisis. The poorer members of society would rely on their land for a good deal of their food needs, while staples like wheat and rice will not be cheap if their futures prices go up. Greeks would also rely on emigres for top-ups, like they did in the past. Poverty does not mean that we would not have enough food to eat or a roof over our head: Greeks have always maintained a sense of pride about being able to feed themselves and keep a home. Apart from WW2 when food was confiscated by the Nazis to serve the needs of its army, Greeks have never gone hungry. Homelessness would not be a common feature of the country, either. The homeless would probably have other issues than purely economic ones that led them to their situation.

A non-EU Greece would be less cosmopolitan. Although tourists would come here, we would not travel so much to their countries, and therefore we would not know our tourists well enough. We would not be able to afford to travel much, and we would also be looked down on, and/or stopped from entering other EU countries. We would continue to strive for higher educational excellence, but it would be very introverted. We still have a very introvert education system, so it's not hard to imagine it in a worse condition. We'd be using the internet at a much slower pace than we supposedly already are. Greece was always more cosmopolitan throughout history than her landlocked neighbours, and Greeks have always travelled, but this was a privilege mainly reserved for the rich urban classes. Poorer rural Greeks emigrated - that's quite a different story to being a businessman and travelling for trade, while returning to your roots on a regular basis.

A non-EU Greece would use the drachma as its currency. The drachma would have a very low value outside the country. Many Greeks are wondering whether Greece should go back to the drachma, but they claim they can't make up their minds because they don't know what life under the drachma in this day and age may be like. My son provided the answer for that after he recent trip to Hungary, where he was able to exchange euros for florints. He saw the problems of not having a credible currency from a different perspective. The Poles in his ERASMUS group could exchange zloty for florint, but the Romanians were not able to exchange their leu. The problems that this caused were not just finance-related: it also caused status problems in the group. Some students felt the superiority-inferiority complex of (not) belonging. While the drachma would not work abroad,  it would however probably work well for Greece, because it would make life cheaper. But we would not be able to afford luxuries, like brand names. Having your own currency means you can bend rules when it suits you: Greece would be a more corrupt nepotistic country. But that would probably force young people to learn to live on less money, which would stand them in good stead as they learn to live with a less predictable future in the global world.

In a non-EU Greece, young Greeks would be looking to get out of the country, like they are now, but for different reasons, and with a different status. Even as late as March 2017, just before the UK pulls the trigger to brexit the EU, Greeks are still signing up for employment in the UK. It's because they can, unlike Albanians and Macedonians, who do not have legal access to the UK job market. So if we weren't in the EU, then Greeks would be similar to Albanians and Macedonians: some Albanians are born in Greece, so they are able to gain access to the EU market. Contrast this to Macedonians from the former Yugoslavia who change nationality by claiming that one of their grandparents was Bulgarian, for obvious reasons: Bulgarians are EU nationals, while Macedonians aren't. Uemployment would still be a problem in Greece like it is now, but probably not of the same magnitude. Some of our older factories would still be working, because we would still have the drachma, and our labour costs would have remained cheaper. Entry to the EU threw that one out of the window. Family businesses would survive better than they do now, and their competitive value would be better than it is now because the drachma would still exist.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a non-EU Greece would be very vulnerable to war with Turkey. It happened in Cyprus in 1974, i.e., before Greece entered the EU, and Greece very nearly went to war with Turkey in 1987 (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greek%E2%80%93Turkish_relations#Aegean_Sea) - i.e., when Greece was already a member of the EU. We continue to experience near misses ever since then, and unfortunately, this is continuing to this very day (see https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/27/tensions-flare-greece-turkey-answer-provocation-erdogan). An isolated Greece would forever be a lonely Greece, scared of its shadow as it tries to hide amidst its strategic location. The EU's foundations were built on this very factor: that Europe never again experiences war.

*** *** ***

The present EU (pre-Brexit) looks like this (with Croatia in orange, signifying the last country to join the EU in 2013):

European Union Croatia Locator.svg

So the land borders of Europe are slowly joining up, and the EU territory looks more 'natural' but there are still elements of the map that look artificial: Switzerland claims to be a neutral country with its own currency - yet it is surrounded by eurozone countries. Some former communist nations are regarded as not ready to join the EU just yet - but they form integral parts of central Europe. Norway decided not to join the EU by referendum (twice!) - but its main trading partner is in fact the EU. The Ukraine borders Russia, but it wants to be a member of the EU, which looks like a natural extension of the map - but just how much can the EU be logically extended by? Could it ever include Turkey?

And which country would Greece have resembled had it been subjected to communism? I think Greece needed her dose of that too, but the right won the Greek civil war, and we missed our chance to be led by a leftist government, until 2015 (and we all know how that ended). Had we been a communist country, we probably would have joined the EU when Bulgaria and Romania did. I believe we would then have developed into a nice mix of those two countries: the poor Bulgaria with the proud Romania. And we still would have had our funny money, like they still do. There's still a lot of work to be done in the EU before we all truly become united.

Europe orthographic Caucasus Urals boundary (with borders).svgDespite the mess that the EU finds itself in today, I'm still glad to be a part of it. Europe is a culturally rich continent, and it is still very wealthy. EU funds have paid for many Greek modernisation projects. Even as an indebted country, Greece is still riding high because of those modernisations. What would Athens be without the metro and Eleftherios Venizelos airport? What would Hania be like if Ryanair wasn't flying in 1 out of every 4 tourists that we get in the summer? The concept of modern Greece is just 200 years old - as old as New Zealand, believe it or not - and it still needs fine tuning. But the EU is only 60: it's just getting over its teething problems. If Greece had not become a member of the EU, that wouldn't mean it would not be a great country. But by being in the EU, it is even greater. Thus:

Ζήτω η Ευρωπαϊκή Ενωση!

Image may contain: textPost Script: The UK was always an exception in the EU. Article 50 was created for the UK's whinging and whining, and it ended up doing the unthinkable, by using it. The UK was always good at divorce and no wonder: it invented it. So deluded were the Brits that it would (and should) be Grexit that they did not see it coming. Ha!

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

She, Daniela Blake

I spent a whole morning yesterday observing the goings on at my local ΙΚΑ (recently renamed ΕΟΠΠΥ, and even more recently, ΠΕΔΥ) branch, as I was waiting for my turn to update a health document. 

The woman walked through the doors, holding a plastic supermarket carrier bag in one hand and a water bottle in the other. Her black tracksuit pants looked rather tight on her - perhaps she needed a larger size. They were matched by a white cable knit jumper with a sleeveless jacket. Her sports shoes were well worn. Her curly dark hair was neatly tied back into a little pony tail. She looked young, less than a quarter of a century. The young child that was trailing by her side like a beloved pet dog on a leash looked clean and well dressed. Number 92 was lit up on the priority number system. She looked at her paper: 85. She passed by all the other waiting people and stood in front of an assistant who was serving another customer.

"My number'th passed," she said, showing them the ticket. "Can I get intyu the chew now?" She spoke with what seemed like a lisp; her two front top teeth were missing.

"Only if someone else lets you pass," the assistant said without looking up away from her computer screen.

The woman did not seem to comprehend what she was told. No one spoke to her. They all continued to do what they were doing before she entered: The customers who were being served by the two assistants stood steadfast in front of the window in fear of losing their priority; the assistants continued to type and stare at the keyboard; the people in the waiting room checked their documents and cellphones.

"Can I path thwoo now?" the woman asked again. She edged closer to the window and put her hands on the ledge. The man standing next to her in front of the assistant's window gathered his documents, fearful they may get dirty from the water bottle that was slightly dripping.

"You'll have to come back tomorrow," the assistant replied.

A slight pause as the woman comprehended that last statement. And then a cry of anger:

"You bissch! I'f been here since the morning, with my shild, and you won't sherve me! You bloody bissch!"

And still, no one paid the woman any attention. She grabbed the child (who was still smiling) and left the room, cursing as she left.

"What's the matter, love?" a old-age pensioner asked her.

"Bissches! They don't want to help me! They don't care!" By now, she was crying. The pensioner asked her what help she needed, but the woman continued to wail, patting the child's head at the same time as she hugged it close to her.

"It wath my turn! They diden let me thwoo! I'fsh been here since the morning, with my shild, and they won't help me!" The old man shook his head.

"What number are they at now?" he asked, but he did not get any reply. The woman was continuing to shout and cry. The man walked away, checking his priority number before going inside to see what number was blinking.

The woman was now talking on her cell (not smart) phone: "Bloody bissches! They tols me to come back tomowow! How am I gonna come back tomowow?! Bloody bissches! I'm gonna call the police!" She must have said the word 'police' a couple more times before the supervisor came out of her office.

"What does she want?" the supervisor asked. "Tell her to come and see me." The few people in the office that had managed to secure a seat did not want to give it up that easily. The supervisor repeated her call: "Can someone tell her to come and see me." In the meantime, the woman continued wailing and shouting.

"She should have been given priority before she started using the 'police' word," said a girl wearing jeans, who was sitting on a seat waiting for her turn. "Everyone can see she isn't well in the head."

"Why she not well?" said the Albanian sitting next to her. "She look okay. She just lose number."

"She doesn't understand what's going on", said the girl. "She needs more help than you and me. And she has a child! She needs much more help than us." The Albanian nodded knowingly.

"She looked perfectly fine to me," said a fake-blonde well-dressed woman on the other side of the room.

"As fine as an illiterate country bumpkin," said the girl in the jeans. "She has no idea what she did wrong."

"We're all in the same boat," said the fake blonde. "We're all waiting."

The woman's cries continued to be heard. The supervisor again asked the others waiting to call the woman in. She herself did not leave her cubicle to do it herself. A man eventually told the woman that they would see her now: The woman was still sobbing when she entered the room.

"Come now," said the supervisor, "tell me, what would you like to do? How can I help you?" The woman stopped sobbing and handed her papers to the supervisor. The transaction went through without a hitch. The woman and the child left quietly. All's well that ends well.

*** *** ***

While I was waiting to get my own paperwork sorted out, I took walks around the IKA (EOPPY- PEDY) area on the Souda road, which has never really got itself a proper facelift. It remains scruffy, despite the modern constructions that are replacing old rundown buildings. After a 4-hour wait, I got my job done too.



Although I'm trying to focus on what was happening in the case of the woman that I saw, it is fair to say that not only Daniel Blake types pass through IKA. Every sector of Greek society passes through those offices at some point. IKA is seriously understaffed - the staff are not incompetent. They are even quite polite these days. Health checks are available to everyone, whether they are registered in the system or not (see http://www.haniotika-nea.gr/dorean-exetasis-gia-olous-sto-p-e-d-i-chanion/). The Greek health system is much more democratic than the Daniel Blake type stories I read in The Guardian.

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.