Painted smiles and charm offensives in Greece’s debt stalemate

Greece
Debt
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It is always surprising to see how relaxed both the top brass of ruling Syriza party and the representatives of the European Commission seem after one of their meetings.

Given that we are in a near-stalemate situation, with the Greek party wanting to make good on their democratically fought-for mandate, and the Troika partners solidly still on the question of debt forgiveness, you would half expect the painted-on smiles to have cracked by now.

But this is politics, and cynics abound.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, to his credit (no pun intended), has stopped the charm offensive. Because of how inflexible the International Monetary Fund has been with regards to the question of restructuring debt, the situation has got so ridiculous that one is tempted to ask: how could anyone tasked with these negotiations be diplomatic any more?

Before, for a little while, it looked as though Tsipras was buckling; in return for a liquidity injection – as pointed out by Syriza parliamentary member Costas Lapavitsas recently – Syriza was willing to go easy on its policy on pensions and privatization.

The government was prepared – some say nobly, others say weakly – to make huge concessions to meet the European institutions (more than) half way.

Now Tsipras and his party are sounding a little tougher, given the circumstances. On Tuesday last week he informed that there would not be a payment without a deal. Will he buckle again?

It is too early to tell, but if a week is a long time in normal politics, it is a lifetime in European Greek-talk politics.

In Athens recently, I visited Exarcheia, a neighbourhood known for its large number of artists, socialists and anarchists. You really get a sense of Syriza’s grassroots there, and of the unhappiness that the government is carrying on negotiations at all.

What is often ignored by officials outside of Greece is the heterogeneous nature of Syriza. I was told a significant number of the people who backed the party at the elections describe themselves as anarchists.

In fact, Syriza is a rainbow group composed of socialists, anarchists, communists and everything in between, born out of a coalition of leftist groups that came together in 2004 and that turned into a political party in 2012.

Away from the national questions, civil-society groups are doing their fair share of elbow work, finding real solutions to more local problems.

For social justice campaigners, trade unionists and leftwing academics, the main concern is finding a response to the issues that are hurting people. Homelessness, wages and household debt are more important than the bailout terms or the currency.

As austerity was pushed on Greece by the European institutions to meet bailout demands, unemployment in the country rose 28% (of which 60% are young people), incomes were dragged down, public and private debt soared and the economy shrank by 25% from 2007-14.

If this looks bad on paper, in real life it’s a tragedy. It also explains the intransigence towards the demands of European and IMF officials, as well as why it has been so hard for government negotiators and international lenders to agree to a deal after more than 5 months of negotiations.

University of Athens economist George Labridinos says Greek families and elderly relatives are moving in together because running two homes has become too expensive. About 400,000 houses are without electricity, and legislation that shielded from foreclosure primary residencies valued at up to €200,000 ($225,000) has been upended.

Syriza has an agreement with the big 4 banks to stop turning out families from their homes, but ‘until any further negotiation, banks are under no obligation and the system is up in the air,’ according to one campaigner.

Homelessness in Athens alone has shot up by 25% since 2009 and yet the city is awash with empty buildings.

‘It is crazy to have so many homeless with so many empty buildings,’ says Christos Giovanopoulos, from campaign group Solidarity 4 All. ‘Public-owned buildings used to be run for work and now they just remain empty.’

Along with the European Coalition for Housing Rights, Solidarity 4 All is calling for a regular debt ‘haircut’ to prevent families from becoming homeless.

The campaign groups argue that the Greek constitution allows for debt renegotiation when circumstances change drastically. It’s not just the national debt that needs restructuring, but that of many homeowners who are struggling despite relatively low levels of household debt.

Reading about Greece, it’s very easy to assume that the most important debate about the country is being had between the elected national government and the European bureaucrats. When you’re on the streets of Athens, the concerns are often quite different.

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