Storm over Athens

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Clouds descend over the Parthenon, Athens, Greece. Rob & Lisa Meehan under a Creative Commons Licence

Despite speculation on Tuesday that Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was going to cancel Sunday’s referendum, the Syriza government will go ahead with the vote, asking the Greek people whether they accept the latest austerity deal agreed by the country’s creditors. This is despite warnings that the chaos in the banking system caused by Tuesday’s default will spook the Greek people into voting ‘Yes’, against the government’s wishes.

Greece has become the first developed nation to default on international financial obligations, having missed its payment of 1.6 billion euros ($1.8 billion) to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). ‘I never expected a democratic Europe not to give space and time to hold the referendum,’ Tsipras said in his public address on Tuesday, referring to the decision not to extend liquidity to the country for a few more days until the vote was cast. ‘I call on you to say no to the recipes of bail-out and say yes to the prospect of a viable solution.’

From now until Sunday, it seems, decision-making lies with the Greek people. There are storm clouds over Athens. Though graffiti and posters calling for a ‘No’ vote, (‘Oxi’ in Greek) are scattered in the streets, on Tuesday night, over 18,000 protesters gathered in Syntagma Square, waving flags saying ‘In Greece, in Europe’ and shouting ‘Yes, yes, yes!’ in favour of a government deal. Georgos Defekaros, an attorney at law, was there to express his support for Greece within the EU and the euro: ‘Greece is at the heart of Europe and must remain in Europe,’ he said, ‘The last time we were this divided was 1922.’ He was referring to the end of the Greco-Turkish War that partitioned the Ottoman Empire, after the First World War, a time of intense conflict and uncertainty for Greece. A 'No' protest took place on Thursday night, and a big night of demonstrations is due on Friday, with a large 'No' and 'Yes' presence planned at locations only a short walk from each-other.

While the ‘Yes’ side cast themselves as ‘pro-European’ and ‘pro-euro’, the government continues to deny that a ‘No’ vote to the austerity package agreed by the IMF, European Central Bank and European Commission (the ‘Troika’) will lead to the country leaving the euro. Speaking after Tsipras’ speech, Syriza’s Alternate Minister for Administrative Reform, Giorgos Katrougalos, accused the creditors of waging ‘psychological terror’ on Greece. However, in the same breath he referenced the economist Paul Krugman, whose op-ed in the New York Times advises Greeks to vote No and the Greek government to ‘be ready, if necessary, to leave the euro’ as the situation looks ‘like a point of no return’.

Europe, of course, doesn’t equal the single currency. But if Europe’s institutions and the IMF decide to effectively push Greece out of the euro, for many Greeks it will feel like a rejection of their European identity. This is particularly the case as on Tuesday Tsipras sent a proposal for a conciliatory last-minute deal in a letter outlining quite moderate proposals, following 5 months of negotiations. Remaining sticking points are relatively minor, including on pension reform and the issue of special exemption of VAT for the Greek islands. This was dismissed, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel saying there will be no more negotiations until after the referendum.

When Tsipras held hands with Spain’s Podemos party leader Pablo Iglesias in his pre-election rally in January, he said ‘First we take Athens, then we take Berlin.’ It was a euphoric moment, meant to herald a new vision of Europe, freed from brutal and ineffective austerity measures. But Spain’s elections are in December, and that country’s current leader, Mariano Rajoy, is one of the fiercest critics of Syriza, fearing it will fuel the rise of Podemos and other Spanish Left movements.

The Greek Prime Minister accused Europe’s powerful creditors last week of having ‘political motives’ in how they have conducted the negotiations, a veiled accusation that they are plotting Syriza’s downfall. It looks likely that the government will resign in the event of a ‘Yes’ vote, and it appears to be losing support amidst the chaos of desperate Greeks queuing for their maximum cash withdrawal of 60 euros a day.

Following the default, Turkey was quick to say it was ‘ready to help’ Greece survive the economic crisis, with ‘co-operation in tourism, energy [and] trade.’ Indeed, the crisis has provoked discussion about where Greece belongs, geopolitically and culturally, as well as financially. When Greece joined the European Union (EU) in 1981, then Prime Minister Constantine Karamanlís said that European culture ‘is a synthesis of the Hellenistic, Roman and Christian spirit’. The ‘Hellenistic spirit’ was itself a synthesis of Ottoman, Arab, Levantine and European influences.

Much has been made of the link between Greece and Russia as Christian Orthodox nations, but as political scientist C J Polychroniou has argued on Al Jazeera America, fears of a Russia-Greece axis may well be overblown. Yes, there will be the extension of a Russian gas pipeline through Greece, but Russia is in no position to bail the country out.

When Syriza came into parliament it was viewed as a relief and shining light by many on the European Left. Their mandate was to reform Europe from within. It looks increasingly likely that Greece will not be permitted to do that. Talk of a ‘Grexit’ is no longer taboo in Brussels, and German industry leaders are beginning to agitate in favour of Greece exiting the eurozone, in line with a turning public opinion.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker referred to Greece as ‘Plato’ in his speech after the referendum was announced, saying it was impossible to imagine Europe without it. But given the violent language of ‘betrayal’ in that speech, it seems likely that he also cannot imagine a Syriza-led government in Greece.

We will see, on Sunday, whether Greeks are willing to agree to more punishing austerity measures, and the further submission of their financial sovereignty to the ‘Troika’ institutions, albeit by another name. In return, they will be allowed to stay within the single currency and within the EU. A poll published in the Efimerida ton Syntakton newspaper shows ‘No’ in the lead with 54% versus ‘Yes’ with 33%. Yet support for the euro is still high. It is clearly not a question of whether Greece wishes to ‘stay in Europe’ but what kind of relationship with Europe the country is willing to accept.

Greece’s turn to draw the line

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Police on the streets of Athens, during a Golden Dawn protest. Steve Jurvetson under a Creative Commons Licence

Global attention

A historic trial has just resumed in Greece, as the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn faces charges including financial crime, assault and murder. Crucially, the prosecution will try to prove that the party itself, now the third largest in Greece, has operated as a criminal organization.

With 69 members and alleged supporters in the dock, the trial is expected to last up to a year and a half. It will not only be pivotal for Greece, but a potential landmark in the struggle against the resurgent far right across Europe.

An open secret

Golden Dawn officially denies both its criminal activity and its Nazi ideology, yet it has never made a secret of either.

Sporting their black uniforms and Swastika-like logo, party members have been regulars on Greek television for years, openly calling immigrants ‘sub-human’ and declaring sympathies with Hitler, while the leader, Nikos Michaloliakos, has defended their use of the Nazi salute.

While many of their followers might be better described as hard-right nationalists, it can’t be avoided that over 6 per cent of the Greek electorate knowingly voted for a neo-Nazi party in January this year, in the same election that brought the leftwing Syriza party to power.

In Greece, there is no legal framework against promoting Nazism, as there is in Germany. Thus, Golden Dawn is not being prosecuted for its ideological beliefs, but the criminal acts stemming from them. The party machine has been accused of funding itself and bolstering its influence through mafia-style activities, including trafficking, blackmail and fraud.

The very fabric of power in Greek society is on trial

Party members have been implicated in hundreds of attacks on immigrants and multiple death cases, yet it has never been proven that orders came down the chain of command.

Those living in fear of Golden Dawn have had to wait for the gruesome murder of a native Greek, Pavlos Fyssas, a leftwing rapper, for the state to intervene. His unprovoked and fatal stabbing on the streets of the port town of Piraeus, in September 2013, caused national outrage and pushed the government to act, arresting the alleged murderer and raiding party offices.

Now, the job of the prosecution is to prove that these crimes were not committed at the hands of rogue elements – the party thug squad – and that they run at the very heart of the operation.

State of impunity

While the financial crisis has allowed Golden Dawn to gain mass popularity over the last half decade, the party has existed since the 1980s. It is not simply a product of austerity, as the roots of its ideology can be traced back to the legacy of the Nazi occupation and the military dictatorship that ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974.

Many in Greece see the party as extending a well-established dynamic, wherein the state makes use of far-right extremists in order to further its agenda.

Research by the Rosa Luxembourg Foundation sets out extensive evidence of the infiltration of the neo-Nazi party into the Greek deep state.

Dimitris Christopoulos, Vice-President of the International Federation for Human Rights and member of the Golden Dawn Watch observatory, says that the same ‘strategy of tension’ employed under the military junta of the 1970s was then used by the former New Democracy government, when dealing with the Golden Dawn.

If Golden Dawn is not brought to justice, Greece will be sending a green light to its own far right and to groups across Europe

This dynamic held out until the Fyssas murder, when ‘even the political rightwing felt unsettled because they saw that, even as Golden Dawn was claiming to give hegemonic expression to the country’s traditional circles of extreme conservatism, it now posed a real threat to social peace’.

The very fabric of power in Greek society is also, in a sense, on trial. Thanassis Kampagiannis, the lawyer representing Egyptian fishers allegedly assaulted by Golden Dawn, is well aware of the enormous task in hand.

‘The collaboration between the police, state and judiciary, and Golden Dawn criminal acts’ created a ‘state of impunity’, he says. While stressing that these are criminal cases, he warns against ‘efforts to depoliticize the trials’, stressing that the party did not act alone.

Global attention

The trials began on 20 April, only to be adjourned on a technical point, amid attacks on witnesses. On 7 May they resumed and were adjourned again until 11 May, due to a conflict over the court venue.

There are questions over the suitability of the current venue, a high-security prison in southwest Athens, as the neighbourhood is politically sensitive and home to many schools facing serious disruption.

Still, the venue is also symbolic, as most Greeks, particularly anti-fascist groups, want better access to a trial that is central to the country’s future.

Since the prosecution, Golden Dawn’s support has flat-lined and it is toning down its rhetoric in parliament, ‘trying to be seen as a serious, respectable party’, according to Syriza MP Vassiliki Katrivanou.

The government has made good use of the ‘them or us’ threat, implying that were Syriza to fall, the Golden Dawn may be next.

6 per cent of the Greek electorate knowingly voted for a neo-Nazi party in January this year

As Varoufakis put it in a speech to the German Finance Minister: ‘No-one understands better than the people of this land how a severely depressed economy, combined with a ritual national humiliation and unending hopelessness can hatch the serpent’s egg within its society.’

It’s unclear whether the party’s popularity will recover, or whether or not Syriza will lose power. Equally, this prosecution is insufficient to deal with a force that can easily assume another legal form.

What’s certain is that if Golden Dawn is not brought to justice, Greece will be sending a green light to its own far right and to groups across Europe.

Parties such as Jobbik, whose anti-Roma rallies are accused of whipping up violent crime in Hungary, or the Dutch PVV, whose leader Geert Wilders has been tried and acquitted of hate speech, will be watching the criminal proceedings with particular interest.

Golden Dawn is at the forefront of a trend that has been growing in Europe since the 1990s. This trial is an opportunity for Greece, and thus Europe, to draw a red line.

Students, why not be your own landlord?

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IK's worrld trip under a Creative Commons Licence

‘You be the landlord this time.’ ‘Yeah, all right then.’ I’m visiting student flats in Edinburgh and the new residents are signing their contracts. On first glance, it looks like an average beginning of the academic year, but there’s something special going on here. This 106-bed property in the heart of the city is one of only two student housing co-operatives in Britain, both opening their doors this autumn. These young people are tired of high rents and exploitative landlords, and have taken matters into their own hands.

I’m shown around the property by Mike Shaw, a serious 22-year-old who only betrays his excitement through the eagerness with which he throws open the doors to each new room. ‘The idea is that it’s participatory, everyone gets involved… it’s very much about giving members the ability to make the space,’ he tells me.

There’s certainly lots to do in the two-building property, which sits either side of a pub, looking out on the scenic Meadows. There are staircases to paint, living rooms to decorate, and two vast basement spaces to be converted into communal areas.

Shaw is a network co-ordinator for Students for Co-operation, a democratic federation of student co-ops across Britain set up last year. He was part of a group at Edinburgh University who came up with the plan to run their own accommodation, open to students from any of the city’s universities. A year and a half later, the co-op has been flooded with applicants.

Weeks ago, the first housing co-op in Britain opened in Birmingham, so they’re now the second in the country. ‘They just beat us!’ says Shaw with a grin.

How did they do it? Key to the students’ success is Edinburgh City Council, which became a ‘co-operative council’ back in 2012. In practice, this means promoting the adoption of co-operative practices in the city, focusing on the education, health, energy and housing sectors. The students found their property through the council, who put them in touch with the housing association that owns the flats. Castle Rock Edinvar were more than happy to have the students lease the place at market value, with the eventual goal of buying the property outright.

Shaw tells me the market value is several million pounds. He’s confident that this is an achievable target, with the newly established Students for Co-operation network exploring a number of funding options.

In one of the flats, I meet James Puchowski, a second-year student who moved in yesterday. ‘It was quite daunting,’ he admits, ‘I didn’t know what to expect… but honestly, in comparison to the accommodation I was in last year with the university, it’s of equal quality.’

Puchowski came up from England to study, so he’s paying tuition fees, unlike his Scottish peers. As president of the Linguistic Society, he doesn’t have time for a job outside of study, and was attracted by the co-op’s rent, which at £305 ($500) a month, including bills, is far cheaper than the average.

‘It’s a stand against the monopolies you see with student housing,’ he says. ‘People aren’t here to be consumers, they’re here to study.’

Students being set to fail

The National Union of Students (NUS) has diagnosed a ‘cost of living crisis’ among students in England, with housing averaging £420 ($700) a month outside of London and £554 ($910) a month in the capital. A recent survey of 150 universities concluded that British students were being ‘set up to fail’: forced into work to afford their accommodation. The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government has refused to rule out yet another hike in fees if they win the election. They’re facing a financial time bomb, with students in England and Wales unable to pay back their fees of up to £9,000 ($14,800) a year at a fast-enough rate.

Scottish students don’t pay fees at Scottish universities, but that doesn’t mean they’re spared from high rents and exploitative landlords. Euan Kidston, a fourth-year Anthropology student, says he was assaulted by his landlord while in private student accommodation.

‘I was confronting him over having charged me a great deal of money that he shouldn’t have,’ Kidston tells me. He’s talking about upfront admin fees that are illegal under the Rent (Scotland Act) 1984. Kidston is part of the Private Tenants Action Group in Edinburgh, and he’s seen a lot of cases of exploitation.

So is opting into an alternative housing scheme at all daunting? ‘It’s natural for me to cut the landlord out,’ he shrugs.

Students are a popular market for buy-to-let, as they are less likely than your average tenant to miss rent payments. At the same time as this market increases, students renting for the first time are less likely to know their rights.

This summer, landlords were found to be using a loophole to wrongfully retain tens of thousands of pounds in deposits. This is just the latest wheeze among many, as the BBC’s new documentary ‘The Housing Enforcers’ goes some way to show. Last year, a landlord was banned in Edinburgh for threatening to shoot tenants, and while that’s extreme, most students have stories of private landlords entering property without permission, or failing to meet their legal responsibilities for reasonable maintenance and repair.

‘It’s a stand against the monopolies you see with student housing. People aren’t here to be consumers, they’re here to study.’

In contrast, the co-op will be governed by general meeting, so each resident will have a democratic say. There are plans to set up working groups to take care of everything from kitchen duties to financial management, disciplinary action to pets. Students had to apply to become co-op members, stating what experiences, skills and interests they would bring. They are also planning to learn as they go, with builders and other experts supervising members where they’re not able to do the jobs alone.

Most importantly, the co-op is about fostering a community. New students in particular can find the stress of study and financial pressure hard to handle without the support networks of housemates and friends. Since the onset of the recession, the number of students who have taken their lives has dramatically increased. The co-op property was in part chosen for its set-up, which allows for plenty of communal space.

I meet Sam Ryan, a second year who got a group together to create an LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) flat. She hopes to run workshops, maybe an open-mic night, and generally to be a source of support for fellow housemates. She also wants to pick up some life skills in return.

‘I don’t know very much about finance,’ she says, ‘so I’m hoping to learn a little more about that.’ I notice her chairs are splattered with paint – on the first day, her flat is already at work, creating a homely environment.

If Edinburgh and Birmingham student housing co-ops are successful, they will provide models for students across Britain. And it doesn’t end there. Young people who have already run their own co-op before graduating are much more likely to take those principles into the workplace.

The founders of the co-op hope it will have a legacy beyond the residents’ university days. That is certainly Mike Shaw’s vision. ‘Hopefully, alumni will then go on to maybe set up co-ops themselves or get involved in co-ops,’ he says, ‘or take some of those ideas and principles of being run democratically and directly, very hands-on, challenging hierarchies.’ Besides, entering the booming co-operative sector is not a bad long-term career plan for young people.

So, what’s the problem? If you don’t like your landlord, try doing without.

Prepare to lose young talent to an independent Scotland!

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Tulane University under a Creative Commons Licence

The Scottish often say that their most valuable export is people. It’s accepted that the young, bright and adventurous leave their small nation for London or abroad, perhaps returning to their homeland only to settle down or retire.

This has resulted in a brain drain that sucks talent out of the country, leaving an ageing and static population behind. If Scotland votes for independence on 18 September, a priority will be to stop this trend. The Scottish government has laid out a raft of policy proposals to attract young people, students and skilled migrants into the country. Should the rest of Britain get ready for a loss of talent?

Scotland is now home to 5.2 million people, roughly the same as the English county of Yorkshire, but this number has barely grown since the 1960s, while its depopulation goes back for generations.

The two great rival cities, Edinburgh and Glasgow, have a more mixed population than the sleepy towns of rural Scotland, yet Glasgow, with its School of Art, club culture and dizzily rapid regeneration, has still to shake off its reputation as the jobless capital of the UK. Similarly, Edinburgh was recently voted the second-best place to live in Britain, but neither city has been able to compete with the allure of London. If Scotland breaks away from the rest of the UK, it would take significant steps to turn this around.

Welcoming migrants

The Scottish National Party’s (SNP) roadmap to independence, the White Paper, is packed with policies to help keep and attract new skilled, educated and ambitious young people. Key to this goal is the commitment to shake up migration policy, a target miles away from the British government’s pledge to reduce net migration to the ‘tens of thousands’.

The SNP would introduce a points-based system to prioritize skilled and educated migrants coming into Scotland, providing incentives for moving to remoter areas like the highlands and islands. People from outside the EU wanting to move to Scotland would get points for degrees, languages spoken and other skills, with less emphasis given to having a job lined up in advance.

Should the UK choose to exit the European Union (EU) in 2017, Scotland’s pro-migration measures would prove all the more significant. Westminster’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and increasingly punitive policies give immigrants a reason to leave, or stay away from, England.

However, immigrants have a significant economic impact – since 2000, they have made a net contribution of around £25 billion ($42 billion) to the British economy, while EU immigrants are the most likely to make a positive contribution, paying more in taxes and receiving fewer benefits than the average person already in the country.

If its points system works, an independent Scotland might find itself in the enviable position of picking and choosing from skilled and well-qualified immigrants who are unwilling or unable to live in the rest of the UK.

Educating the next generation

Scotland already has independence over its education system, one of the most highly rated in Europe. Its universities are free, and Scotland has had to prevent students flooding across the border, which explains the bizarre current set-up, where EU citizens don’t pay, but those from the rest of the UK cough up what they would at home, up to £9,000 ($15,000) a year.

However, if Scotland gets its independence, this would be illegal under EU law as it would be considered ‘discriminating on grounds of nationality’. After marching in their thousands against higher tuition fees, what British student wouldn’t grab the chance of studying for free in a neighbouring country? Even if they find a way around this problem, an independent Scotland could be faced with a stampede of students.

After marching in their thousands against higher tuition fees, what British student wouldn’t grab the chance of studying for free in a neighbouring country?

The SNP has also pledged to reintroduce the student visas and post-study work visas scrapped by Westminster in 2012, which had allowed students to stay on in the country for 24 months after their degree had ended.

Graeme Sneddon, spokesperson for Generation Yes, a non-party group of young supporters of independence, believes a Yes vote would attract young people from England, Wales and Northern Ireland. He points to the current provision of free education, the retention of the Education Maintenance Allowance for disadvantaged students and the creation of a post unique to Scotland, the Cabinet Secretary for Training, Youth and Women’s Employment.

‘With independence we can go further,’ Sneddon says. ‘Remaining within the Union will mean further cuts which will damage job creation in Scotland, as well as attacking vital public services that young people rely on.’

Good riddance?

The British government doesn’t seem too worried about the prospect of students flocking to Scotland. After all, losing a section of young immigrants to Scotland would aid the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in its aims to reduce net migration, while cutting education funds and welfare.

Since the financial crash, the average income for those in their twenties has fallen by more than 10 per cent. The jobless rate is highest amongst 16 to 24-year-olds. A demographic shift reducing the numbers of immigrants, increasingly scapegoated in Britain as the UK Independence Party (UKIP) sets the debate, along with young people who are more likely to be a financial burden, might not sound too bad to the powers-that-be at Westminster.

Scotland, on the other hand, knows it needs to keep its bright, skilled young people in order to thrive. It’s no accident that the Scottish government gave 16 and 17-year-olds the vote in preparation for the referendum.

Although this has been seen as a failure, given that the majority look likely to support staying in the Union, the government does benefit if young people feel they have a stake in the country’s future. Adam Ramsay, UK editor of current affairs website Open Democracy and active Green Party member, is one of the Scots who would return home: ‘I couldn't resist the thrilling opportunity of being involved in the building of a new country,’ he says.

Acting on a promise

There’s no doubt an independent Scotland would enact policies designed to attract the young, bright and bold. However, the success of this strategy ultimately rests on the capacity for job creation and the health of the general economy.

With a would-be Scottish currency still up in the air, there is much uncertainty over Scotland’s prospects going it alone. As a small nation, Scotland can’t compete on equal terms with the size and diversity of the job market south of the border. Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond has dramatically called London the ‘dark star of the economy, inexorably sucking in resources, people and energy’. He might like to think so, but independence won’t magically change this.

As long as it is at the apex of power, London has a trump card. Money follows, and private companies will always covet headquarters in a ‘global metropolis’, a centre for both finance and culture. As the capital of an independent Scotland, Edinburgh would attract some of this, but it would still be dwarfed.

An independent Scotland holds out the promise of investing in the next generation. On 18 September, we may get the chance to see if it can deliver. Whichever way the referendum goes, the Scottish have spent the run-up to the referendum soul-searching over what kind of country they want to pass on to young people.

The London government has neglected this question. While Westminster argues over the trade of whiskey and salmon, they are forgetting their most valuable asset: the best and brightest of the future generation.

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