Greece takes over the rotating presidency of the European Union in January 2014. For six months, including the campaign for direct elections to the European Parliament in May, Greece will preside over the affairs of the Union. In foreign affairs, will Greece prioritise peace in the Middle East and advance the creation there of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction? Will it bring to bear its good connections in the region so that the EU reinforces the momentum towards peace in Syria and constructive engagement with Iran? Under the Greek Presidency, what will be the priorities of EU policy towards Israel with respect to its illegal occupation of Palestine, the continuing construction of the illegal wall, and how will the Union’s modest sanctions against illegal Israeli settlements be developed?
Domestically, the scene in Greece is very difficult, but not without hopeful developments. Stratospheric levels of unemployment, particularly amongst young people where it has reached 60 per cent, cut deeply into the social fabric. Each month, some 30,000 people lose their job, with official unemployment now measured at 27 per cent, although actually much higher. People without work not only lose income but also their access to health care and other social benefits. Begging and petty trading is commonplace in the streets and on the excellent public transport of Athens. Athenians usually take it all with customary good grace, but an occasional outburst at an unlucky importuner indicates the tensions below the surface.
During the warm sunny days of late October 2013, there seemed to be fewer people sleeping on the streets of Athens than during the chilly spring when I was last in the Greek capital. Certainly, there are middle-aged men sleeping rough in doorways and on the beach at Edem, but the elderly women who sat impassively on church steps on that previous visit, apparently with no home of their own, were not to be seen this time; nor were those elderly ladies offering packets of tissues for a euro.
Yet the prospect of large-scale homelessness stalks Athens and other parts of Greece. High unemployment means many people cannot afford to repay the loans used to purchase their homes. The banks are pressing hard for repayment, threatening eviction for non-payers. Helping families faced with eviction is just one part of the developing role taken on by the hundreds of ‘social clinics’ which Greek people are establishing in their local communities as a way of resisting the increasing depredations heaped upon them by the demands of the troika of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the European Union itself.
A delegation from the Greek Solidarity Campaign in Britain visited one such clinic, ‘The Pharmacy of Solidarity’, in the Athens suburb of Patisia. It used to be a community surgery for children’s health, run by the City Council and staffed by school doctors, which was closed because of the cuts. Housed in the modest rooms of the Cultural Centre of the Grava Schools, the clinic brings together parents, teachers of the OLME secondary school teachers’ union, activists and volunteers. Outside, children play in the cool evening, their football occasionally hammering against the wire-covered window.
The Solidarity Pharmacy welcomes people without social insurance, including immigrants and those without homes, who have a medical prescription. It serves them for free using mainly donated medicines and supplements. More complex prescriptions, so-called ‘red line’ ones, are not dispensed. The Pharmacy has built up a network of doctors with whom they co-operate when someone doesn’t have a prescription but needs treatment. Presently, the Pharmacy opens three days a week.
‘Our aim is not to collect medicine for charity; we are trying to promote medical support as an indisputable social right for everybody … We consider our initiative as part of the greater movement of solidarity developing in Greek society. We fight all together against the abolition of social rights, against individualism and against fear. We fight for the consolidation of the principles of solidarity, justice and human dignity.’
The Pharmacy of Solidarity at Patisia
Regular pharmacies in the locality co-operate and refer people to the Solidarity Clinic when they see people who cannot afford to pay for a prescription. So far, the clinic has helped some 300 individuals.
The Patisia Solidarity Pharmacy spawns other initiatives. Food is a big concern with many people struggling to feed themselves. There are 9,000 students in the Grava Schools, where the Pharmacy is housed. The teachers have secured City Council support for 500 free meals a day for vulnerable children, but they are campaigning for this to be increased to 1,000 free meals a day, such is the need.
Teachers see first-hand the drastic effects on families of five years of cuts and austerity in the public sector. They have responded with great ingenuity and commitment, giving up their bank holiday to brief our delegation on the destruction of large parts of the Greek education system and what they are doing in response. Now, at the Grava schools and elsewhere, teachers from the OLME union and other unpaid volunteers give free lessons in Greek and other subjects to support students who need extra help. In Greece there is compulsory education for children aged between six and fifteen years. Many teachers have lost their jobs as more than a thousand schools have been closed or amalgamated, with big increases in class sizes as a consequence, so the need for extra coaching is acute in a system where, formerly, this was prevalent amongst more prosperous families who paid for it. Those teachers who have retained their jobs have suffered big cuts in their salaries.
Training for young people aged 16 to 18 years has been particularly badly hit. ‘Poor kids are being dumped,’ in the words of one of the volunteers at the Solidarity Clinic. As many as one in two young people are not in training nor in employment.
‘Our aim is to defend our rights and our dignity and to put in practice the meaning of solidarity.’
The Pharmacy of Solidarity at Patisia
Greek universities are also under siege. Many candidate lecturers work without pay in the hope that, one day, their positions will be confirmed and they will receive a salary, albeit at diminished rates of pay compared to before the crisis. Pressurised by striking academics, the Samaras Government confirmed the appointments of some 400 candidates earlier in 2013. But many hundreds of others continue to work whilst awaiting such confirmation. Meanwhile, an 8-week-long strike by administrators and others at the prestigious Athens Technical University had reached a critical point as we visited. This is where Greek engineers usually receive their higher education, but numbers are down because of the ‘brain drain’ abroad as students seek better prospects outside Greece.
‘Greece used to send 75 per cent of its young people to university; much higher than the European average,’ says Theano Fotiou, SYRIZA Member of Parliament. Many parents can no longer afford to do this.
Ms Fotiou outlines solidarity actions in a series of areas so that ‘no one shall be alone in the crisis’ that engulfs Greece:
* Food kitchens to counter increasing hunger;
* Farmers markets without middlemen, which benefit city dwellers and farmers alike;
* Free markets to exchange clothing and other essentials;
* Solidarity clinics for medical treatment;
* Free lessons given by high school teachers, including music;
* Legal support from lawyers, bankers and tax experts to help people avoid losing their homes, their electricity and water supplies, and other vital services.
Ms Fotiou explains that SYRIZA will need the support of the Greek people when it comes into government, as many expect to happen. Currently SYRIZA has about 27 per cent support and, with 71 members of the Greek Parliament, forms the official opposition. The European Elections of May 2014 will give a strong indication of the distribution of political support in Greece and may determine when national elections are called. The current coalition, led by Samaras of the New Democracy Party, was eventually elected in the second general election of 2012. A future SYRIZA government, led by Alexis Tsipras, would likely need coalition partners.
To be elected, all parties must overcome the widespread political alienation which Greece shares with many other countries in the European Union. The rise of the fascist Golden Dawn party is one symptom of this disenchantment. It received 7 per cent of the vote in last year’s second election, giving it 18 members in the Greek Parliament. Golden Dawn’s public opinion support is now reckoned to be running at about 7 per cent, having taken a sharp fall from 13 per cent following the murder of musician Pavlos Fyssas by one of its supporters. This is still a shockingly high figure.
Golden Dawn are ‘a problem, not a danger,’ according to Manolis Glezos, veteran of the Greek Resistance to Italian and Nazi Germany’s occupation of his country. He was speaking before the roadside murder of two Golden Dawn supporters outside one of the party’s offices in Athens. Now a SYRIZA Member of the Greek Parliament and national hero, Mr Glezos maintains his independence and defiance of the Troika’s impositions on Greece. ‘We expected a bit more solidarity,’ he comments, when asked about Britain’s relations with Greece in recent years, especially since the crash of 2008. Glezos remembers well Churchill’s words of 1941, ‘Until now we used to say that the Greeks fight like heroes. Now we shall say: The heroes fight like Greeks’.
Indeed, such solidarity has been conspicuous by its absence in the conduct of much of the European Union towards Greece, which joined more than 30 years ago in 1981. All talk of ‘economic and social coherence’ has been abandoned in relation to this small country, which constitutes less than three per cent of the EU’s economy. It is within the EU’s capability to end the suffering of the Greek people; indeed, to reverse the decline and put Greece back on the road to growth based on its multiple economic and cultural strengths. But, instead of extending social solidarity, the EU, under German leadership, turns its back on the Greeks as it collectively punishes the population for the ‘crimes’ of the political and international business élite in falsifying Greek data when joining the euro from its inception in 2001. Mrs Merkel has abandoned ‘growth and stability’ in favour of (German) stability. The wider Union, like Greece, is called upon to find new ways to manifest solidarity, otherwise it may unravel more rapidly than it formed.
Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation
Editor, The Spokesman journal
11 November 2013
A comprehensive guide in English to solidarity developments in Greece, prepared by Greeks themselves, is available at: http://www.solidarity4all.gr/sites/www.solidarity4all.gr/files/aggliko.pdf
Also visit www.greecesolidarity.org for news of supporting actions in Britain.