Report by Cllr Isidoros Diakides, Co-Chair GSC, October
TAKING STOCK – GREECE AT THE CROSSROADS
This was another roller-coaster year. Once more, as we have come to expect, our Greek comrades never let us down when it comes to adrenalin pumping drama, twists and turns, ups and downs. So much happened since our last AGM, it is hard to believe that it all happened within a year.
Last autumn SYRIZA had managed to consolidate its popularity in Greece and to establish itself as the government in waiting. Our main concern at that time was the fact that the next elections were scheduled for 2016, allowing the then government to continue for another year and a half as the shield that protected the interests that had brought the country to its knees from the Greek people’s mounting anger and resistance, causing further damage and supping the energy of the movement.
But, suddenly by the tail-end of 2014, SYRIZA managed to find and exploit the opportunity to bring that government down and force early elections. The excitement once more reached fever-pitch levels and the enthusiasm within the radical movements across Europe was palpable.
SYRIZA won the elections on the 25th of January this year, despite the interference and the blatant meddling of the, until then seemingly invincible, powers that be and despite the shameful undermining by so much of the Greek establishment and its obedient press acting like their fifth column within the country.
Thousands from across Europe, including many from our own organisation, congregated that day in Athens to be part of history in the making and they weren’t disappointed. Whoever was there that day and night will never forget the experience. During election day, whilst visiting polling stations as guests of SYRIZA, we’ve gradually sensed that the worry that SYRIZA may not come first that the treacherous opinion polls and establishment press had carefully cultivated, was ebbing away to be gradually replaced by the certainty of victory. And then, as the day and the very long night that followed were coming to their end, as the exit polls and the first results started coming in, our expectations were rising and the nail-biting drama of whether SYRIZA will succeed in securing an absolute majority unfolded. In the end we were so tantalising close, well beyond our wildest expectations when the day had started, failing to get the coveted 150 seats by just one! But, the nerves were soon soothed when Alexis Tsipras confirmed before the night was out that they had secured a comfortable majority with the support of the other surprise package of the elections, the small conservative, but staunchly anti-establishment, anti-austerity and anti-corruption Party of the Independent Greeks. Little Greece had after all managed to deliver the first radical Left led government in Europe, reviving hope and boosting optimism across the European democratic anti-austerity movements. Suddenly everything seemed again possible and we were allowed once more to dream of a better world.
But, this being Greece, the euphoria did not last long. We knew that this victory was a significant milestone, but no more than a step in a long arduous and treacherous road; we knew it wasn’t going to be easy to beat “the other side”, the mighty international establishment with its vested interests; that the odds were heavily stacked against little Greece. And the other side didn’t disappoint us either. They didn’t allow the new government even a week’s grace, no honey-moon period; they went straight for the jugular, trying from day one to bring it down.
SYRIZA hit the road running. The new government was sworn in and a cabinet formed in record time, consisting of an impressive assembly of individuals, many from outside the part itself. You have never seen so many distinguished University professors and internationally renowned experts in any government’s cabinet. Within days detailed programmes for each new ministry were unveiled; plans prepared in detail before the elections, by teams of people with expertise that had volunteered to help, were unveiled and a race to turn them into laws and start implementing begun.
A frenetic diplomatic marathon got started from week one and Tsipras and Varoufakis soon became celebrities across Europe, in their epic “David versus Goliath” fight. Isolated, as expected, amongst the European governments, but gradually inching their way into the European public consciousness, gaining the sympathy and support of increasing numbers within the European populations. In parallel, the new Left anti austerity and anti establishment movements boosted by what was happening in Greece, started becoming serious contenders for power in various countries, especially in Spain and Ireland, competing with the hard Right for filling the vacuum created by the collapsing Conservative and Social Democratic old guard.
Hope for a better world, which seemed impossible even two years earlier, was re-instated, as the veil was lifted and more and more people started becoming aware of what was really going on in Europe. As the determined Greek government was fighting this uneven war and as the public at large was witnessing the bullying, the blackmailing, the insults and provocations and the systematic undermining of the country’s frail economy, the establishment was forced to drop the smiling face and reveal its true intentions. Not to resolve the crisis, but to force little Greece into submission, to make it an example for others thinking of breaking away from the imposed austerity, the privatisation of their countries’ assets, the raping of their resources, using Greece as the guinea pig for a final assault against the prevailing post-war Welfare State model. Little Greece had become, on behalf of all of us, our de-facto “front line” in the war between the pan-European progressive forces and the prevailing international neoliberal establishment.
The new government was not allowed to govern, bullied and blackmailed, trying to break the spirit of its people. It was an uneven battle, but one that was taken on and fought valiantly, always relying on solidarity across Europe.
At the beginning of the summer the situation reached an impasse. The bullying and the direct interventions became more intense and all pretensions were dropped.
In desperation the Greek government called a referendum on the austerity measures demanded by the powers, hoping that by demonstrating that the spirit of its people had not been broken, it would be in a stronger position. The move raised again the temperature and again the bullying and threats of the powers that be, the hostile Greek Press and the tainted opinion polls managed to create the impression of a cliffhanger. Up to the last minute we all believed that the result will be close. The solidarity movements across Europe went into overdrive, urging the Greeks not to be browbeaten. We, here in London, organised more marches, public meetings and events in the run up to the referendum, involving thousands of people, than we have ever done before.
Again our Greek comrades didn’t let us down. Not only we won the No vote, but we did so with a massive majority. The relief across democratic Europe was again palpable. The enthusiasm generated by the drama was again an experience that those involved are not likely to forget for years to come. But many of us had no illusions about the task ahead. At our crowded celebration rally at the TUC headquarters, I remember urging comrades to celebrate today but start panicking from the next day. The odds were still heavily stacked against the little David and the showdown we were until now trying to avoid was becoming imminent.
The Greek government tried valiantly to negotiate an honourable settlement, argued its case against deaf ears, tried to bring the sleepy European Parliament into life, managed to shift albeit marginally the positions of some of the EU governments, but the Goliath was out and out. It managed to hit on a killer blow, its control over the liquidity of the Greek banks, which it used cynically to blackmail the government into submission. At the beginning of the summer the Greek government, after a 17 hours marathon summit of the Eurozone Heads of State, gave in and accepted a 3rd memorandum, in exchange for some minor concessions, a promise to open up negotiations for debt reduction and some flexibility in the implementation of the austerity package.
Not surprisingly SYRIZA MPs and activists were devastated, and many refused to accept the compromise deal in front of them. More than one third of the SYRIZA MPs refused to vote for the new deal at the parliament, forcing the government to rely on opposition votes to get it through. A proportion of the disaffected MPs decided to form their own party and break away from SYRIZA causing the government to lose its majority and forcing it into new elections. Another surprise twist in the Greek drama.
SYRIZA was in crisis, the Greek public seemed dispirited and the solidarity movements across Europe confused. As usual events unfolded with lightning speed.
Again a predicted cliffhanger, with the usual outside interference and blackmail, the usual onslaught by the treacherous Greek media, the usual siren voices of the tainted opinion polls. Everything the establishment had was thrown into a determined effort to prevent SYRIZA winning and to bring a so called “national government” which would effectively have meant the end of the “Left” experiment.
Again, despite the onslaught, the blackmailing and the bullying, despite the doubts and the disappointment, despite the haemorage of the breakaway party, once more the Greek people didn’t let us down. In one more nail-biting episode, SYRIZA managed to win convincingly and to retain the government, holding on to the hope that, despite all that, little Greece may still regroup, lick its wounds and find another way of escaping the tentacles of the neoliberal beast. The admission by the powers that be that the Greek Debt is unsustainable and therefore needs restructuring, the modest but tangible flexibility clauses secured during these last negotiations and above all the growing influence of radical anti-austerity forces across Europe, that the Greek struggle has helped to galvanise and inspire, are providing a base on which to regroup and continue the fight.
Sadly the breakaway party, having demonstrably misinterpreted the public mood and the real meaning of the 62% NO vote in the referendum, failed to achieve even the necessary 3% threshold for gaining representation in the new parliament. As a result some of the most vocal and talented anti-austerity voices in Greece have been marginalised, hopefully not for very long.
Greece is still the frontline for our pan-European struggle against neoliberal forces. At the same time, the new anti-austerity political parties inspired by SYRIZA are gaining ground. There is genuine and realistic hope that within the next few months elections in Portugal, Spain and Ireland will result in coalition governments involving such parties. The surprising election of Jeremy Corbyn (a patron of the Greece Solidarity Campaign) as leader of the British Labour Party, the forthcoming new developments in Italy (where a new SYRIZA-like party is about to be launched by a number of Socialist party MPs, the old Refondation communist party, defectors from the non-political 5-Star movement and members of the “Avanti Con Tsipras” movement) and the resilience of alternative Green and Left parties in Germany, France and other countries, are also providing grounds for optimism that soon little Greece would not be alone.
In parallel a further major European crisis with Greece at “the eye of the storm” has unfolded the last few months, creating a new twist in the Greek saga and its tortured relationship with the EU.
The Refugee crisis, which had been building up for more than a year, has suddenly exploded into a major international crisis, with hundreds of thousands of refugees, primarily fleeing Syria and other war-torn middle eastern and African countries, many with their families including small children and elderly, reaching such levels of desperation as to risk their lives trying to enter Europe. An estimated 3-4m refugees have entered Turkey on their way to Europe and probably more than half a million this year alone have managed to cross the relatively short distance from the Turkish coast to a number of Greek islands, many (estimated into several hundreds) losing their lives in the sea, as overcrowded and unsafe boats are capsizing daily.
TV pictures of the corpses of small children and others being picked up from the sea by the authorities and of the rescue operations of overloaded plastic boats full of desperate refugees in choppy waters, have finally pricked the average European public’s conscience, forcing the major northern European countries to abandon their long-standing “Fortress Europe” and “Dublin 2” policies, whilst others are raising electric fences around their borders and taking other panicky measures in an unseemly effort to keep out the huge and tragic processions of desperate refugees walking their way towards the promised land of prosperous northern Europe.
Again, our Greek comrades haven’t let us down. Until now the response of the average Greek has been remarkable. Despite the crisis and their own desperate circumstances, most Greeks seem to have responded to the humanitarian crisis involved selflessly, with genuine humanity and generosity. The predicted rise of the anti-immigrant forces of Golden Dawn has not materialised, whilst the network of solidarity centres and clinics across the country has thrown its weight behind a national effort to help and protect the refugees.
What a year!
And for the future?
In my opinion this brief overview of recent developments confirms the continuing need for our Greece Solidarity Campaign for at least one more year and it effectively defines the priorities for the next phase of our campaign.
- Our policy of avoiding to take sides or to associate ourselves with any specific political party or movement either in Greece or here is evidently the right one. We should continue trusting and supporting the Greek people and the whole of the Greek anti-austerity movement in whatever they decide, avoiding the trap of trying to tell them what to do.
- It is clear that we should put more emphasis on helping Greece with the refugee crisis in any way we can. It is an effective way to help Greece and its people during the crisis, and to promote our objectives for a pan-European change of politics and a better world, which is the wider context of our campaign.
- Our “Medical Aid for Greece” initiative is even more important now than before, especially with the added stress of helping the newly arrived refugees, and we should redouble our efforts to assist in any way we can the growing network of social SOLIDARITY Clinics and Pharmacies.
- It is clear that we need to also start a similar initiative in support of other aspects of the remarkable Social Solidarity movement in Greece and especially to respond positively to the request for a “food” dimension, around the work of the Social Solidarity Centres and the “Without Middlemen” solidarity markets, working closely with our Greek partners “Solidarity for All”.
- We need to step up our campaigning around the debt, together with our partners, the Jubillee Debt Campaign, and to support in any way we can the forthcoming negotiations of the Greek government on this subject. Part of this should be to publicise and to build on, the interim findings of the Greek Committee for the Truth about the Debt, whilst ensuring that its work continues and does not become entangled into personalities or petty party political disputes.
- We also need to step up our efforts to establish a pan-European solidarity movement, not only at the political level (which we have already started), but also at the practical level, forging better links and co-ordination with other sister solidarity movements and initiatives in Germany, France and other countries.
- Finally the success of our last Solidarity Visit and the feedback from the MPs and the other participants make it clear that this is an effective tool of our campaign and therefore we should continue using it.