Since its election in June, the new Greek government has been working hard to restore the trust of the public. In a ‘postcard’ from Greece Theofanis Exadaktylos finds that an apparent relaxation of the Greek public’s mood may be more to do with the languor of a hot summer and headlines that divert attention away from the deficiencies of the state. International markets and other EU members may still need further convincing that the country is on the right track.
Time slows down in Greece during the summer heat, and some things already seem like ancient history. Even so, it has only been two months since the Greeks voted for a new government: the outcome of the elections was a tripartite coalition government between conservative New Democracy, center-left PASOK and the newly formed Democratic Left. In my last contribution to EUROPP, only a few days after the electoral results of 17 June, I was pondering how successful the new government would be given the lack of prior history of coalitions and the mountains of problems to be sorted under the pressure of the international markets and whether a subsequent failure would mean the exit of Greece from the Eurozone. Today, I am sending this entry as a postcard from Greece. After all, what better way to understand the situation than experiencing it first hand on the ground?
Every day there are two types of stories here on the local news and one specific television advertisement that are noteworthy. On the news, stories focus either on the forthcoming additional spending cuts alongside statements from German officials on the future of Greece, or on the latest police operations tackling illegal immigration alongside perhaps a recent crime with immigrants at center stage. At the same time there is a new television campaign—the result of collaboration between the Greek government, the European Parliament and the Commission—which is trying to convince Greeks through the eyes of famous international personalities living in Greece of what a wonderful country they have and how it deserves its place within the European Union. In my opinion, both the news stories and the advertising campaign are going in the wrong direction. Let me explain.
The constant bombardment of the Greek population with negative stories about the future of the economy can only add on to the downward recessionary spiral of the Greek economy. At the same time, the media are ignoring a lesser visible side of Greece that is flourishing entrepreneurially, making remarkable progress in farming products and tourist services and trying to attract foreign investment. In addition, the coalition government has survived the summer tests and, the measures to tidy up the state mess seem to be working; that too has received little visibility. The absence of protests after the recent announcement of more austerity may be due to the truly hot temperatures but they do allow a certain room for maneuvering to the new government to complete the foundations for some reforms ahead of the curve.
Nonetheless, European ministers and prime ministers, chancellors and parliamentarians, commissioners and financiers continue to speculate on the chances of exit (or not) of Greece from the Eurozone, and the next installment of bailout money is being pushed once more further into the autumn. Those that need to be convinced on the measures and their success, i.e. the international troika, have not arrived yet, fearing perhaps failures of the air conditioning systems in Greece. The recent shift of attention to countries like Spain or Italy may have limited the stories on Greece in the international media, but the local media still feel as if Greece is the center of attention and the reporting on the deepening crisis continues non-stop. The Greek government has not made official announcements on the new measures and cuts yet, but the local media are creating scenarios over scenarios, and the average viewer is getting further and further confused.
A recent crime by a Pakistani immigrant over a 15-year old Greek girl, the bodies of two Polish workers discovered in a garbage bin outside their flat, the latest police operations to deport undocumented immigrants, the chase-up of foreigners in the center of Athens by Golden Dawn members with sticks and stones; these are the kind of stories making the headlines these days. In my opinion, these headlines too divert attention away from the heart of the matter, which lies in fact on the structural deficiencies of the Greek state and the absence (a) of trust in the political institutions and (b) of implementation mechanisms for laws and measures rather than migration. Since the influx of illegal immigrants came to the forefront during the recent elections and became part of the mainstream political agenda after the extreme right-wing party gained a few seats in parliament, the political system attempts to convince the population that it is doing at least something to tackle the issue, to appease their consciousness and restore some peace of mind to the center of Athens.
Finally, the European Parliament alongside the Commission and in collaboration with the Greek government is trying to convince Greeks about the benefits of and their rightful place in the European Union. This too is a fallacy: Greeks do not need to be convinced; they expressed their desire to remain in full membership after the electoral results of 17 June. They are doing their best—according to EU officials too—to tie up loose ends, to make the fiscal framework operational and to finally set the tax-collecting and the law-implementation mechanisms in motion. Those who still need convincing are the financial motors of the Euro, France and Germany, and their electorates, alongside the international markets. The latest rumors now confirm that Germany appears ready to examine some form of loosening up of the terms of the bailout agreement—this would most certainly pacify (at least for the time being) the protesting Greeks and would be deemed a success of the coalition government adding more months in its time in office.
In general, things seem a lot quieter here nowadays than only a few months ago. Yet, is this lull a result of restoration of the public’s trust to the political system or a result of summer languor?
In my opinion it is more the latter than the former: despite the fact that the Greek government mechanisms and the bureaucratic arms of the European Union are working day and night in the middle of August, the summer heat wave has acted as a muscle relaxer for the general public. The turmoil lies ahead in a few weeks time, when the Troika report will be compiled, the Greek government will finally have to announce the new €11.5 billion-worth austerity measures for the next bailout tranche to be released and when the targeted social groups will return to their regular autumn routine of high unemployment and chopped welfare state. Nonetheless, there are also signs of restoration of the public’s trust to the political system: things have acquired a certain pace, some ducks are in line and the government is struggling to get the rest of them there too. The test is not over yet; but, beyond summer indolence, there seems to be a silent majority in Greece who are catching the meaning of reform. Not surprising, they are not politicians.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
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Theofanis Exadaktylos – LSE Hellenic Observatory
Dr. Theofanis Exadaktylos is Ministry of Finance Research Fellow at the LSE’s Hellenic Observatory, LSE and Lecturer in European Politics at the University of Surrey. He holds a PhD in Politics from the University of Exeter. His doctoral thesis was on the Europeanization of national foreign policies of the member states with particular focus on Greece and Germany. His current research interests include the Europeanization of foreign policy, politics of austerity, issues of policy implementation and political trust and the current Eurozone crisis from the perspective of the rise in populism.