June 21, 2015
The Greek Crisis: Grandparents on the Table?
So, even the right-wing Daily Telegraph now excoriates the IMF, EMU and other lenders for its irrationally hostile and punitive approach to the current negotiations. In two recent articles, financial columnist Ambrose Evans-Pritchard articulates eloquently the problems which now threaten to derail Europe, the euro and by extension the world’s financial system.
Bravo to him for speaking up in this tense moment when much of the mainstream press continues to circulate the unexamined propaganda picture of Greece as naughty teenager. The real problem, as Evans-Pritchard says, is that the IMF is
‘colluding in an EMU-imposed austerity regime that breaches the Fund’s own rules and is in open contradiction with five years of analysis by its own excellent research department and chief economist, Olivier Blanchard.’
Greeks have tried the IMF’s austerity prescriptionthese past five years, swallowing every bitter pill in the troika’s prescription. At their insistence Greece has implemented more fiscal consolidation, wage and pension cuts, and tax rate increases, and suffered greater unemployment and loss of GDP, than any other country in peacetime.
Even a child – perhaps especially a child, if we are talking about the hundreds of thousands of hungry Greek children – can see that this method is not working. As the Wall Street Journal has revealed, the IMF’s own members foresaw the utter unfeasibility of the original bailout program from its very beginning.
Evans-Pritchard also says, rightly, that Greek Finance Minister Yianis Varoufakis’ latest proposal for an agreement is thoroughly sound, finding it ‘rational, reasonable, fair, and proportionate’. I invite you to judge for yourself. You can read Varoufakis’ proposal and the text of his contribution to the most recent Eurogroup meeting here.
The mainstream press repeat that the key sticking point is ‘pension reform’, which sounds innocent enough, and gives the impression that Greece is being unreasonably stubborn over an issue of no value. However, what does ‘pension reform’ mean? Pensions have already been cut by 48% overall. The base pension has been reduced to 350 euros, forcing pensioners into a struggle for survival. Already two-thirds of pensioners (and a third of all Greeks) are below or at the poverty line. As other family members have lost jobs, homes, businesses and prospects, often that grandparent’s pension is providing crucial support for several family members.
This picture of the grandparent helping support their children and grandchildren throughout their lives is quite alien to western and northen Europeans, and yet it is firmly at the heart of Greek society. Elders are almost universally cared for within the family; old-age homes are extremely few. Like the sacred hospitality offered to guests and strangers since ancient times, elder care is considered a sacred responsibility, and elders themselves are universally treated with great respect in Greek society.
In general, members of families and networks of neighbours and friends can be counted on to help one another, even when everyone is struggling desparately; this is how Greeks have managed to survive the terrible effects of the man-made ‘crisis’ up til now. However, if pensioners’ income is reduced further, amid the disastrously rising prices and rates of unemployment, pensioner deaths, suicides, illness and infant mortality, people fear they will be unable to support their parents and grandparents as their duty demands. And such a sacred duty, for Greeks, is non-negotiable.
This respect for elders, therefore, is at the heart of the Greek resistance to further cuts to pensions. For the same reason, Greece does not wish to consider raising VAT on medicines and electricity bills, two further measures on which the lenders continue to insist, and which will of course hit these vulnerable elderly the hardest. Why this insistence by the lenders on such harsh measures which will have the worst impact on society’s weakest members? It would be far better to ask the wealthiest Greeks to contribute a little more in taxes, yet the lenders continue to resist this idea.
In my view, if the lenders force Greece to default on their loans and exit the euro, it will be because of this one point. Europe wants Greece to throw their old folks on the trash heap, but I do not believe that Greeks will ever do that. So, the grandparents are now precariously on the table, instead of safely at the table, where they belong, to be helped and fed and cared for throughout their lives.
Alexis Tsipras, the young leader of the Syriza government elected early this year on an anti-austerity platform, has said that if the new proposal is rejected, he will call a referendum (which undoubtedly should have been done before) and let the Greek people decide. This is how democracy works. His goverment does not have a mandate to tighten the screws of austerity further on innocent Greeks. If the IMF and EMU act to prevent this referendum, as it did with George Papandreou (in what conservative Evans-Pritchard calls a coup by a monetary junta), it must take responsibility for turning the beautiful country which was once democracy’s cradle into its grave.