'Patched-up' Greece pleads for more bailout time
"Margaret! Even if you don’t come for work, come for a holiday! Because Greece is wonderful again! There aren’t any people."
That was my Greek translator last week when I called to say I was coming for a checkup on Greece after the recent elections and ahead of Thursday’s big European Union summit in Brussels on the continent’s growing debt problems.
By "people" he meant tourists. And his comments, of course, were delivered with a certain irony.
Humour is a rarity in Athens these days and Greek tourism has indeed taken a hit.
Receipts are down by 15 per cent since the start of the year, according to official statistics and that likely has just as much to do with Greeks no longer being able to afford even local holidays as it does with jittery foreigners.
As a result, there are plenty of seats on the little trains carrying tourists from Syntagma Square and the Greek Parliament over to that ancient symbol of democracy, the Acropolis.
Yesterday the trains even had drivers. It was hotel staff and catering workers who were on strike this time, protesting proposed wage cuts by hotel owners.
The call of the bullhorn and roving protests in the middle of Athens are just routine business now in these days of austerity.
The hotel protest took place across the street from a burned-out building that had been torched by anarchists two years ago after a nation-wide strike against an initial round of spending cuts. Three people died in that incident.
The burned-out building is a reminder of how long Greeks have been living with this sense of chaos and financial uncertainty.
The teeter-totter election that brought about a new government on June 17, one that pledged to meet Greece's bail-out commitments while also lobbying Brussels for more time to repay, hasn’t changed anything.
Bread queues in the centre of Athens are getting longer; illegal immigrants and a growing Greek underclass compete for aid as the country’s social security system feels the strain. The mood here is pessimistic and cynical.
"We expect things to get worse," Nikos Papgeorgiou, one of the local hotel union leaders, told me when I asked him what he expected out of today’s summit. "We know what kind of government it is."
That cynicism also forms the backdrop for the Greek delegation that is to meet with its European partners in Brussels.
It is a delegation without the new prime minister, Antonis Samaras, unable to travel due to an eye operation. His new finance minister, a prominent banker, fell ill, too, quickly resigned because of health concerns and was replaced by an affable economist, Yannis Stournaras.
But at Brussels, it will be Greece’s former finance minister, Giorgos Zannias, whose government was turfed from power back in May in the first of two elections, who will be carrying the country’s brief, along with Greek President Karolos Papoulias.
A patchwork effort perhaps, but the demands will be the same: more time, please, to meet the terms of the 130-billion euro bailout agreement.
Many here think that's possible, including Euclid Tsakalotos, an economics professor and MP for SYRIZA, the relatively new and popular left-wing opposition party that wants to tear up the deal altogether.
"I think they [the EU] will give more time," he said in an interview from his office in central Athens.
"Unfortunately, giving more time isn't any long-term solution.
"If you've been given poison and you decide that the dose of the poison is going to be reduced a bit it isn't a solution. The problem is the direction of the policy of austerity, not the dose."
Moving away from austerity is not an argument that Germany, effectively Europe's banker, has so far been inclined to accept.
What's more, this Brussels summit is more likely to be more focussed on big-picture issues for the bloc’s 17 eurozone members, including proposals for a central EU body with the power to veto national budgets that don't stay within proscribed limits.
Here in Greece, people will be wanting their new government, or at least its envoys, to return with a sign that there will be some relief from the spending cuts that have cost tens of thousands of jobs and produced lineups at food banks and the like.
Analyst Ioannis Nomikos warns that without at least some relief, Antonis Samaras' government will be short-lived.
"He has four to five months to show hope and a light at the end of the tunnel," says Nomikos, "otherwise this coalition government is not going to last."