The Next Greek Crisis Is Coming

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A refugee holds an umbrella as he tries to light a fire during rainy weather at a makeshift camp in the northern border village of Idomeni, April 8. Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty

 

As you approach the northern Greek city of Kozani, which stands on a plateau surrounded by mountains, you start to see smoke—thick white clouds floating above the knotty shrubs and sun-dappled hills of Western Macedonia. This is the heart of Greece’s coal industry; the plumes come from the chimneys of power stations dotted around the region.

When most Greeks think of Kozani, they think of coal. In the 1950s, the Public Power Corp. (PPC), now Greece’s biggest electric company, took over the mines here and brought prosperity to this poor, largely agricultural corner of northern Greece. Locals soon abandoned their traditional ways of making a living: saffron cultivation, marble production and fur-making. Mining was not easy, but the workers were well-compensated. The city’s businesses flourished.

Those days are long over. Kozani, a small city of 75,000, has gone from providing 70 percent of Greece’s electricity to less than 40 percent. Fifteen years ago, the PPC employed about 9,000 people. Now that number has dropped by a third. Unlike the slow and steady decline of other coal towns in Europe, Kozani’s slump has been rapid, accelerated by the Greek debt crisis that began in 2010. In Western Macedonia, the region where Kozani lies, roughly one in three citizens is unemployed, twice the rate of 2001. Among 15- to 24-year-olds, that number soars to more than 70 percent, the highest of any region in Europe. All of Greece has suffered through the financial crisis—within the past decade, it has experienced the biggest drop in happiness of any country in the world—but in rural areas like Kozani, Greeks say they have been hit especially hard.

“We built our lives around the coal mines,” says Ioannis Kostarellas, 35, who grew up in Kozani. “The energy from here powered the whole country, but now we are being left to deal with our problems alone.” Those problems kept mounting: unemployment, environmental damage left by the mines, an exodus of young people. Residents felt things could barely get worse in Kozani. And then, in February, the refugees arrived.

Europe has been beset by so many woes recently that its leaders and citizens almost seem to have forgotten about the country that demanded so much attention over the past few years (other than Greece’s role as a way station for refugees). In the past six months, homegrown extremists have carried out attacks in Paris and Brussels that claimed 162 lives. Over the same period, the largest migration of people since the end of World War II prompted Hungary, Slovenia, Austria and others to suspend the open internal borders of the Schengen zone and build new fences, calling into question one of the founding values of the European Union—freedom of movement.

Brussels is also facing growing Euroskepticism from many of its partners, including the U.K., which may well vote to leave the union in June. Europe has had a lot to worry about beyond the economy of the little country to the south whose debts seemed to threaten the EU’s existence.

But while Europeans are worrying about suicide bombers and hundreds of thousands of refugees crossing the continent, a two-pronged new crisis has been building in Greece. In early March, the Republic of Macedonia sealed its border with Greece, leaving tens of thousands of refugees trapped in Greece, which until then had mainly been a passageway for asylum seekers leaving Turkey for new lives in Northern Europe.

And here’s the other bad news no one has been talking about: The Greek economy is showing little sign of improvement. In June and July, the country faces more than 10 billion euros ($11.3 billion) of debt repayments, money it will not have unless Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras can negotiate with creditors to access more money from its third bailout package. The four other eurozone countries that were bailed out by their European partners a few years ago are now recovering relatively well.

Greece is not. It’s tempting to pose the same binary question that has been asked for several years now: Can Greece survive? Of course it will; countries generally don’t just go away. Greeks, though, have another, more pressing question: Will this ever end?

A Broad Sense of Defiance

Since the crisis, Greece’s birthrate has fallen by more than 10 percent to 1.1 to 1.3 live births per woman, one of the eurozone’s lowest. Analysts attribute the trend to rising poverty and women fearing that they will lose their jobs if they get pregnant. Greece’s native-born population has begun to rapidly decrease. “Most people cannot make dreams,” Loukopoulos says. “Forget about dreams, actually. They cannot even plan ahead.”

A Warehouse of Souls

Outside the islands or the Greek-Macedonian border, it was difficult for most Greeks to grasp the scale of the crisis. A January survey conducted by Greek polling company Public Issue showed that only one in five Greeks was aware that more than a million migrants had passed through the country. This is perhaps why, as the Public Issue poll showed, two-thirds of them had positive feelings toward the refugees and did not want Greece to close its borders. Greece was just a transit country, receiving only 0.9 percent of the EU’s total share of asylum applications in 2015.

In late February, that began to change. On February 22, Macedonian officials at Greece’s northern border in Idomeni stopped Afghans (the second-largest group of refugees) from crossing and began imposing stricter controls on Syrians and Iraqis. On March 9, refugees found that the border was now closed to them all. The number of people stranded in the fields of Idomeni soared from a few hundred up to 14,000 in just a few weeks. More than 53,000 people are now trapped in the country, creating what Tsipras has called “a warehouse of souls.”

The effects of the border closure were felt immediately, as a bottleneck of buses began to build up along the 340-mile highway that runs from Athens to the Republic of Macedonia. In the early evening of February 22, Lefteris Ioannidis, Kozani’s mayor, was at home with his family when he received a phone call from the police. They told him that five buses, carrying 380 mostly Syrian refugees—half of them children—had been diverted to a gas station 20 miles from Kozani.

The Love of Strangers

On the face of it, Greece’s two crises seem unconnected: One was decades in the making, the product of fiscal recklessness, the other an accident of geography. It initially seemed that Greece might be able to use its pivotal role in the refugee crisis to win concessions on budgetary targets from the troika, but the migrant situation deteriorated so rapidly that the two crises look more likely to exacerbate each other. If Germany, Europe’s economic powerhouse, has been stretched to its limit by the refugee influx, there’s little chance Greece can host tens of thousands of refugees in humane conditions, thus increasing the risk of clashes between migrant communities and the authorities. And if Greeks see their local authorities spending much-needed resources on newcomers, there may well be a rise in xenophobia.

Chancellor Mercy?

In a turn no one would have predicted last summer, Merkel may well be Greece’s best hope now. Greece and Germany have found themselves with an accidental commonality of interests. Both governments have broadly taken pro-refugee stances. “Do you seriously believe that all the euro states that last year fought all the way to keep Greece in the eurozone—and we were the strictest—can one year later allow Greece to, in a way, plunge into chaos?” Merkel asked in an interview with public broadcaster ARD in late February. She warned that Athens could find itself paralyzed by the huge number of arrivals.

Greeks are hoping Germany’s sympathy extends to further debt relief. The country’s repayment deadlines are fast approaching: In June and July, Athens must repay 10 billion euros ($11.3 billion), money it doesn’t have. On April 1, whistleblowing website WikiLeaks published transcripts of an illegally recorded internal IMF phone conversation from March that showed officials seemingly predicting another emergency in a discussion about what it would take to get Greece’s European creditors to agree to debt relief.

Full article: The Next Greek Crisis Is Coming (Newsweek)

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