Note: this is a comment/opinion piece
If there is a winner in the disgraceful drama that is the Greek crisis, it may be the German tabloid Bild (German for: image, picture) – controversial, criticized, yet a bestseller. For years, Bild’s front page was dominated by repetitive (not to mention exaggerated and generalized) stories of criminal immigrants (who, according to Bild rhetoric, represent the majority of immigrants), lazy people on benefit (again, in the Bild world, are a fair depiction of people on welfare), sex, murder, and upperclass headlines. In 2010, however, when a bailout of billions of euros, financed mostly by the German state, saved the Greek state, which had been on the brink of bankruptcy, Bild finally found a new stereotype to fill its cover page with: the lazy, greedy Greeks, living off of the money provided by the hard-working Germans. In the tabloid world, truth is not a priority.
The 2010 crisis brought a new stereotype to the front pages of German newspapers: the lazy and corrupt Greeks
This is not a debt crisis
The Greek crisis is not primarily a crisis of debt, of payment schedules and emergency loans; it is first and foremost a crisis of communication, a crisis of ruined relations between peoples, of misunderstandings and prejudice, of intolerance and clichés. Today, with negotiations between Athens and its European creditors dragging on, the ideals on which the European integration process is based on – mutual understanding and, most importantly, solidarity – are suddenly open to discussion for some people. In Germany, a 2011 poll showed that eighty percent of Germans would refuse to help Greece with their private assets, and in a 2013 survey, almost one in four persons stated that in times of crisis, Germany should focus on itself instead of helping out other countries. On one hand, this position looks natural and logical: egoism is a human trait. But in Europe, egoism should have no place, because here, the maxim of the wealthy and powerful assisting the weak and vulnerable ought to count. The fact that many people in my country are willing to give up European solidarity is the result of the distortion of the public atmosphere in Germany over the past few years, carried out by the media (Bild, to a great part) and populist politicians.
Debunking the crisis myths
We did not bail out Greek pensioners, but European banks whose greed had helped create this global disaster
Maybe the German people would think differently if the many myths and misconceptions about the Greek debt crisis were finally debunked. For instance, Germany is not a loser of the financial crisis – as claimed by those who feel that Germany spent too much money on the Greek and Portuguese bailouts- but actually a winner: at a time when most European countries were in deep recession, German corporations had an incredible competitive advantage: credibility. Banks were willing to lend money to German businesses at low interest rates because they were convinced the businesses would be able to pay them back. Similarly, our nation has massively benefited from the brain drain that is plaguing the countries on the periphery of the Eurozone. Additionally, some useless and megalomaniac infrastructure project contracts of the Greek government from the pre-crisis boom years were awarded to German companies, making these companies’ profits skyrocket while costing the Greek state billions. Secondly, it is not lazy Greeks who got us into this mess, but reckless financiers and bankers. The so-called Greek bailout was, instead, a bailout of European banks who had recklessly given loans to Greece and who were at risk of defaulting if Greece went bankrupt. Because Deutsche Bank, BNP Paribas and other financial institutions were just “too big to fail” (e.g. in 2010, the German banking sector alone owned 15.8 billion euros’ worth of Greek government bonds), the Greek administrations were given money – not to pay pensioners and workers, but to repay their debts. Statistics show the overwhelming portion of the bailout capital went directly into the hands of Greece’s private creditors*. Therefore, the term Greek bailout itself is misleading: essentially, through the state bailouts for troubled financial institutions, what happened was that faulty bonds and securities – accumulated by reckless bankers- were simply passed on to the public budgets, at the expense of ordinary taxpayers.
A social disaster
But unfortunately, these myths are allowed to persist. In Germany, little is known about the disastrous human cost of the austerity programmes that countries requesting financial aid from the European institutions had to comply with. A third of the Greek population has no health insurance, children are fainting in classrooms due to malnutrition – caused by their parents inability to afford appropriate food – people live in the dark because they are unable to afford electricity bills, the cutback on programs to help drug addicts has driven HIV infections up, the suicide rate goes only one direction: upwards. The situation in Portugal is similarly depressing; Spain and Italy are not significantly better off.
The sheer dimension of the social impact of the crisis is hard to believe.
But this is not what Bild would make headlines of. Instead, the newspaper does not let go of the simplified, generalized prejudice about Greek people being lazy and greedy because it sells more. The creative minds at the tabloid have created neologisms such as “Pleite-Griechen” (Bankruptcy-Greeks), “Griechen-Raffkes” (Greed-Greeks). Once, the newspaper suggested that “Bankruptcy-Greeks” should sell their islands. Bild featured anecdotes about Greeks allegedly getting “luxury pensions”. Bild wrote to Greece’s former prime minister, Giorgios Papandreou, to inform him that “You” would not get money from “us”. They distributed drachmas in the streets of Greek cities. After the far-left party, Syriza’s, victory in the January elections, Bild filled its first page with a “NO” to further financial assistance for Greece – and asked those of its readers who endorsed the statement to take a selfie holding up the headline, then post it on social media. This one time, Bild went too far, the German journalists’ association, DJV, released a press statement urging the newspaper to stop its selfie action, saying it crossed the line as a political campaign. Additionally, the association criticized Bild, saying that the headline attacked an entire people for the financial mistakes of its politicians. This weekend, when Bild started a “referendum” among its readers on the question of whether Germany should financially support Greece, the DJV strongly criticised the newspaper’s work as “inacceptable”. Even the serious weekly magazine Der Spiegel joined the anti-Syriza campaign: shortly after the Greek elections, it printed a photo of PM Alexis Tsipras, describing him as “Europe’s nightmare” and the “wrong-way driver” (the German word for it literally means “ghost driver”, resulting in an even worse portrayal of Tsipras).
“We have to make an example out of Athens, [to show] that the Eurozone also has teeth. Germany can no longer be paymaster for Greece” – Markus Söder, finance minister for the state of Bavaria and member of the centre-right CSU party.
The austerity experiment failed
But Bild is not an isolated actor, its anti-solidarity message is backed and shared by some of this country’s Conservative political elite. The concept of radical austerity has long been proved wrong economically (for instance, take a look at the criticism by Nobel-Prize-winning economists Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz), yet politically, austerity survives. Harsh budget cuts and privatizations, it seems, has become a political ideology for some (mostly, but not only) German politicians, a belief that defies common sense and compassion. When looking at the aggressiveness with which the austerity agenda has been sold as the “only remedy” for the Eurozone debt crisis, I cannot help but believe that some of its proponents consider it a means of “punishing” nations for their past overspending. And this is wrong. The austerity experiment has failed – and not only in Greece. In the other nations subjected to tough “structural reforms”, the alleged “success” exists on paper only. In reality, these measures have created social and humanitarian emergencies there as well.
We have the chance to bring real democracy back to its European birthplace.
This goes beyond the current political ping-pong between Athens and Brussels/Berlin (played with TNT-filled balls). This is about the credibility and the values of the European Union. In Greece, people despise the European institutions, with the infamous “troika” symbolizing the policies of austerity. We must stop this now. Politicians on both sides have used this crisis to further political agendas. Europe must change – currently, it is an institution whose only profiteers are political and financial elites. It is a union that negotiates controversial trade deals in secrecy; bails out banks and then makes the people pay for it; lets refugees drown. Reforming Europe is tough – and it will certainly have a price. But the cost of letting this project go bust is far higher. We need to find a viable solution for Greece – neither pushing it out of the Eurozone nor continuing to burden it with counterproductive and destructive austerity measures are viable – and, most of all, we need to make solidarity a European core value again. And this is, believe it or not, what most members of the new Greek government have been asking for for half a year now. We should be happy about the election outcome: for the first time in decades, the Greek people have a government that seeks to represent more than a small, privileged group of elite. We now have the chance of making the shameful “troika”, an assault on our valued principles of sovereignty and the rule of the people, a thing of the past. We have a chance to bring real democracy back to its European birthplace.
Update, 4 July: As of now, it is pretty clear that the supposedly “generous” offer the troika made – which Greece turned down and consequently called on a referendum this Sunday was in fact a stubborn continuation of the policies that have done so much damage to Greece in the past five years: VAT hikes on hotels (massively affecting Greece’s most important business: tourism), cuts to solidarity grants for Greece’s poorest pensioners (which will have a horrifying impact because in many Greek households, the pension of the elderly is the only steady income source left) and privatisations. Additionally, the offer included no debt relief or restructuring, although many experts have pointed out that without a so-called ‘financial haircut’ ( under which the creditors would simply cancel a part of Greece’s debt) the Greek economy will not recover anytime soon (even the IMF argued in favor of a haircut in a recent debt sustainability analysis, but did not offer one). The creditors did what New York Times columnist Paul Krugman called a “reverse Corleone”: they made an offer that they knew the Greek side could not accept. It seems obvious at this point that the troika is deliberately cornering the Syriza government, with the ultimate aim of toppling it: the IMF has declared Greece to be in arrears directly after it missed a debt repayment due Tuesday immediately (despite the fact that the IMF could have granted Greece a four-week grace period before doing so) and the European Central Bank has refused to lift the cap on an emergency loan programme to Greek banks, forcing the government to shut down banks. As media accounts of the fateful June week that ended in Tsipras’ bombshell referendum announcement emerge, the shape of a veritable coup against the Athens administration becomes visible: on Monday, June 22, Greek negotiators made an offer that included various concessions to the creditors. The institutions’ initial response was quite positive. Yet 24 hours later, the troika sent the offer back, with almost all Greek proposals rejected. Instead of looking for compromise, the institutions seemed to take an even harder stance. Greek attempts to discuss a debt relief were blocked. On Friday, June 26, Tsipras considered the referendum his only option. The creditors’ dirty tricks (which are worsening and destabilising the situation in Greece) are disgraceful. Syriza has a clear mandate from the Greek voters. They have the facts on their side. And they -unlike the creditor representatives – have been democratically elected. After five years of suffering and humiliation , the Greek people definitely have the right to vote on this decisive issue. After all, this is what democracy looks like (unlike the troika version of it: backdoor negotiations, blackmail and austerity dictates).
*A compilation of official statistical data by the NGO Attac, of the money that was given to the Greek government until mid-2013, 77 per cent had been spent on paying off the public debt and recapitalizing the financial sector – meaning that three of four euros supposedly used to pay “lazy Greeks” did in fact land in the hands of the financial industry.