President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker delivered a speech in Brussels on Monday that observers say has dramatically escalated the tensions surrounding a referendum vote in Greece next Sunday—a vote that could ultimately result in the country's exit from the Eurozone.
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With global financial markets responding to Sunday's announcement that Greece's banks and stock exchange would be closed this week and the imposition of capital controls has been ordered, the crisis in Greece—or 'Grisis,' as its become known—has now reached a fevered pitch. On top of that, the people of the financially devastated nation have been asked to vote "yes" or "no" against a deal put forth by the so-called Troika, which consists of the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Central Bank, in exchange for the continuation of cash infusions and extended credit.
Telling Greek voters to vote "yes" in support of accepting the Troika's proposal, the Guardian's Graeme Wearden called Juncker's speech "jaw-dropping" in its implications. By telling the Greek people "not to commit suicide for fear of death," Wearden says Juncker has "effectively told the Greek people that they are choosing between the euro and the exit door on Sunday, that their government has lied to them, and that he has been their friend and ally at the negotiating table."
Meanwhile, on Monday the Syriza-led government announced that public transportation would be free this week in order to soften the blow of the economic situation and that certain banks would be offering unique access to pensioners who might otherwise face difficulty accessing their funds.
On Sunday evening, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras made a televised address to the Greek people in order to explain the latest developments—including the decision to close the banks in the days ahead and to implement restrictive measures on withdrawals—and said, "the more calmly we confront difficulties, the sooner we will overcome them."
Contrasting Tsipras' message with that of Juncker's on Monday, the Syriza Party has made it clear they are opposed to the terms of the deal on the table and will urge people to vote "no" on the proposal.
What happened over the weekend, according to New York Times columnist and Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman, was what he termed a "reverse Corleone"—a reference to The Godfather film—in which the Troika made the Syriza government an offer it "couldn't accept." The commissioners, he argued, "presumably did this knowingly" to exert overt pressure on the left-wing government. Put aside the economics of the deal, explained Krugman, and "the ultimatum was, in effect, a move to replace the Greek government. And even if you don’t like Syriza, that has to be disturbing for anyone who believes in European ideals."
"The EU and the IMF seem to be hell-bent on ruthlessly punishing Greece for daring to stand up against grossly unfair debt conditions that are causing enormous amounts of suffering. Refusing to allow a short delay for the referendum to take place is a brutal enforcement of unfettered capitalism over democracy and the needs of people."
—Nick Dearden, Global Justice NowNick Dearden, executive director of the UK-based Global Justice Now, slammed the Troika's collective behavior, specifically its refusal to allow a short extension of its bank liquidity program leading up to next Sunday's referendum vote.
"The hardline, inhumane policies of the EU now threaten to provoke a world crisis," Dearden told Common Dreams. "The EU and the IMF seem to be hell-bent on ruthlessly punishing Greece for daring to stand up against grossly unfair debt conditions that are causing enormous amounts of suffering. Refusing to allow a short delay for the referendum to take place is a brutal enforcement of unfettered capitalism over democracy and the needs of people."
With people across Europe calling for debt relief for Greece, Dearden continued, the refusal to treat the Greek people with dignity is simply unforgivable. "This violent imposition of austerity in Greece will leave yet more blood on the hands of the EU’s financial class," he said.
As the Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis tweeted over the weekend, what's at the heart of the debate right now is making sure that the people of Greece—the ones who have already sacrificed much at the altar of imposed austerity and the ones who will be most impacted by the acceptance or rejection of the deal—should be given the opportunity to weigh in on the decision. In the wake of the referendum's announcement, he said:
Democracy deserved a boost in euro-related matters. We just delivered it. Let the people decide. (Funny how radical this concept sounds!)
— Yanis Varoufakis (@yanisvaroufakis) June 26, 2015
Later, in a blog update posted on Sunday, Varoufakis described what happened on Saturday at the European Commission meeting:
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The Eurogroup Meeting of 27th June 2015 will not go down as a proud moment in Europe’s history. Ministers turned down the Greek government’s request that the Greek people should be granted a single week during which to deliver a Yes or No answer to the institutions’ proposals – proposals crucial for Greece’s future in the Eurozone. The very idea that a government would consult its people on a problematic proposal put to it by the institutions was treated with incomprehension and often with disdain bordering on contempt. I was even asked: “How do you expect common people to understand such complex issues?”. Indeed, democracy did not have a good day in yesterday’s Eurogroup meeting! But nor did European institutions. After our request was rejected, the Eurogroup President broke with the convention of unanimity (issuing a statement without my consent) and even took the dubious decision to convene a follow up meeting without the Greek minister, ostensibly to discuss the “next steps”.
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Can democracy and a monetary union coexist? Or must one give way? This is the pivotal question that the Eurogroup has decided to answer by placing democracy in the too-hard basket. So far, one hopes.
As the tensions soar and the fears of a financial panic set in, however, it's not just high-level Syriza officials who are saying that Greek voters would be right to reject the Troika's continued imposition of austerity, even if it means leaving the single currency of the Eurozone.
In his Monday column at the Times, Krugman gave three reasons why Greece should vote "no" against the deal:
First, we now know that ever-harsher austerity is a dead end: after five years Greece is in worse shape than ever. Second, much and perhaps most of the feared chaos from Grexit has already happened. With banks closed and capital controls imposed, there’s not that much more damage to be done.
Finally, acceding to the troika’s ultimatum would represent the final abandonment of any pretense of Greek independence. Don’t be taken in by claims that troika officials are just technocrats explaining to the ignorant Greeks what must be done. These supposed technocrats are in fact fantasists who have disregarded everything we know about macroeconomics, and have been wrong every step of the way. This isn’t about analysis, it’s about power — the power of the creditors to pull the plug on the Greek economy, which persists as long as euro exit is considered unthinkable.
So it’s time to put an end to this unthinkability. Otherwise Greece will face endless austerity, and a depression with no hint of an end.
Costas Panayotakis, associate professor of sociology at the City University of New York, argued much the same on Monday. "Since its election in January the Greek government has, in its attempt to reach an agreement, made many concessions to the eurozone’s austerity agenda," explained Panayotakis. "The fact that, in the course of the negotiation, Greece’s European partners always asked for more suggests that they may not have truly desired an agreement, instead preferring to squash the only European government with the audacity to openly criticize the neoliberal consensus. The European response to Tsipras' announcement of a referendum also displays the long-standing aversion of European economic and political elites to democratic processes that allow European people to have a say over the future of the European project."
Meanwhile, Guardian foreign correspondent Jon Henley spoke with some of those Greeks who have been most affected by many years of financial ruin. As Henley reports:
After seven years of a crisis that has left 26% of Greece’s workforce unemployed, 30% of its people below the poverty line, 17% unable to meet their daily food needs and 3.1 million without health insurance, it is hard to see how anything decided in Brussels or in Athens in the coming week will do much to change the lives of a large number of Greeks any time soon.
"Those that were already on the margins have been pushed right to the very, very edge, and those who were in the middle have been pushed to the margins," said Ioanna Pertsinidou of Praksis, a charity that runs day centres for vulnerable people and offers legal and employment advice.
"So many people – ordinary, low-to-middle income people with jobs and homes and their lives on track – have seen their lives go drown the drain so fast," Pertsinidou said. "People who never dreamed that one day they would not be able to pay their electricity bill, or feed their children properly."