Exarcheia, the Corner of Athens Where There is Little Appetite for a Deal

Mid-May in Exarcheia, a neighbourhood in central Athens known for its large number of artists, socialists and anarchists, a local filmmaker reacts to the news that had just come in on some of our phones that the rebel hard-left contingent within Syriza had called for a “rupture” with Greece’s creditors: “this is the moment many of us have been waiting for,” he said.  

It would take a few hours for the news to spread more widely on that evening, but few sat on their hands. The next day members of Syriza’s central committee, such as John Millios and George Sapounas, as well as members of the party’s political secretariat, were in the neighbourhood discussing why Greece should no longer pay any more money to what executive Syriza party member Antonis Danavelos described as “the loan sharks”.

Being in Exarcheia gives a sense of the feeling among the grass roots Syriza and sheds light on why it has been so hard for government negotiators and international lenders to agree a deal after more than five months of negotiations. Clearly Alexis Tspiras’ government has been elected on a very left wing platform that they are determined to honour, ensuring pensions are protected, tax rises don’t squeeze already stressed incomes, and counterproductive austerity measures aren’t forced upon the country any longer.

But the country’s creditors are not giving in, ignoring pleas to restructure the country’s debt commitments, and - essentially - forcing the country and its primary surplus backwards, not forwards.

What’s more, symbolically, it was in a restaurant in Exarcheia where finance minister Yanis Varoufakis and his wife Danae Stratou were set upon by a group of anarchist youths for going soft during the negotiations.

striking a deal with Washington and Brussels isn’t even the top priority for manyWhat is often ignored by officials outside of Greece is the heterogeneous nature of Syriza. I was told a significant number of the people who backed the party at the elections describe themselves as anarchists. In fact, Syriza is a rainbow group composed of socialists, anarchists, communists and everything in between, borne out of a coalition of leftist groups that came together in 2004 and that turned into a political party in 2012.

While the loud voices within the hard left of the party, including members of parliament, calling for a rupture with the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and European Central Bank, striking a deal with Washington and Brussels isn’t even the top priority for many. To my surprise, “Grexit” and the creation of a New Drachma comes second to helping ordinary Greeks cope with the crisis.

Civil society groups are doing their fair share of elbow work, finding real solutions to more local problems. For social justice campaigners, trades unionists, left wing academics the main concern is finding a response to the issues that are hurting the people such as homelessness, wages and household debt. To them, these issues are more important than funding terms or the currency.

As austerity was pushed on Greece by the European institutions to meet bailout demands, unemployment in the country rose 28 per cent, with 60 per cent of young people without jobs, incomes were dragged down, public and private debt soared, and the economy shrunk by 25 per cent from 2007-2014. If on paper this appears shocking, in real life it’s a tragedy and this is the force that explains the intransigence towards the demands of European and IMF officials.

University of Athens economist, George Labridinos, says Greek families and elderly relatives are moving in together because running two homes has become too expensive. About 400,000 houses are without electricity and legislation that shielded primary residencies valued at up to €200,000 from foreclosure has been upended.

It’s not just the national debt that needs restructuring but that of many homeownersSyriza has an agreement with the big four banks to stop turfing out families from their homes, but “until any further negotiation, banks are under no obligations and the system is up in the air,” according to one campaigner.

Homelessness in Athens alone has shot up by 25 per cent since 2009 and yet the city is awash with empty buildings. “It is crazy to have so many homeless with so many empty buildings”, Christos Giovanopoulos from the campaign group Solidarity 4 All says. “Public owned buildings used to be run for work and now they just remain empty.”

Along with the European Coalition for Housing Rights, Solidarity 4 All is calling for a household debt “haircut” to prevent families from becoming homeless. The campaign groups argue that the Greek constitution allows for debt renegotiation when circumstances change drastically. It’s not just the national debt that needs restructuring but that of many homeowners who are struggling despite relatively low levels of household debt.

Reading the news on Greece it is easy for the voices of grassroots campaigns to be drowned out. It is also very easy to assume that the most important debate about the country is being had between the elected national government and the European bureaucrats. When you’re on the streets of Athens, the concerns are often quite different.

The IMF has walked away from the talks with the government of Alexis Tsipras reportedly frustrated at his intransigence. Officials, politicians and central bankers need only spend a day on the streets of Athens to understand why Tsipras is holding out. Unlike the government that preceded it, Syriza has a very direct link to the people it represents and many of its members are dealing with the human cost of this crisis. Varoufakis felt the rage in that restaurant last month. Perhaps it’s time for the blue-suited officials of Brussels to take a stroll around Exarcheia.

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