The good, the bad and the ugly – travels in Greek hyperreality*

wearewithyougreece

Michael Herzfeld’s “Welcome to Greece (but not to Europe)” is a case of “great article, lousy editing”. When I read the strapline, Europe’s efforts to exclude Athens aren’t about migration or debt, they’re about the continent’s deep-seated racism toward its southern frontier state,” a tabloid version instinctively flashed before my eyes: “Harvard prof says, racist Europeans are bullying the Greeks (again)”.

Despite my gut reaction, the article is well worth reading. But reading it set me on a stream-of-consciousness journey through recent cultural experiences, which I’d like to take you on to illustrate a real phenomenon: well-meaning attempts to sway European opinion in favour of Greece are unintentionally cultivating their own version of this “racism” outside Greece, while arming a strand of political rhetoric within Greece that is un-European in its values, anti-European in its orientation and profoundly disempowering. If this worldview is allowed to prevail (and arguably it is too late to stop it) it could bring about its own dire results for Greece without “Europe” having to dirty its hands.

But let’s start by restoring to the Foreign Policy article its original intent. Herzfeld, a Professor of Anthropology, argues that the EU countries might be tempted to exclude Greece from the Schengen free movement zone because historically they have never considered Greeks to be fully European. Herzfeld’s argument is directed primarily at the readers in the European “core”, urging them to overcome this bias and keep Greece “in” for everyone’s benefit.

Herzfeld’s scholarly writing is rich and nuanced, informed by years of study and anthropological fieldwork in Greece, and this short opinion piece does not really do it justice. While his main is thrust is to “call out” the Europeans on their “racism”, he knows enough about how Greece works not to treat the Greeks like helpless victims. It is a question of emphasis, but one that is easily missed in a hasty reading.

So how did I get from this to the imaginary tabloid version?

When I read the article I was reminded of a BBC travel programme that I had watched just a few days before. The premise of “Greece with Simon Reeve” is that an “avuncular herbert” (as the host is aptly described in one review) goes on a gap-year-style exploration of Greece, “one of the most beautiful and troubled countries in Europe”. You get the idea: spectacular scenery, picturesque locals, with a smattering of current affairs and a social conscience. Entertaining, but perhaps more enjoyable if you’re not that familiar with the subject matter.

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In one memorable segment, a group of bearded gun-toting Cretan shepherds
are emboldened after a stint of target shooting and a few shots of raki to expound on their belief that “what (the Germans) didn’t achieve by killing millions of people in World War II, they’re trying to achieve now by financial warfare”. Those crazy Cretans, eh! The voiceover has already informed us that due to the island’s strategic position in the Mediterranean the Cretan worldview has been shaped by centuries of conflict against would-be invaders. Maybe the hirsute noble savages were speaking truth to power? So the script left us thinking, at any rate, as their statements were left hanging in the air.

“Greece with… ” has not yet been broadcast in Greece. But coincidentally, within a couple of days of watching it, I also happened to witness on Greek TV Lakis Lazopoulos, a popular comedian and self-proclaimed “modern Aristophanes”, walk his audience through a very similar scenario to that espoused by the Cretan mountain men. With the aid of a Fox-News-style 3-D rendering of Greece as a concentration camp overseen by Kommandant (German Finance Minister) Schäuble and his local Quislings, Lazopoulos proceeded to tell us that he knew for a fact from “two well informed sources” that Germany had threatened to cut off Greece’s water supplies during the fraught bailout negotiations in July 2015 “just like they did to the prisoners in the camps”. The programme attracted 40% of the TV audience on the evening it was broadcast – the episode generated plenty of complaints, but not about that segment.

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So there we go – from the sublime to the ridiculous in two easy steps.

I found myself wondering, as I watched “Greece with…”, whether those Cretan noble savages were in any way related to the fierce rebels who, when European farming subsidies were flowing plentiful, were filing applications for fictional olive groves, that, if real, would have stretched across the wine-dark sea all the way to Santorini? Or those who were ploughing the same subsidies into building narco-cartels in the uplands and stockpiling the extraordinary numbers of unlicensed guns described in the programme (modern AK-47s in this case, rather than the heirloom Luger that the Cretan host claimed was taken from the fleeing WWII occupiers)? Would they say the Germans were trying to destroy them then too, I wondered? Would they ever question the flow of money and patronage from Europe via the local political grandees – or were they just happy to be compliant and complicit political clients?

None of this entered into the script, where the bearded mountain men along with the other colourful character vignettes went largely unchallenged in their assertions. One was left with an image of the Greek people as latter-day Zorbas, lovable rogues perhaps, but fleeced by their corrupt elites and embattled by the austerity-loving Europeans. Now, Michael Herzfeld literally wrote the book on Cretan mountain men (The Poetics of Manhood: Contest and Identity in a Cretan Mountain Village), and the issues of complicity and patronage in EU-Greek relations are precisely the ones he raises his article, albeit focussing on the European side of the equation. (Our comedian friend of course, asks only the kind of leading questions that advance him along his conspiratorial narrative – “Coincidence?”).

I swing between the sublime and the ridiculous to illustrate a number of points. First, that the “racism” described in the Foreign Policy article is a much more subtle beast than the one that we can comfortably disown by associating it with a swastika tattoo on a snarling skinhead. The image of Greece at home and abroad is shaped as much by seemingly benign and well-intentioned popular entertainment products as it is by any European politician’s pronouncements – and arguably more so. I would hazard a guess that many more people watched “Greece with Simon Reeve” and talked about it round the watercooler than are ever likely to read the article in Foreign Policy beyond the strapline – even influential people. When the BBC informs us through the grinning floppy haired medium of Simon Reeve (or the husky Home Counties empathy of Joanna Lumley a couple of years ago) that Greece is a land of impulsive naïfs humiliated by the oppression of the phlegmatic Eurocrats and/or the Ottoman corruption of their own political masters, we tend to take it on authority – especially when it comes garnished with a smattering of quotable statistics on youth unemployment, road casualties and pollution.

This kind of representation can make everyone a “racist” of sorts, even if a “sympathetic” racist – it paints Greece as an exotic hinterland where “civilised” western norms don’t apply. Consider another moment in the programme, when Reeve casually mentions that, “a few rich people control almost all of Greece’s media”. Fair cop guv! But how about some context? One could perhaps state that in the host’s own country the media are largely dominated by an Australian/American tycoon with a bulldozer approach to journalistic ethics who once famously boasted of swinging an election, a porn baron, the “non-dom” (i.e. non-taxpaying) descendant of a Nazi sympathizer, a pair of reclusive twins living in their own private tax haven, and a hereditary Russian oligarch among others. This might allow the viewer to see a more familiar, less exotic picture – one that might encourage more critical thinking, the European and the Greek on an equal footing.

Second, this is a two-way street. Out of this surreal array of representations, I can state pretty categorically that many more Greek people will have watched the idiot’s version of Greco-German relations than are likely to consume either Herzfeld or Reeve without some form of mediation (translation, abridgement or most likely paraphrase – and I am only focusing on the English-language media, if my German were better I’m sure I would be having a field day). But foreign commentary does not go unnoticed in Greece; it is monitored obsessively and is often used in the media to stir up popular sentiment, so it doesn’t take much of a logical leap to arrive at my imaginary tabloid headline. It is not unusual to find statements originating in Greece returning like a mangled boomerang through the crisis porn news cycle (remember “sex for a tyropita”?). A gently paternalistic view of Greece informs a defensive self-image, while the Greek sense of persecution feeds back into “racist” stereotypes of the Greeks.

The motif of national humiliation and victimhood, that idea that Greece is prevented for achieving its rightful destiny by malicious foreign interference (“we are special, that’s why they hate us”) is not new, nor is it the preserve of fringe groups like the Golden Dawn party. It is a dark aspect of our modern historical identity to which Greeks turn reflexively, regardless of individual political beliefs, particularly in times of crisis (a rich topic in itself, deserving of a separate discussion). A recent survey suggested that “competitive victimhood” (“my suffering is bigger than yours”) explains why casual anti-Semitism is so widespread – hence, using the Holocaust as a prop in a heavy-handed “satire” to illustrate the persecution of the Greeks is broadly tolerated. Lazopoulos himself is not just a household name, he is a friend of the government: he was personally introduced to François Hollande on a state visit to Athens, and half the cabinet attended the premiere of his last stage show in December.

In the political mainstream, consider the emotive language used by Alexis Tsipras in his referendum address last July: “the aim of some of our Partners and the Institutions… is, perhaps, the humiliation of an entire people” through “punishing and humiliating austerity”; and his right-wing nationalist coalition partner Panos Kammenos in the aftermath of the negotiations which followed, describing the result in terms of a “coup” by Germany and its allies, and repeated and persistent “blackmail” (which we observed at the time sounds in Greek very much like “rape”); or of Yanis Varoufakis’s favourite trope, “fiscal waterboarding” – the Greek people always at the sharp end of a transitive verb. Then reflect on how this sense of victimhood was fuelled by the Keynsian sympathy of Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz (example: “Greece, the Sacificial Lamb”), and the “imported” social media meme of #thisisacoup.

Now, as Greece finds itself once again threatened with exclusion from Europe, this time with more than 20,000 people (and counting) corralled within its borders in truly desperate conditions, the victim reflex re-engages. The Prime Minister rallied the domestic audience with the same familiar motif: “[w]e cannot have any responsibility-shirking bureaucrat or xenophobic government wagging the finger at us. No attack will be left unanswered and no action will be without consequences”. It’s a great populist message, because it deflects attention onto Europe’s failings and away from our own government’s mishandling and political manoeuvring. But it is also self-limiting: the best outcome we can expect from this narrative is a poor compromise after an “honest struggle”; and worse outcomes are also possible. Push us, and we may be “driven to act unilaterally,” our Immigration Minister warned. Whatever that is intended to mean, it does not sound pleasant, and given the realities of the situation it is hard to imagine Greece coming out the winner.

Let’s be clear: pointing out the dangers in our own national discourse in no way absolves anyone in Europe of their own un-European parochialism. Nor does it mean that Greece could or should be expected to contain a human migration on such a historical scale from encroaching on its neighbours’ manicured backyards. But once you start to ask the difficult questions, you realise that there are not always clear victims and perpetrators, and no one owns to moral high ground, not even the “birthplace of democracy”. Herzfeld again:

If Greece remains solidly within EU structures, it can more easily probe that history. It can ask disturbing questions [about its treatment by the Europeans]. Inside Schengen, moreover, Greece can directly answer charges that it is not doing enough to stem the refugee tide, rather than be treated as a lost cause.”

This is why it is worth reading his article in full and being wary of some of the more misty-eyed portrayals of Greece. European “racism” does not give Greece a free pass, but nor will staying “in” be an easy option. But we (Greeks, Europeans) must resist the temptation to let a politically expedient notion of victimhood become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

*with apologies again to the late Umberto Eco.

Images: “We are with you Greece” via commondreams.org; photo of Simon Reeve with Father Andreas at the shooting range, from bbc.co.uk

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The good, the bad and the ugly – travels in Greek hyperreality*

Lost work of Umberto Eco discovered in Athens

Eco

ATHENS, 22 February 2016. A hitherto unknown manuscript attributed to the late Italian author and intellectual Umberto Eco has been discovered in Athens only days after his death. The manuscript contains a short story, which is said to bear all the hallmarks of the Eco canon, including his fascination with new technologies, medieval mysticism and  conspiracy theories.

The plot of the short story, reminiscent of Eco’s novel “Foucault’s Pendulum”, revolves around a pro-government activist who is arrested at the behest of the shadowy cabal known as The Brotherhood of the Googleplex. The tabloid journalist at the centre of the plot is suspected by the Brotherhood of unravelling the secret algorithmic code through which they planned to achieve world domination by infiltrating the minds of the Greek people in order to overthrow charismatic leftist leader Alexis Tsipras. Convinced that he has cracked the code of the sacred algorithm, the hero publishes a story entitled “Google can overthrow Alexis Tsipras” which is disseminated through a series of obscure websites so as to avoid detection by the algorithm itself. The article claimed that the Brotherhood, acting at the behest of Tsipras’s predecessor, former PM Antonis Samaras, had engineered their sinister “search engine” to promote anti-Tsipras news media and turn popular sentiment against him. In his article the hero dares to point at the finger at the powerful secret society of the davatzídes behind Greece’s dominant media interests, but stopped short of revealing the exact findings of his investigation, merely stating cryptically that, “even if all of this is not easily visible to the naked eye, the conclusions can be easily reached if they are connected to events and developments” – a clear reference to the conspiracy doctrine known in Italian as dietrologiaa known motif of Eco’s work and a Greek national obsession.

In the next twist in the plot, we hear that hours later the central character was arrested on alleged blackmail charges. Eco’s publishers will not reveal what happens next, as they are planning for a posthumous publication of the manuscript. Early leaks suggest that the story reaches its climactic denouement atop the controversial “Calatrava roof” of the Athens Olympic Stadium.

The plot echoes Eco’s concerns with the authoritarian potential of the internet. As early as 1997, Eco had voiced his fear that the internet could become an Orwellian tool for controlling the masses:

“We have to create a nomenklatura of the masses. We know that state-of-the art modems, an ISDN connection, and up-to-date hardware are beyond the means of most potential users – especially when you need to upgrade every six months. So let’s give people access free, or at least for the price of the necessary phone connection.”

More recently, research indicates that free internet access is merely the gateway to mind control, as the social media industry conspire to create sinister “echo chambers” and “filter bubbles” that amplify conspiracy theories and spread misinformation. Google could (theoretically) “steal” elections, though not quite in the way our conspiratorial hero imagines. Many years later, the Greek government of Antonis Samaras appeared to act on Eco’s call by promising free wifi across Greece, a promise that he failed to live up to. Eco’s dramatisation now suggests that there may have been darker motives behind this policy initiative.

Lost work of Umberto Eco discovered in Athens

Apokries – the 2016 costume collection

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Carnival is almost upon us. Should you find yourself in the countryside between now and the beginning of Lent in mid-March you might experience something resembling a traditional Greek carnival celebration, complete with phallic implements, cross-dressing and animal-themed bawdy. If, like me, you grew up in a city, your experience will be much tamer, “westernised” and child-oriented: key elements include plastic clubs, streamers and confetti, and flammable store-bought costumes (actually ours were homemade, which I’d like to think were the envy of our friends!).  Whatever the theme, carnival is a release-valve from the everyday, an opportunity to subvert the norm, and, engage in a Bakhtinian (if you’re pretentious) party before lent sets in.

If you’re planning to dress up and join in the transgressive fun, you had better start preparing your costume now. Why not take some tips from those who have been playing dress-up all year?

BOYS – “Military” Collection

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This year’s surprise hit. Armchair war-gaming enthusiast Defence Minister Panos Kammenos did his best to squeeze into army fatigues at every opportunity, while PM Alexis Tsipras “pulled rank” to defeat him at “Armed Forces bingo”. Pick your wing-man and try your hand “up there with the best of the best”!

BOYS – “Farmer” Collection

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The men of the moment, the farmers are taking the country by storm with their inventive and versatile looks, politically incorrect PR stunts and imaginative accessories/weapons. Are you an “anarchist” farmer kitted out for full biochemical warfare, or a “hipster” farmer direct from Brooklyn to audition for a modelling contract? There’s loads to choose from!

BOYS – “Establishment” Collection

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While the PM and his posse go ostentatiously tie-less, the “establishment” appreciates that the necktie is one of the few means of expression remaining to the oppressed male minority. The “budget” costume option, can also be worn to weddings, funerals, court hearings etc.

GIRLS – “Role Models” Collection

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Fed up with princesses and Little Red Riding Hoods? Try a modern girl’s costume. You don’t have to lose your femininity to go into (and out of) politics – just ask shape-shifting revolutionary Rachel Makri. You too can don the iconic red glove in solidarity with the darlings of the revolution, reinstated Finance Ministry cleaners turned court clerks, just like platinum-selling popular songbird Haroula Alexiou. Or you can play at being PM for a month, like Supreme Court President Vassiliki Thanou, and issue writs to anyone who disses you. And there is alway the perennial favourite for grown-up girls – the sexy key worker – this year’s model comes without drugs due to shortages.

UNISEX – “Humanitarian” Collection – NEW BIGGER RANGE!!

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Fancy yourself a humanitarian for a day? Take your tips from these veterans in the cause of (posing with) the refugees, and bask in the warm glow of praise for the hard work of others. Outfits come in formal, beachwear and “off-duty celebrity” editions. Grannies and small brown children NOT supplied. No actual volunteering or crisis management experience required. Prior record of threatening to “flood Europe with jihadis” no disqualification. Celebrities by prior arrangement with media only. WARNING: Life vests may not function as advertised.

Main image of reveller dressed as politician with the sign “I voted for the memorandum” pelting himself with yoghurt, Kozani 2012, via rizosm.wordpress.com. Μασκαράς (maskarás, lit. carnivalist, denoting both disguise and lack of seriousness) is an insult that politicians are intimately familiar with.

Gallery

“I want my MTV” – the sequel

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Once more, it is time to step into the hazmat suit and wade into the morass of media regulation, Greek-style. Late last year the Syriza/ANEL government fulfilled one of its manifesto commitments to rewrite the regulatory regime for broadcast licenses in order to tackle vested interests in the media. At the time, we argued in some detail that the new media bill was too narrow in scope and the economics of the sector too stifling to allow for a better deal for viewers, and indeed citizens, and therefore it is primarily interesting as a piece of political theatre. This week the government announced that it will press ahead with fast-track legislation defining the number of TV broadcast licenses and the conditions under which they will be put out to tender. Based on precedent, the political debate promises to be highly charged, and focused largely on other issues. Below is a galloping guide on how that’s likely to play out, and a glossary if you are interested in following the debate.

What’s Belarus got to do with it?

The amendment being debated delights in the heading Amendment to the Bill entitled “Ratification of the Agreement between the Greek Government and the Government of the Republic of Belarus regarding international passenger and commercial transport”… Inserting an amendment to legislation already in the pipeline (whether relevant or not) is the standard operating procedure for fast-tracking bills that would otherwise require weeks of more extensive scrutiny and consultation. I have heard that something like a quarter of legislation in the Greek statute books takes this form, but I have not found a published study to back this claim up (do let me know if you have). Trade relations with Belarus (2015 Press Freedom Score =93, where 0=best, 100=worst) the lucky ones this time.

What’s “the Turk” got to do with it?

Much of the press spent last week speculating on the identity and the motives of a Turkish media mogul (ο Τούρκος καναλάρχης as he was immediately dubbed with customary overfamiliarity by the gossip sites) who expressed an interest in bidding for one of the licenses – presumably because he wants to make a small fortune in the Greek media market having started with a large one. This no doubt provoked a collective sigh of relief by the Greek housewife viewing segment at the prospect of the return of Turkish daytime soaps to Greek screens, while some reassurance was offered to concerned nationalists by his stated intent not to broadcast news programmes.

What will the debate be about?

Process – According to the law voted in last October, the responsibility for licensing broadcasters is shared between the Minister of State and the independent media regulator ΕΣΡ (National Council of Radio and TV). A fractious committee debate last week failed to appoint new members to the Council, and as a result the Minister has assumed full responsibility for the process. Several opposition parties have accused the government of acting unconstitutionally by bypassing the regulator; the government deflects the accusation back at them, accusing them of derailing the process on a technicality in order to protect the vested interests in the media. There may be a valid argument here, but by the time it plays out the amendment will have passed.

Context and timing – Critics are accusing the government of fast-tracking this bill as a distraction from the pressure that it faces over passing the latest bailout review and its handling of the refugee crisis. It is true that compared to the looming vote on pension reform this issue is more likely to unite the government coalition than divide it. Accordingly, PM Alexis Tsipras yesterday, freshly returned from his state visit to the Islamic Republic of Iran, in an open address to his cabinet used this otherwise obscure amendment as his rallying cry and called on them to unite against common enemies. Broadly speaking, though, the sale of broadcast licenses is also a requirement of the latest memorandum/bailout agreement, and putting the licenses out to tender is expected to raise public revenues to help Greece meet its fiscal targets.

Jobs – Journalists are the “human shields” in this conflict. On its own, this topic would be of marginal interest to the mass of society, but poking the hornet’s nest of the media guarantees a lot of coverage by, er, the media themselves, and the emotional involvement of those charged with reporting it, whose jobs also happen to be on the line. As a reminder, minimum employment numbers (400 per licensee) are legislated in the latest media bill, and the preservation of jobs was a key element in the re-opening of the public broadcaster ERT in June 2015. It is hard to simultaneously condemn the corrupt regime that allowed a proliferation of media outlets and argue to preserve jobs in the media sector, but journalists and politicians make valiant efforts to square that circle. However, broadcast journalists have announced their intention to “down tools” during the debate.

Freedom of the press and pluralism – The government has in fact openly antagonised TV channels pursuing a critical line, so it will be surprising to see any of them licensed under the new framework. In the most recent incident, a video montage shown at the recent celebration of Syriza’s one year in government provoked outrage in the opposition and journalists’ unions for including clips of media which the voiceover accused of being part of a hostile coalition against the Greek people. Given the level of (well-founded if sometimes misdirected) cynicism surrounding the media in Greece this argument is unlikely to gain much traction domestically, however it is a debate that needs to be had at some point.

Netflix – The US streaming video service that recently announced it would enter the Greek market is not likely to come up – nor are any other internet-based channels, both global and domestic, that are currently outside the scope of the legislation. If this debate were really about regulation of the media it would have to acknowledge that broadcast TV is losing its grip both on news and entertainment, and the time and attention devoted to it is largely of symbolic and political importance.

Corruptionsee below.

Technicalities – see below.

Supporting Glossary:

Diaplokí, davatzídes, the systemic media, the “triangle of power”: see our previous glossary entries on this subject.

Θαλασσοδάνεια (thalassodánia):, lit. “sea loans”.The word derives from shipping, and refers literally to loans taken out by shipowners to buy ships that uncannily sink before the loan can be repaid, therefore loans that will never be repaid. Here, loans issued by banks via the so-called “triangle of power” to troubled media groups and political parties.

Γραμμάτια (grammátia): Promissory notes, or IOUs, meaning in this context a political debt. the government accuses the opposition, and particularly the newly elected leader of Nea Demokratia, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, of opposing the bill to repay obligations to unnamed backers. For similar concepts, see our Glossary of Informal Exchange Systems.

multiplexes, HD (High Definition), bundles, frequencies, spectrum and other technical jargon. As there is no regulator to assess the technical reasoning behind the proposed licensing regime, these matters will be debated by “lay” MPs. I am not an electrical engineer, but I hear that a memo has gone out to anyone with any knowledge in this area to tune out at this point so as to preserve the integrity of their coiffe.

At stake here is the government’s proposal to issue four national broadcasting licenses to private operators as opposed to the de facto eight. The supporting technical study referred to in shorthand as the “Florence Study” (ironically referenced in the section of the Minister’s note entitled “Transparency – Social participation”) was released to MPs but is not publicly available. An extract missing several key pages found its way onto the internet. In its truncated state it does not provide much scope for preparation for geeks wishing to follow the debate, but it has already provided fodder for incomprehensible statements and counter-statements by politicians. Interestingly though, in one passage that is preserved the report states that “as the financial data available for the period 2013-2015 are incomplete and present inconsistencies, we are unable to apply any of the standard benchmarking scenarios to define the number of licenses to be granted on financial viability grounds”, thus undermining one of the key government arguments for defining the number of licenses.

That’s it from me, I’m off to watch some cute kitten videos on Youtube.

POSTSCRIPT: The authors of the “Florence Study”, the Florence School of Regulation, made the full paper available on their website the day after the legislation was passed.

 

 

“I want my MTV” – the sequel

A song for Greece

paparizou

A group of refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan have started a petition to enter a song in this year’s Eurovision song contest. They say they they want to pay tribute in song to the noble people of Greece, whose suffering touched them deeply as they passed through the country on their route from the war-torn Middle East to Northern Europe.

The initiative was the idea of a brother and sister, aged 22 and 25, who left their home in Homs, Syria, under heavy shelling eight months ago to travel to Europe. They were excited at the prospect of passing through Greece, say the pair who asked to remain anonymous for fear of jeopardising their asylum applications in Sweden, because it was Elena Paparizou’s glorious Eurovision win in 2005 with the dance anthem “My Number One” that first kindled the love of music in them. But what the found when they arrived shocked them. “Greece was not as we expected it,” they now say. “Instead of a prosperous, fun-loving, lip-synching, partying people we found a nation oppressed by austerity, enduring a true humanitarian crisis.”

As they travelled through the country, they were touched by the devastation that they encountered. Spending a night in a mothballed Olympic facility in Athens, they mused about the circumstances that might have led to its abandonment, and half-recalled with tears in their eyes the lines of Shelley’s Ozymandias that they had learned in high school:

“Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

On their way north to Greece’s border with the land that some call Macedonia but the Greeks refer to by the mystical acronym FYROM, the refugee group were shocked to encounter caravans moving southward, their meagre belongings loaded onto farm machinery. “It was clear that the were fleeing something terrible. But these humble people did not hesitate to share with us their few provisions.” When the farmers explained that they may have to seal Greece’s borders to defend their pensions from raids by the country’s creditors, some of the refugee group initially protested. However, in the end they agreed that a couple more nights sleeping on the cold tarmac was a small sacrifice to make for such a noble cause. The group also expressed their gratitude to the citizens protesting against the establishment of registration “hotspots” for refugees in “unsuitable” locations, saying that that they were truly moved by the concern for their welfare, hygiene and religious sensitivities in such trying times. Meanwhile, they spoke in glowing terms of the selfless and constructive attitude adopted by Greek politicians of all parties, so different from that of their European colleagues.

“We hear that the suffering is bad in Denmark especially after the Eurovision 2014 disaster, and our cousins over there have donated their iPads and wedding rings to help, but it is hard to imagine something worse than this.” The refugee group recall walking across the scorched earth of a once powerful and united continent to reach their destination, pondering how it had come to this: “It’s as if the region is being torn apart by a sectarian proxy war, brother turning against brother, collapsing into a post-colonial mess. Is this how Europe ends? Oh, hang on…

Throughout their travails, the refugee group never stopped believing in the power of music to teach humanity and help life’s victims back onto their feet. They hope to be granted entry into the ever-expanding brotherhood of Eurovision nations (“Israel is in there,” they note pointedly, “and how do you explain Australia?”). “We don’t care about winning, we just want to draw the world’s attention to the atrocities that are being perpetuated here.” Asked to describe the style of their entry, they said, “We are aiming for We Are the World” meets Lebanese pop, with a catchy electronic dance beat. And belly dancers”

Meanwhile, in the real news, Greece announced that its entry in Eurovision 2016 would feature a song on the twin themes of the refugee crisis and the Greek financial crisis. The President of the recently-resurrected Greek state broadcaster ERT explained that “we are planning on choosing an optimistic, upbeat song that will have a Greek sound and verse, which will touch the subject of the harsh economic measures that have been imposed on Greek people and the struggle of the refugees, in order to teach people across the world a lesson on humanity.” Giving a further preview of the Greek offering, he stated that there will be no dancers and provocative appearances and effects during the finals, and that the performer would be chosen without a contest. Some commentators discern in this pronouncement the influence of the recent strengthening of ties between Greece and the Islamic Republic of Iran.

There were rumours in Athens earlier this week that a group of Central European nations including Austria and Hungary were lobbying to get Greece excluded from the Eurovision contest, fearing that a flood of phone voters from the Middle East could create a new voting bloc in an already fragmented and divisive European institution. It was later clarified that the threat related to the Schengen open borders zone, not the august musical event.

 


All hyperlinked sources are actual.  Most of the stuff in between is fabricated, with the exception of the bits about Greece’s 2016 Eurovision entry and the putative suspension of the Schengen agreement. 

View the Greek Eurovision song, “Utopian Land” by Argo.

Some useful numbers: Reliable up-to-date economic data on Syria are hard to obtain for obvious reasons, but it is estimated that its GDP has plummeted 62% below 2010 levels, while agricultural production has halved from a combination of drought and conflict. Its unemployment rate is close to 60%. More than half its pre-war population are refugees or internally displaced. Prior to the war it had a literacy rate of 90%.

Image via gossip-tv.gr

A song for Greece

My big fat Greek refugee crisis quiz

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If you have been following the unfolding the refugee crisis in Europe, you should be able to tell your newly-minted post-Communist authoritarian from your jewellery-snatching Nordic, and your foaming-at-the-mouth Brexiter from your number-fudging Mitteleuropean. This quiz will test your knowledge of the political response at the European frontline of the migration flows.

Q: Who is responsible for the following policy pronouncement: “We will not allow illegal immigrants to come in and provide them with healthcare and benefits too, the Greek people will not permit it”?

A: Then Greek PM Antonis Samaras (5 January 2015). In a last ditch attempt to cling to power, Samaras made his final campaign stop to look “presidential” in front of the Evros border fence. The fence, erected between Greece and Turkey in 2012 was his “baby”. In many ways it was ahead of its time; considered too extreme at the time by the EU to support it, the $3.3 million tab was picked up entirely by Greece in the midst of an austerity onslaught, while refugee flows were less than one thirtieth of what they are today. It has since been outdone several times over by Hungary ($81 million), as the rest of the continent has now succumbed to Samaras’s “fence fetish”. Had he survived politically to oversee the subsequent developments, there can be little doubt that there would be less squeamishness over practices like “push-backs” designed to “seal” the borders. Translation: more drownings.

Last week, the Greek Deputy Immigration Minister accused his Belgian counterpart of telling him to “drive them back into the sea; go against the law; I’m sorry, but I do not care if they drown”; the comment has since been vigorously denied but there has been no alternative suggestion on any side of the negotiating table as to how to keep the refugees and migrants from making landfall in Greece. The Evros fence still stands as the main obstacle to travel by land to Europe, and there are no plans to dismantle it.

Q: Who warned that “‘refugees’, in quotation marks, [headed for the island of Farmakonisi]… are, ultimately, unarmed invaders, weapons in the hands of the Turks”?

A: Nea Demokratia MP Sophia Voultepsi (31 January 2014). The fact that refugees and migrants are crossing the oft disputed waters between Turkey and Greece tosses another political football onto the field and on a practical level complicates rescue efforts (more of which below). Right-wing media hogs find the temptation to conspiratorialise hard to resist. Several female and underage “unarmed invaders” had in fact drowned in their alleged attempt to claim Greek territory for Turkey only days earlier. Voultepsi was recently entrusted with the Social Solidarity brief in Kyriakos Mitsotakis’s new shadow cabinet.

Q: Who said that recently arrived refugees and migrants sleeping rough in Athens were merely “sunning themselves”, and that “that’s how the refugees live in Germany”

A: Then Greek Deputy Immigration Minister Tasia Christodoulopoulou, (April 2015 and August 2015). At the time, arrivals had reached 124,000 for the year, and the only central government intervention consisted of bussing them into central Athens where they resorted to camping out in parks and squares (see our write-ups at the time, here and here). Those who had hoped for a more progressive immigration policy under Syriza (or, as Samaras would have it, transform[ing] Greece into a magnet attracting illegal immigrants to the country”were disappointed, as political compromises and the sheer scale of the evolving refugee crisis won the day. Widespread public outrage at the government’s inaction meant that Christodoulopoulou did not survive to see another term in the Cabinet. Even out of office, Christodoulopoulou has become a soft target. It has become a mantra of the opposition to blame her personally, and Syriza’s so-called “open borders policy”, for attracting increasing numbers of refugees and migrants from 2015 onwards – they clearly rely on their audience not following the international news to be able to ignore that there are much bigger forces at work.

Q: Who threatened that “If Europe leaves us in the crisis, we will flood it with migrants, and it will be even worse for Berlin if in that wave of millions of economic migrants there will be some jihadists of the Islamic State too”?

A: Greek Defence Minister Panos Kammenos, 9 March 2015. No doubt after Paris he feels that history has vindicated him.

Q: Who made this reassuring statement on the eve of the Greek referendum: “The country’s Armed Forces ensure the stability at home”?

A: Kammenos again, 3 July 2015. What has been described as a global crisis sadly did not rise to the level of a civil emergency in Greece, sufficient for the armed forces to throw up a few tents, install sanitation and cook some hot meals to ease the pressure on the refugees and the local communities that have had to host them. Recently, Kammenos’s Cabinet colleague, Deputy Immigration Minister Yiannis Mouzalas, accused the Ministry of Defence of stalling and horse-trading over the completion of registration “hotspots”. We wish we could take credit for the Greek government’s decision, announced a few hours after this post was published, to press the army into action to manage the logistics of refugee reception.

Q: Who proposed the following “win-win” solution for Greece: “Our goal is to agree with our [European] partners that if the situation deteriorates, the funds that Greece will spend will be excluded from the calculation of the deficit”?

A: Greek PM Alexis Tsipras was the first to link the Greek debt negotiations to the refugee crisis (29 September 2015). Not for the first time, he overestimated his bargaining position, or underestimated the ruthlessness of his interlocutors; a few months later a much less favourable “debt-for-refugees” is being mooted, which names the “ringfencing” of refugees in Greece as the price for a debt writedown. Usually sober Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachmann breezily described his own version of it thus: “The broad outlines of the deal would be simple. Greece agrees to seal its northern border with EU help, stopping the flow of migrants into northern Europe. In return, Germany agrees to a massive writedown of Greek debt, as well as immediate financial aid to cope with the current crisis” (25 January 2015). Not officially an option, you understand – which almost certainly means that it is. Now Greece faces yet another ultimatum from Brussels: three months to improve its border checks or risk having tougher border controls imposed on it by other European countries, just in time for the start of the tourist season.  Not an official suspension of the Schengen Treaty, you understand, but “if it looks like a duck and it quacks like a duck”… you get the picture.

Q: How many funds has Greece received from the EU to help manage the flow of refugees?

A: €0, according to PM Alexis Tsipras (30 October 2015) and more recently Greek Parliament Speaker Nikos Voutsis (January 2016). It is really hard to view this as a virtue, especially when combined with rhetoric that is pointedly critical of the European handling of the crisis. There are EU resources available, namely €500 million in funding, plus the EU Civil Protection Mechanism which offers support in kind and has been activated by other EU countries in the Balkans, but which the Greek government has not gone through the process to claim for reasons best known to themselves. One local critic of this stance described Greece’s failure to avail itself of existing EU support mechanisms as a “crime of omission”. Consciously missing opportunities to improve the management of the refugee flows is really hard to rationalise on its own terms, especially while claiming in the same breath to be over-stretched. It only starts to make sense if viewed in the context of a negotiating gambit, in which unaided (or minimally aided) refugees are used as bargaining chips to achieve a national political goal. I hope I am wrong in making this connection, but I fear that in either case the outcome for Greece will be a poor one. Watch this space.

Q: Who tweeted “We have the most modern aerial weapons systems–and yet, on the ground, we can’t catch traffickers who drown innocent people #EUTurkey”?

A: PM Alexis Tsipras, 30 November 2015. Only a couple of weeks earlier Greece had rebuffed a European proposal that it carry out joint border patrols with Turkey. Instead, the EU agreed €3 billion in aid to Turkey plus a reopening of talks on its EU accession to deter refugees from travelling to Europe, having agreed a series of similar grants to illiberal regimes in Africa to hang on to potential refugees and economic migrants. Ankara was too busy playing hardball with Brussels to pay heed to his sophomoric plea. So that’s all good then.

Q: Who proclaimed that “We will not allow Greece to be turned into a warehouse of souls (αποθήκη ψυχών, apothíki psychón)”?

A: Greek government spokespeople including the PM and the Immigration Minister, most opposition spokespeople, media, commentators etc. (a casual Google search returned approximately 180,000 results). Sounds sensitive and humanitarian but is in fact most commonly deployed as doublespeak for NIMBY (“not in my back yard”). Typical of this usage is a letter of complaint to the Deputy Immigration Minister from a group of mayors whose areas were selected for temporary shelters: “We will not allow the former Hellenikon airport to be turned into a warehouse of souls,” before going on to reel out a laundry list of security concerns.

Q: Who issued the following dire warning: “If the powers that want Ellis Islands [in Europe] win, then we may have a problem”?

A: Greek Deputy Immigration Minister Yiannis Mouzalas, 28 January 2016, in the course of a fractious meeting where he was barracked by pro-immigration protesters demanding the opening of the Evros land border. It is unclear whether he was confusing Ellis Island with Guantanamo Bay or Auschwitz, or whether he was badly misquoted. I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt, as the alternative would betray a very skewed view of history with worrying implications for policy-making.

PICTURE ROUND

Q: What is wrong with this picture?

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A: In the background, enlarged photo of the grandmothers of Lesvos, three elderly women captured engaging in a spontaneous moment of humanity. To the left, a national symbol, to the right a supra-national one. In the foreground, a career politician and a veteran of the NGO circuit now in political office, whose combined visits to the islands at the time of writing can probably be counted on the fingers on one hand, basking in the reflected (but undeserved) glory. While individuals and grassroots volunteer groups filled the void left by central government, European and international institutions, there has been a rush to appropriate the kindness of citizen volunteers for nationalistic pride and political gain. There is a proposal to nominate the Greek islanders on the frontline of the refugee crisis for a Nobel Peace Prize. There are some people out there who fully deserve an accolade – but watch out for bandwagon-jumping – like this.

BONUS GLOBAL QUESTION

Q: What can this picture tell us about the ongoing refugee crisis?

St. Louis In Antwerp

A: This is the SS St Louis, arriving in the Belgian port of Antwerp in June 1939. If you haven’t heard of it, take a moment to read about it. It will make you think about how history might judge us.

Images: Nikolaj Nielsen via euobserver.comnews247.grcruiselinehistory.com

This post was considerably enhanced by contributions from readers to whom I am grateful for crowdsourcing political gems that had slipped through the net.

 

My big fat Greek refugee crisis quiz