Shock therapy and the gold mine

From switching off the national broadcaster, to the Skouries protests, the Greek government is unable to silence public anger at its handling of the crisis.

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“So, you’ve come to talk to terrorists,” says Maria Christianou as I step off the bus, after a two-hour journey through rolling hills east of Thessaloníki. Christianou, an environmentalist, makes it sound like a well-worn phrase, but it’s no less incongruous for all that: Ierissos, a remote village on the Chalkidiki Peninsula – the “three fingers” that stick out from the northern Greek mainland into the Aegean – is little more than a cluster of streets around a crossroads, surrounded by mountains on one side and sea on the other. One road out of the village leads back to Thessaloníki, the other to the sacred Orthodox site of Mount Athos, famed for its men-only entry policy. At first glance, this hardly seems to be a seat of insurrection.

Yet for the past three years Ierissos has been at the centre of an increasingly bitter dispute. Its inhabitants, hitherto more accustomed to farming, or fishing, or running hotels, have been condemned as subversives at the highest level of government, and they have learned how to stem the effects of tear gas, how to build a roadblock and how to carry out basic first aid. At the village school, Christianou says, “Teachers say the kids have changed their drawings. Now they’re about their parents being arrested.”

The reason for the dispute is the gold that lies in the ground beneath Skouries, an ancient mountain forest just outside Ierissos. Small-scale mining has taken place in the region since the days of Aristotle, who was born here near the village of Stagira. In modern times, various companies have operated concessions, but plans to expand them collapsed after running into local opposition. Now, however, Skouries is one of several sites in Chalkidiki earmarked for a vast expansion of gold mining which will extract roughly 380 million tonnes of ore, far in excess of the 33 million tonnes that have been mined in the past two millennia. Opponents say the project – an open-cast pit, supported by chemical and distribution plants – will destroy the surrounding environment, and that the jobs created won’t replace the livelihoods lost that depend on soil, sea or tourism. The government says the scheme must go ahead: Greece’s profound economic crisis allows it no alternative. Since 2010, when ministers approved the expansion – ignoring the conclusions, campaigners say, of an environmental impact assessment report – protests against the mines have grown into a movement of thousands.

At a café in the heart of the village, Christianou introduces me to some of the people with whom she has worked to build the campaign. Thomasis Kromidas, a carpenter in his fifties who carries a bulging folder of scientific documents in his backpack, tells me how, from late 2010, they began to hold public meetings in neighbouring villages, “just transmitting the scientists’ message, not our own views”.

In March 2011 came the first unrest: 3,000 people descended on the streets of Ierissos, a village with a population of only 4,000, to make their objections heard. The anti-mining campaigners formed themselves into organising committees, holding regular protests and monitoring the development of the Skouries site.

In December that year, the Canada-based conglomerate Eldorado Gold bought a 95 per cent stake in Hellas Gold – a private company set up by the Greek government to run mines in Chalkidiki. The following March, the government conceded 4.1 square kilometres of the publicly owned Skouries forest to the company so that it could begin work. Eldorado, which also operates mines in Brazil, China and Turkey and has a site under dev­elopment in Romania, has said that it will protect the environment, but the protests have continued. On 20 March 2012, there was an angry stand-off at Skouries when hundreds of mineworkers from another site confronted 30 local campaigners. On 25 March – a national holiday in Greece – protesters rallied in the surrounding villages and prepared to march to Skouries. On the road into the forest, they encountered a line of riot police who drove them back with tear gas and stun grenades. “People were totally unprepared,” says Maria Kadoglou, a blogger from Ierissos. “There were families, old people. Women were wearing high heels because they’d come straight from church.”

This was just the beginning. Mobilisations suffered increasing harassment by police and private security guards. A video shot during a protest on 21 October last year shows villagers panicking as armed police chase them through the forest and shoot tear gas at them. We have become used to such images from the Greek capital, but Ierissos is not Athens. It is part of a conservative region whose voters often used to opt for the centre-right candidate at election time. Irini Mourkou, who owns a guest house that caters to the Greek, German and Russian tourists who descend on Chalkidiki every summer, describes the change that has taken place in people’s minds: “Before, we believed the police were there to protect citizens. After, we realised they were there to protect private interests.” Kromidas interjects: “Colonisation is what’s happening here.”

In February, the Greek prime minister, Antonis Samaras, gave his assurance that his government would “at all costs protect foreign investment in the country” and that the scheme would succeed. Yet under the terms of the concession, the Greek state will receive no royalties from minerals extracted. Why, in the face of so much popular opposition, would the government be so determined to see the Skouries project through?

Anti-mining protesters in the forest near Skouries, on 1 May 2012. Photograph: Getty Images

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In mid-May, shortly after I visited Ierissos, Greek newspapers carried photographs from China of Samaras with his Chinese counterpart, Li Keqiang. Samaras, a Harvard-educated economist whose party, New Democracy, has led a fragile coalition since elections that took place a year ago this month, was the latest in a string of European leaders to make the pilgrimage to Beijing. His keynote speech, delivered to the Academy of Social Sciences but aimed at Chinese businessmen above all, carried an optimistic message: come and take part in “the Greek success story”.

The visit was part of a PR drive by the Greek government to convince investors that the country has seen off the worst of the crisis. Its efforts have been welcomed enthusiastically by “analysts” in the business press and the financial industry – not out of a new-found concern for the Greek people, but to show that the economic “shock therapy” imposed on this eurozone member was worth it all along. In May, Yannis Stournaras, the minister of finance, declared that Greece had “turned a corner” economically and that it could return to the financial markets in 2014. That same month, the Fitch ratings agency upgraded Greek debt from CCC to B-minus, still officially “junk” status, but a reward for “progress” in cutting the deficit. At the same time, the government has been preparing a huge sell-off of public assets – privatisations that would, in the words of the country’s development minister, “send the message that we are a business-friendly country”.

As politicians try to sell the new Greece, the social crisis - which even the IMF now admits was avoidable - continues to deepen. Hospitals, for instance, are so underfunded that they run short of basic medical supplies. What’s more, public anger, voiced at the elections a year ago when many voters deserted the mainstream parties, and swung to the far left and far right, shows no sign of abating. A group of enraged villagers who don’t want their mountain turned into an open-cast mine could severely damage the perception that Greece is a safe place for global capital.

To an international audience Samaras may play the benign technocrat, but at home his political record suggests something different. In 1993 he brought down the government after he was sacked as foreign minister over his stance in a naming dispute with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (an emotional issue for many Greeks, who see ancient Macedon as central to their heritage) and formed a hardline nationalist movement, Political Spring. In 2004 he rejoined New Democracy, which is nominally centre-right but has also accommodated more extreme elements; as leader, he took the party into the 2012 election on an aggressively nationalist platform, promising severe measures to curb illegal immigration.

But what began with immigrants – a stop-and-search programme known as Xenios Zeus, widely criticised by human rights campaigners – has spread to other elements of the population. In December, squats such as the long-standing Villa Amalia in Athens were evicted by armed police. In April the minister of justice proposed turning a former military camp  into a prison for debtors who owe more than €5,000 to the state. This month, the Greek Transgender Support Association reported that transgender people in Thessaloníki had been subjected to weeks of police harassment.

And the abrupt closure of the national broadcaster ERT on 11 June brought Greece back into the spotlight for the wrong reasons. The government announced that the service, the Greek equivalent of the BBC, would shut down pending a restructuring and broadcasts would halt that evening. Although the action was officially justified by a need to cut civil-service jobs to meet the demands of Greece’s creditors, the way it was carried out evoked memories of the junta that ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974. Even New Democracy’s coalition partners condemned the move. The only other party to support it was the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn. As Panos Kassaris, an ERT journalist based in Thessaloníki, told me, the broadcaster “is a bulwark against the growing power of the far right, [as it] ensures a variety of opinions will be expressed”.

But the move may have backfired: journalists refused to cease working, and occupied their offices, while thousands of ordinary Greeks turned out to support them. One friend in Thessaloníki told me that the mood was "like it was two years ago" - referring to the indignados protest movement that swept the country in 2011. On 17 June one of the country’s highest courts ruled that ERT must continue broadcasting, while on 21 June, crisis talks between leaders of the three coalition parties broke down, raising the prospect of yet more elections.

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In February 2013, the Skouries dispute took on another dimension when the Hellas Gold site was subjected to an arson attack. According to a press release from Eldorado, around fifty masked men stormed the site, setting fire to equipment and offices, and using tree trunks to block police and firefighters from reaching the blaze. It is still not clear who did it, but the state pressure immediately intensified. The police launched daily patrols in Ierissos, stopping people at random in the street and taking them in for questioning. Next, on 7 March, came what villagers refer to as “the invasion”. As video footage shows, anti-terrorism squads and several hundred riot police descended on the village – ostensibly to search suspects’ houses – firing tear gas as they approached. Witnesses claim that gas canisters even landed in the school playground while pupils were at lessons.

“They were trying to break us,” says Maria Kadoglou, but the move appears to have had the opposite effect. On 9 March, thousands of people marched through the streets of Thessaloníki in solidarity, followed by a second demonstration in Athens a few days later. Despite hostility from the oligarch-owned television stations that dominate the country’s media, the word has spread through social media and citizen journalism projects such as the Athens-based Radiobubble. The Skouries campaign has become a symbolic issue for people all over Greece.

At the café in Ierissos, I chatted about these developments with the anti-gold-mine campaigners. Thomasis the carpenter had a neat way of putting it: “When the politicians go out, solidarity comes in.” As we talked, I got a sense of how the very things that a conservative like Samaras might brandish as Greek values – community, friendship, self-reliance – were now valuable weapons. The café is a centre of village life where teenagers lounge and flirt, or play with their phones, where people drop in to exchange greetings or gossip. And now, of course, it is where “terrorists” come to plot.

Follow Daniel Trilling on Twitter @trillingual

Demonstrators against Hellenic Gold march in the forest in Megali Panagia, northern Greece, on 18 November, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Mr Scotland

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After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

Theresa May says Article 50 will be triggered on 29 March. The UK must prepare for years, if not decades, of negotiating. 

Back in June, when Europe woke to the news of Brexit, the response was muted. “When I first emerged from my haze to go to the European Parliament there was a big sign saying ‘We will miss you’, which was sweet,” Labour MEP Seb Dance remembered at a European Parliament event in London. “The German car industry said we don’t want any disruption of trade.”

But according to Dance – best known for holding up a “He’s Lying” sign behind Nigel Farage’s head – the mood has hardened with the passing months.

The UK is seen as demanding. The Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is viewed as toxic. The German car manufacturers now say the EU is more important than British trade. “I am afraid that bonhomie has evaporated,” Dance said. 

On Wednesday 29 March the UK will trigger Article 50. Doing so will end our period of national soul-searching and begin the formal process of divorce. So what next?

The European Parliament will have its say

In the EU, just as in the UK, the European Parliament will not be the lead negotiator. But it is nevertheless very powerful, because MEPs can vote on the final Brexit deal, and wield, in effect, a veto.

The Parliament’s chief negotiator is Guy Verhofstadt, a committed European who has previously given Remoaners hope with a plan to offer them EU passports. Expect them to tune in en masse to watch when this idea is revived in April (it’s unlikely to succeed, but MEPs want to discuss the principle). 

After Article 50 is triggered, Dance expects MEPs to draw up a resolution setting out its red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and present this to the European Commission.

The European Commission will spearhead negotiations

Although the Parliament may provide the most drama, it is the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, which will lead negotiations. The EU’s chief negotiator is Michel Barnier. 

Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has said of the negotiations: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

This will be a “deal” of two halves

The Brexit divorce is expected to take 16 to 18 months from March (although this is simply guesswork), which could mean Britain officially Brexits at the start of 2019.

But here’s the thing. The divorce is likely to focus on settling up bills and – hopefully – agreeing a transitional arrangement. This is because the real deal that will shape Britain’s future outside the EU is the trade deal. And there’s no deadline on that. 

As Dance put it: “The duration of that trade agreement will exceed the life of the current Parliament, and might exceed the life of the next as well.”

The trade agreement may look a bit like Ceta

The European Parliament has just approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada, a mammoth trade deal which has taken eight years to negotiate. 

One of the main stumbling points in trade deals is agreeing on similar regulatory standards. The UK currently shares regulations with the rest of the UK, so this should speed up the process.

But another obstacle is that national or regional parliaments can vote against a trade deal. In October, the rebellious Belgian region of Wallonia nearly destroyed Ceta. An EU-UK deal would be far more politically sensitive. 

The only way is forward

Lawyers working for the campaign group The People’s Challenge have argued that it will legally be possible for the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 if the choice is between a terrible deal and no deal at all. 

But other constitutional experts think this is highly unlikely to work – unless a penitent Britain can persuade the rest of the EU to agree to turn back the clock. 

Davor Jancic, who lectures on EU law at Queen Mary University of London, believes Article 50 is irrevocable. 

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, is also doubtful, but has this kernel of hope for all the Remainers out there:

“No EU law scholar has suggested that with the agreement of the other 27 member states you cannot allow a member state to withdraw its notice.”

Good luck chanting that at a march. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.