Nothing to see here: Athens is now closed to democracy

There are two kinds of deficit that have taken hold in Greece: the economic one, and the democratic deficit created by government spin and five years of austerity and authoritarianism.

The Greek capital will be closed for the day, nothing to see here, move along. From Panepistimio to Mets, two of the borders of the historic center of Athens, it’s about two kilometres in a straight line. From Acropolis to Mouson Avenue, it’s almost six. These are the borders of the area of Athens where a curfew has been declared for today (see map below). To get a sense of the scale, think of an area in London from Westminster to Holborn and from Marble Arch to Bethnal Green Road. 

From nine in the morning till eight at night, the centre of Athens will be under lockdown. No protests or assemblies allowed. This decision (taken by the Chief of the Greek Police no less - not an elected official) was deemed necessary because the German Minister of Finance, Wolfgang Schäuble, will be visiting Athens. To ensure that nothing will hinder Schäuble’s route, or tarnish his eyes with images of dissent, the road that leads from the airport to the Greek Parliament will also be closed while he is on it.

The area of Athens where protests and assemblies are banned today

It is of course not the first time that such measures, which might be called extreme, have been taken in order to provide maximum security for a visiting German official. It was only last October that the Greek capital had to be flooded with riot police, and another curfew imposed, in order for the ungrateful masses of protesting Greeks to be kept at bay for Angela Merkel’s visit. It was the same when riot police were used to stop a small village from protesting the destruction of its natural environment, imprisoning anarchists without trial for longer than the law allows or shutting down public institutions (like say the state broadcaster) on a moment's notice without a vote in parliament. It is not, of course, incompatible with democracy to take away basic rights from a people, in order to show your benefactors (be they businessmen or governments) how grateful you are. The Greek coalition government knows very well where its lifeline comes from. 

But one can’t help but ask - as both the German and the Greek government alike have been declaring lately - if the Greek “success story” is true, why is such protection (usually reserved for dictators and conquerors) needed at all? Wolfgang Schäuble is certainly none of those things. At his very worst, Wolfgang Schäuble might accept the odd DM 100,000 cash donation from the occasional arms dealer and be forced to resign from the leadership of his party, just like he did back in 2000. It is but a flesh-wound.

Maybe it’s because a lot has changed since then. Most of all, the very nature of the political system we call “democracy”. Greece’s Troika of lenders (comprised of the EU, the ECB and the IMF, but spearheaded financially and ideologically by Germany), in their efforts to close the country’s financial deficit, has created and perpetuated a most despicable, and harder to close, deficit: one of democracy. 

Instead of an open forum, like the one my country supposedly gave birth to, where everyone gets a say, the version we’ve been witnessing in Greece is more of the “elections during which German newspapers publish articles in Greek, warning voters not to vote for left-wing SYRIZA” kind. This is the version where meetings need to take place behind closed doors, and visiting politicians need to be kept away from the unruly mobs who seek to stain the beautiful fairytale of hardship, punishment and reward the virtuous Angela Merkel desperately needs on her way to the German elections to be held this September. 

We shouldn’t go very far as to why this protection is needed though. The privatisations programme has brought the Greek government nothing but shame. Unemployment now stands at more than 28 per cent, and an expected drop of more than 70 per cent in tax revenue during the month of June is predicted to blow a hole in the budget of almost a billion euros. All of these things threaten the government’s spin. 

Greek and German politicians refuse to acknowledge this. Yiannis Stournaras, the Greek Minister of Finance, declared in a more than straightforward way that “there is no problem, we’re seeing improvement”, despite the Troika’s damning report on the progress made. A multi-bill that pushes through “necessary” reforms (namely cuts, lay-offs etc) has been rushed through the parliament, and voted by a slim majority of 153 out of 300 MPs. The only success the government has to show from the negotiations with the Troika is a reduction in the VAT on services which will apply from August, but already restaurant owners have said that it won’t change prices, as they have absorbed damages from the 10 per cent hike in previous years.

When faced with these tough questions, ministers of the government, like Nikos Dendias on the BBC’s HARDtalk a couple of weeks ago, stick to their line and claim we’re seeing light at the end of the tunnel. But it takes heavy policing, the closing down of tube stations, the enforcement of a curfew unlike any a democratic country should witness, and tight control of all mainstream media for this spin to take hold. It is this very behaviour by both the Greek and the German governments that provokes the Greek people to take to the streets. A call for a gathering in Panepistimio has already been sent out for this afternoon. 

Greece cannot afford luxuries, both literally and metaphorically. No matter what happens, whether riots, demonstrations or absolutely nothing takes place, the impression left behind in this instance is pretty clear: there is no room for democracy, freedom of expression and democratic procedures in this state of constant emergency. And if the Greek budget shows a primary surplus this year, itself highly unlikely, the democratic deficit created by these past five years of austerity and authoritarianism will take generations to close.

A protester's placard during this week's general strike in Greece. Photograph: Getty Images

Yiannis Baboulias is a Greek investigative journalist. His work on politics, economics and Greece, appears in the New Statesman, Vice UK and others.

Ellie Foreman-Peck
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Martin Schulz: could this man bring an end to the reign of Angela Merkel?

The German Eurocrat is the biggest threat to the possibility of a fourth term for Merkel. 

At first sight, Martin Schulz looks like an unlikely political saviour. Thin of hair and thick of waist, the 61-year-old was a member of the European Parliament for 23 years and its president for five. In an anti-establishment age, it was predicted that Schulz would struggle when he became the Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) candidate to replace Angela Merkel as the German chancellor in January. Instead, he is spearheading a remarkable revival in his tribe’s fortunes. On 19 February, for the first time in a decade, the SPD polled above Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), attracting 33 per cent to their 32 per cent. The SPD vote share has increased by 12 points in a month. The cause is clear: “Martin mania”.

For months, it was assumed that Merkel would secure a fourth term as chancellor in September’s federal election. The SPD, the grandfather of European social democracy and Germany’s oldest party (it was founded in 1863), had polled as low as 19 per cent. After forming a grand coalition with the CDU in 2013, Schulz’s party was marginalised as Merkel claimed credit for policies such as the country’s first minimum wage. Voters defected to the far-left Die Linke and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland. The SPD’s future looked to be one of managed decline.

Sigmar Gabriel, the party’s leader since 2009, stood little chance of supplanting Merkel as chancellor. As a result, like François Hollande, he reached for the pearl-handled revolver: he announced his intention to step aside on 24 January after internal SPD polling showed that Schulz would perform significantly better against Merkel. “It was not an easy decision but I’m convinced it was the right decision,” Gabriel told reporters. His judgement was vindicated as public polls gave Schulz an 11-point lead over Merkel (49-38).

The German chancellor’s apparent unassailability owed less to her strength than to her opponents’ weakness. Eleven years after she entered office, voters had grown weary of Merkel’s leadership but saw no viable alternative. In Schulz, they have found one. Having been engaged at EU level and held no domestic office since standing down after 11 years as mayor of the north-western market town Würselen in 1998, Schulz has been embraced by voters as a relative outsider.

Unlike his SPD colleagues, Schulz can criticise the CDU’s record without appearing hypocritical or feeble. He has attracted voters with a centre-left emphasis on redistribution and social justice. “When people see that their taxes are used to give their children a future, they buy into it,” Schulz has said in interviews.

The European Parliament has been a useful platform for his pugnacious style. He is best known for being compared to a concentration camp guard by Silvio Berlusconi in 2003 and for his interjection in 2010 after Nigel Farage branded the then EU president, Herman Van Rompuy, a “damp rag”. Schulz retorted: “It’s not right that this man should be able to trample over the dignity of this house!”

Voters have warmed to Schulz’s personal story as well as his political history. He was born on 20 December 1955 in the village of Hehlrath, North-Rhine Westphalia, to a policeman father and a homemaker mother (he is the youngest of five). Rather than going to university, he trained as a bookseller and was a promising footballer. Two severe knee injuries ended his playing career at the age of 18 and he sought refuge in alcohol after falling into depression. Having contemplated suicide, he recovered to open a bookshop in his home town (which he ran until he became an MEP in 1994) and has been teetotal since 1980.

Schulz educated himself by devouring historical fiction (his favourite writers are John Steinbeck and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa) and retains the restlessness of an autodidact (he often works 18-hour days). His bonhomie and blunt manner appeal to voters who regard Merkel as aloof.

That Schulz has come to the SPD’s rescue is unsurprising. He joined the party at the age of 19 and became the youngest mayor in North-Rhine Westphalia when he was elected in Würselen at 31. After more than two decades serving the EU, the attractions of a return to domestic politics were obvious. “People must look into your eyes and see that you are a bloody streetfighter,” he remarked in 2013, as he presciently dismissed Ed Miliband’s electoral chances.

Schulz has disoriented the Christian Democrats, who failed to anticipate a centre-left renaissance. In a mark of how much he has unsettled them, the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, has denounced him as a Trump-like populist for his slogan “Make Europe great again”. Were Schulz to replace Merkel and Emmanuel Macron to be elected French president, the pair would unite in seeking to impose punitive Brexit terms on the UK.

For Germany’s Social Democrats, the fear is that Schulz’s surge has come too soon – voters could swing back to Merkel and the CDU before polling day. But after years as an emblem of centre-left malaise, the SPD has momentum. Schulz is determined to prove that there are second acts in political lives. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit