The death of a "freeloader": When will we accept the results of austerity?

As an eighteen year old dies trying to flee a ticket inspector in Athens, police in Britain boast of apprehending a mother shoplifting to feed her two children. All across Europe, people are struggling to survive.

“Let’s not get used to death” reads a poster you see on walls around Athens. It’s a simple message: we should never stop being shocked by the death and suffering caused by the choices of European leaders and the Greek government. From suicides to “accidents”, the list of casualties has names added to it daily. From Dimitris Christoulas, the 77-year-old who, in April last year, took his own life in Syntagma square, to Babakar Diaye, the 39-year-old man from Senegal who fell on the train tracks from a great height and died after being chased by the municipal police in downtown Athens, the end result is always the same: loss of human lives.

But sometimes the going gets too much. Sometimes the morning news reads like a page out of Les Misérables. Last night, an 18-year-old died in the streets of Athens. Caught without a ticket on a trolley bus, he tried to escape the inspector who had just stepped on board by pushing the emergency button and jumping out of the door. He lost his balance and hit his head on the curb. After being taken to the hospital, the doctors pronounced him dead.

The scenes described by an eyewitness make the case sound truly appalling. He speaks of how the boy was trying to explain that both he and his parents were unemployed, and that he simply couldn’t afford the ticket or the fine. He speaks of the inspector physically assaulting him and ripping his shirt, and the bus driver joining in before the victim made a desperate attempt to escape. And he speaks of shocking scenes where the other passengers almost mobbed the inspector, shouting at him: “you just took a kid's life for one euro”.

More shocking is the reaction seen by some using Greek social media - commentators, authors, politicians. “The inspector was only doing his job,” they say. “It’s not his fault if a freeloader decided to jump off the bus”. This was the death of a “freeloader”. Not of an unemployed kid with no future, but of a guy who simply didn’t feel like paying his fare. This mirrors the attitude some government officials have shown in the past, such as the newly appointed Minister of Health, Adonis Georgiadis, who took up the post in December last year. “Those that cannot adapt, die,” he has said.

In a tragic parallel that defies borders, almost at the same time as the incident in Greece hit the news, the Cheetham & Crumpsall (Manchester) police station account tweeted:

I don’t know the specifics of the case, but the tone is what gets me. The seemingly unconnected fact that she was trying to steal baby food with two kids in her arms. Just as in the case of the 18-year-old, the subject is disconnected from the cause. Poverty and the inability to pay for transportation or food, does not get in the way of the law. The haves are not supposed to empathise with the have-nots. So the list of victims gets bigger.

In Britain, the criminalisation of squatting cost lives last winter. Cheap housing is non-existent in London, and unused properties are boarded up to keep unwanted no-goods out, while landlords plot how to squeeze every penny out of the poor. Come next winter, train fares are expected to rise by more than four per cent, making commuting work even harder for those displaced to the suburbs. This same thing happened in Greece, making job-seeking impossible for many, even if there were jobs to be had in the nation's ruined job market. What will it come to in Britain?

It's farcical. The inequalities that triggered the Arab spring - whose unravelling we are witnessing today in Egypt - are being repeated in austerity Europe. The social fabric, the welfare state that held it together, is being torn down. If you become unemployed, the chances of you getting back to work get slimmer and slimmer if you don’t have some sort of back-up. In places like Greece, Spain, Portugal and now Britain, this a new, extreme reality. In this new reality, we could all end up being cast as “freeloaders”. And our deaths, be they the result of cold, persecution or despair, will be labelled as a “failure to adapt”.

A homeless man sleeps on a vent outside a closed metro station in the centre of Athens. 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.

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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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