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Greek Anger on Debt Agreement Is Focused Especially on Germany

Greek Anger on Debt Agreement Is Focused Especially on Germany

(The New York Times) ATHENS — Every Oct. 28 Greece celebrates “Oxi Day,” or “ ‘No’ Day,” a national holiday commemorating Greek resistance to the Axis powers during World War II. On Friday, those celebrations took on a greater weight. As Greeks suffer from harsh austerity measures, there is growing popular sentiment here that the country has ceded key parts of its sovereignty, and its pride, to its foreign lenders.
Here in Greece, anger is running so high — especially toward Germany, whose Nazi occupation still leaves deep scars here and which now dominates the European Union’s bailout of debt-ridden Greece — that National Day celebrations were called off on Friday in the northern city of Thessaloniki for the first time ever after a group shouted “traitor” to the Greek president, Karolos Papoulias.

“I was the one fighting the Germans,” Mr. Papoulias, 82, said on national television. “I am sorry for those who cursed at me. They should be ashamed of themselves. We fought for Greece. I was an insurgent from the age of 15. I fought the Nazis and the Germans, and now they call me a traitor?”

Beyond populist talk, which ranges from euro-skepticism to anti-German demagoguery, experts say the concessions that Greece has made in exchange for the foreign aid it needs to stave off default — including allowing European Union officials to monitor Greek state affairs closely — are unprecedented for a member nation, making Greece a bellwether for the future of European integration.

The European superpowers Germany and France are trying to translate the new deal, to accept a loss on part of Greece’s debt, into changing European Union treaties to give the union greater oversight of national budgets and to create tougher, more easily enforceable rules for countries that go astray.

After years of pay cuts and tax increases that have pushed the Greek middle class to the breaking point, Greeks are not inclined to feel grateful to the so-called troika of foreign lenders — the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund — that demanded austerity in exchange for loans. Instead, they increasingly feel they have become a de facto European Union protectorate.

“If we weren’t under the E.U., which is the only reason this loss of sovereignty may be justified, I’d have to say that Greece is an occupied country,” said Nikos Alivizatos, a constitutional lawyer in Athens.

Such feelings run so deep that after reaching a deal in Brussels this week for banks to accept a 50 percent loss on the face value of their Greek bonds, Prime Minister George Papandreou took great pains to explain that a new agreement — a troika presence until 2020 — would only offer technical assistance and that it was not tantamount to Greece’s relinquishing control of its fate.

“Nothing in this deal sacrifices our right to take our own decision. On the contrary, it will pave the way for us to freedom from dependency,” Mr. Papandreou said in a televised address.

But few Greeks agree. “Our politicians are just employees, simple employees,” said Margarita Tripolia, 17, a high school student who marched in the National Day parade. She, like other students, turned her face away from representatives of the government, church and military outside Parliament in a silent protest against the austerity measures and the direction the country was going.

But the sovereignty question goes far beyond street protest.

One highly delicate, unresolved question, in negotiations between the European Union and banks over the Greek debt deal, is whether future Greek bonds will be governed by international law, not Greek law, which currently governs 90 percent of Greek bonds. Such a change — aimed at preventing Greece from changing its laws to the detriment of creditors — would be unprecedented for a European Union member country.

Some argue that greater oversight is needed for Greece to push through the structural changes it promised in exchange for foreign aid. They say some loss of Greek sovereignty is a small price to pay considering that the new debt deal and eventual recapitalization of some banks comes at the expense of taxpayers from other European countries.
“That is really transferring the burden away from Greeks and onto the others,” said Iain Begg, an expert in Europe’s monetary union at the London School of Economics. “The condition for this is going to be the others saying, ‘We are not going to allow Greece or indeed Italy to allow itself to get into this position again.’ ”
Italy is under increasingly intense European scrutiny to be sure it carries out structural reforms needed to shore up the euro.

Others, like Spyros Economides, the director of the Hellenic Observatory at the London School of Economics, note that Greeks did not complain about loss of sovereignty before the debt crisis hit. “I never sensed that kind of argument,” he said, “when Greece was benefiting from the largess of the E.U., which came with conditions,” such as a limit on budget deficits of 3 percent of gross domestic product.

“Maybe those conditions weren’t kept, but being part of the E.U., I didn’t hear many Greeks say, ‘This violates our sovereignty,’” he added.

In addition to the troika presence, in July, the European Commission established a task force to help Greece carry out the structural changes it promised. The task force’s mission is to “identify and coordinate, in close cooperation with Greece and benefiting from input from other member states, the technical assistance that Greece needs to deliver” structural changes.

At a news conference in Athens, the head of the task force, Horst Reichenbach, said the group had been started because Mr. Papandreou had “explicitly asked for” technical support from Europe. “It has been explicitly asked for, recognizing that the breadth and depth of the reforms would be a challenge to any nation,” he said.

But not many Greeks believe that. As the anger at Friday’s National Day celebrations made clear, they feel Greece is effectively a puppet government for its foreign lenders.

“We think our country is no longer ours,” said Victoria Kousidou, a high school history teacher, as she waved a Greek flag at a recent demonstration in Athens. “We belong to Germany and to the E.U.”

Updated : 2021-10-19 00:54 GMT+08:00