Ex-Pats and Outdated Perspectives: Banks instead of Tanks, and Propping Up Status Quos Worldwide?

The hot political topic for this weekend is of course the Greek referendum on whether or not to accept the latest terms for further international aid. No debt restructuring is on offer, so no hope of any improvement in the lives of Greeks (as the money will not go anywhere near them, merely to consolidate the profits of many French and German banks), simply more for them of the same pain from the last deal in 2010. Alex Andreou (http://www.commondreams.org/views/2015/07/03/how-europe-played-greece) notes the statistics of that pain: “In the last five years, we have made adjustments which reduced a 15% deficit to zero, while the economy contracted by a quarter. Incomes fell by over a third. Pensions were slashed by 40%. 18,000 people are sleeping rough in Athens alone today. 11,000 are estimated to have committed suicide explicitly because of financial worries. The Church is raising thousands of children in orphanages. Almost a third of the population are living below the poverty line.” Of the £180 billion that has been lent to Greece, more than 90% was simply used to bail out international banks (predominantly French and German, which were heavily exposed) who should never have lent the money in the first place – yet another part of the global banking incompetence phenomenon that has become self-evident since 2008.

During the last couple of weeks, it has been difficult to avoid the conclusion that as soon as Greece agreed to one set of terms, the goalposts seemed to get moved again – that package conditions that were happily agreed to for other countries in the past were not being allowed for Greece. In these circumstances, it’s hard not to admire Alexis Tsipras – when faced with ultimata from Europe that seem designed to shift him each time further and further from his original electoral manifesto mandate, he has the courage of going to the country. And this does take courage – although SYRIZA holds 149 out of 300 parliamentary seats, it only received 36% of the vote. When you know that it is not a majority vote that elected you, and that people’s beliefs might be failing rather than hardening under the pressure and intransigence from international creditors, it takes courage to recognise that you still need to ask for a mandate from the people to go further – especially as some of his supporters in January felt that he had already gone too far in concessions to appease the ‘troika’ of the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and the European Central Bank. 

People in Greece are dying as a result of debt repayment schedules designed entirely for creditors, and doing absolutely nothing to alleviate social and economic conditions brought on by the austerity that is not working (Greek debt relative to GDP has actually increased as a consequence of austerity). That is a good enough reason for Greece to vote No. But the recent games between the ECB and the IMF have shown that there seems to be a preparedness to externally provoke regime change – to behave like the USA and bring down a democratically-elected government that inconveniently puts the health and life of its people above external economic interests. On that basis alone, Greece should vote No, or they are agreeing that that kind of subjugation is legitimate, and that elected governments are a mere façade in front of corporate financial control. And you thought the Transatlantic Trade agreement (TTIP) was bad…

These European loan sharks gave out debts that they knew were unrepayable, and sat back to watch the money roll in as the country’s infrastructure began to collapse. And yes, a lot of this comes from the degree of US military presence in Greece, which traditionally will involve large sums of money in defense contract spending, and therefore encourages local governmental corruption (similarly, the UK government’s major international corruption scandal was over arms sales to Saudi Arabia, involving BAE). In that context, Europe’s priorities seem somewhat cynical, when they begin to make noises about hoping that the SYRIZA government will collapse as a result of this referendum. Andreou again: “Everyone agrees that corruption at the highest levels and chronic tax evasion were Greece‘s downfall. And yet, instead of cheering a government that, despite ideological differences, is prepared to tackle those things, they have employed any unconstitutional and undemocratic means necessary to overthrow it. They are actively trying to install a government formed of the very corrupt entities that stripped the country like locusts for four decades…A coup d’état in anything but name, using banks instead of tanks and a corrupt media as the occupiers’ broadcaster.” Well, that mention of a corrupt media certainly rings some familiar bells from the recent Scottish experience…

The Greeks were promised that they would be protected when forced to take out the loans in 2010, but they have now been abandoned by Europe – and even the IMF refuses to sanction another programme of cuts without debt restructuring, which the ECB is currently insisting on. And this is the IMF baulking – hardly an organisation with a great record on humanitarianism, as the famous resignation letter of Davison Budhoo (a senior economist with them for almost 12 years) recorded in May 1988: “Today I resigned from the staff of the International Monetary Fund after over 12 years, and after 1000 days of official fund work in the field, hawking your medicine and your bag of tricks to governments and to peoples in Latin America and the Caribbean and Africa. To me, resignation is a priceless liberation, for with it I have taken the first big step to that place where I may hope to wash my hands of what in my mind’s eye is the blood of millions of poor and starving peoples. Mr. Camdessus [IMF Managing Director], the blood is so much, you know, it runs in rivers. It dries up too; it cakes all over me; sometimes I feel that there is not enough soap in the whole world to cleanse me from the things that I did do in your name and in the name of your predecessors, and under your official seal.”

The current international aid offer to Greece will not solve anything, except further allow the European loan sharks to get fatter on their infinite loan repayment schedule. As Andreou says, this is “economic waterboarding being administered to a country on its knees”. Fundamentally, the people paying the price for this economic crisis are not the ones who caused the problem, and once again we have an example, as with the UK, of irresponsible banks escaping unpunished, and the poor of the country picking up their tab, while the country’s rich get richer. Where is the inspirational example of Iceland and its jailed bankers when we need more of it? 

But it was another aspect of the Greek story that spiked some resonant feelings in me this morning. Reuters reports many citizens are flying back to Greece for the vote on Sunday, supposedly mainly to vote Yes to accept the terms that will not (directly at least) affect them. This obviously has some parallels with the Referendum last year, where it was instead decided that it should only be residents in Scotland that had the vote. I had been working in China for a year, but ended up spending 8 months of 2014 in Edinburgh, so had no problem with my entitlement to exercise my franchise. Conversely (for example) the musician Fish argued that, as he had already planned to move to Germany with his wife, he (despite being a longstanding campaigner for Scottish independence) would not campaign for a Yes vote, as he felt it would be hypocritical if he knew that he would not be staying in Scotland to live with the consequences either way. In the Greek case, Reuters presented one management consultant from Singapore as an example of this phenomenon, with an understandable experience of reflecting on how many opportunities he had received because of being a part of the European Union, therefore Greece should vote Yes and remain within. My first reaction to this is ‘whoop-de-doo, lucky you’. My second is, doesn’t the fact that you are working abroad potentially give some indication that maybe there are not the opportunities at home that you might wish for?

People who leave their homes to work abroad often have little choice – in a way, it is a good metric of a lack of opportunities at home, and therefore a negative reflection of the opportunities that their country’s status quo has brought them. As much as we have a globalised economy and ability to move country to work is far greater than before, there is still that old chestnut of ‘you move city because you want a better job, you move country because you have no choice’. Just ask those refugees risking everything to try to get across the Mediterranean. Historically, Scotland’s diaspora has reflected this: my museum in Edinburgh notes in its displays that from the 1820s to the 1920s over 2 million Scots left for America, Australia etc (the ‘other’ colonies). That’s a pretty huge proportion, given the current population only hovers around 5 million. And that trend did not go away: in the 40 years from 1971 to 2011, the population of England went up 15.5% (7.1 million, from 45.9 million to 53.0 million), while Scotland’s rose by 1.9% (100,000, from 5.2 million to 5.3 million). In other words, in the last 40 years, England’s percentage population growth has been some eight times that of Scotland (and 71 times higher in numerical terms). I am unsure that many of those who formed part of Scotland’s haemorrhaging population (sufficient to almost eliminate population growth from birth) were doing it merely because they ‘fancied a bit of a change’.

So what of these people, flying back for a weekend to vote for the status quo, then return to their homes abroad comparatively devoid of the social collapse afflicting their fellow-citizens? This would be similar to people being able to fly back for the Referendum last September just to vote No. I recall colleagues who were polling station monitors that day, with stories of taxis drawing up, then asking ‘back to the airport now, then?’ after waiting for their customers to vote and return to the cab. Urban myths to a degree, perhaps – but a vote for maintaining the status quo – in both scenarios – seems to me ludicrously unfair. We are familiar with a lot of the London ‘celebScots’ (many on lucrative contracts with the BBC) that were wheeled out to advocate voting for the Union during the Referendum campaign, and – like our Singapore management consultant, you could see why: ‘This union’s worked out fine for me, so what’s the problem?’ No doubt if you got your opportunities elsewhere and were doing fine, thank you very much, then the point of change seems abstract, at best. Or perhaps this was also just them buying into the London-centred press narrative of stay-at-home Scots being ‘spongers and parasites’, rather than accepting the idea that just maybe London-rule might not be working out for those they left behind, in either Greece or Scotland?

It may seem gloriously hypocritical, but perhaps as ex-pats they should only be permitted to exercise their franchise if – despite having left, they recognise that things are not working back home. Where is the sense in voting for a status quo that compels you to leave your home? Are you simply voting for a more idyllic social political reality that you imagine you remember, but has in reality long since gone…if it was ever in fact there?

And back to the Greek referendum tomorrow. It is hard not to get a sense of outrage from European institutions that Greece dared to elect a party with such opposing views to their comfortable status quo – I find myself remembering the playwright Peter Arnott writing about the No campaign during the Referendum campaign in July last year: “The very core of the fear in ‘Project Fear’ is fear of English vengeance.  All the stuff about trade barriers and borders and passports and no one ever buying whisky again are predicated on the same thing: on the apparently inevitable consequence that they will hurt us if we dare. This expectation which informs all the dire prognostications of economic boycotts and general administrative bloody mindedness, even of proper fisticuffs over the assets – is based on an image of the English as petty, spiteful, nasty and vengeful. The No campaign seem certain that the majority stakeholders in the ‘greatest multinational family’ in history will react like vindictive children.” (http://peterarnott.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/why-dont-british-nationalists-like.html) So, similarly, recent behaviour seems to reflect on the perception of that other family of nations that welcomed Greece – as Andreou puts it: “ ‘Come be part of the European Family’, they said. Many are now realising that the family in question were The Borgias.

Which way should Greece vote, having come so far? I remember the irate London taxi driver shouting to Scotland on the day of Cameron’s speech imploring Scotland to stay…from London’s Olympic stadium (lots of ‘bad’ language, but watch to the end – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NjbuTckpcDI): ‘Run for your lives’, he said. Given that this may have even more literal truth for the Greeks, I fervently hope that the people of Greece follow his advice better than we did in Scotland.


“The fundamental question at stake in the Greek election, and in the Scottish referendum, and in the rise of UKIP is actually exactly the same: who governs a country? Is it the people who live in it, or a government chosen by them, or is it an international elite of financial interests and the institutions which serve them?” (Jeremy Gilbert, Professor of Cultural and Political Theory at the University of East London)

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