I sat on the dusty stones in the Parténon at the end of my three week reporting trip to Greece thinking how naive we all were. We – young and privileged kids from the poorer countries in Europe – had a hopeful dream we took for granted. A dramatic thunderstorm loomed over Athens. The clouds above me were getting larger and larger. After the sound of the first thunder, a quietness took over. I stared at the cradle of democracy, the very place where Greeks dreamt of public good and looked down over a city that I saw burning with rage and anger over a broken promise, over a lie.
Three weeks earlier, I met Angelos, a recent European Studies graduate, at a demonstration of ‘Yes’ supporters in Syntagma Square. Greeks were getting ready to vote on a new agreement with the European Union (meaning: more austerity) and demonstrations where everywhere all the time. In the same day, at different spots in the city, the communists, the pensioners, the laid-off public workers took the streets to shout against the Government, in favor of the Government, against the European Union or against everyone. But this protest was different. The crowd was made of mostly upper middle class and upper class families that occupied Syntagma – many for the first time in their lives – dressed in higher end brands, carrying iPads and European Union flags, to protest against the prospect of a “Grexit”. Angelos was proud to be among the protesters, confessing me he felt more European than Greek. His eyes filled with enthusiasm as he talked about the “European values” which he equated with the “human values”.
After those three weeks I could no longer believe there was such thing as “European values”. The events in Greece were a window into the real machinery of the European Union. As I stood in line waiting in the ATM queues or talked to homeless people in the middle of the street, I realized the illusion of the European dream had been broken for good. Five years of a deep economic crisis; an unemployment rate of 25%;10 000 suicides. Ten thousand! We were promised egalitarianism as citizens of Europe. We believed we were as much members of the European Union as we were Portuguese, Greek, Spanish, Romanian… We believed in the European promise that meant we were no longer destined to a life of slaving away in a menial job in a foreign country. It meant that poverty and emigration out of necessity were in the past. It meant that our parents’ journey of social mobility would be continued by us and our kids.
This wasn’t true and Greece forced us to realize that. It forced us to start looking at how power works at this post national banking world. We thought we were all Germans, we could all live like Germans. Well, the Germans are still Germans. As for us, poorer Europeans, it’s getting clearer and clearer we don’t have the same rights as other Europeans. Accepting this isn’t easy. I saw that in the angry faces of the Greeks shouting in the streets. It was an anger brought up by despair.
That’s probably why the Portuguese conservative Government is busy transmitting the message: “We’re not Greece”. “Portugal não é a Grécia”, they’ve been repeating over and over again for the last four years, while they smile officially and proudly. Youth unemployment is 32%. Every year, hundreds of thousands of educated young Portuguese leave the country. Portugal is pretty much in the same economic boat as Greece. Still, the Government keeps delivering the same delusional message: Portugal should be proud it’s not like Greece, but a good, obeying, humble poor European.
Sure enough, that kind of anger can turn national citizens against each other. “I just want to feel protected”, a businesswoman told me in the upper-classes protest. “I want to pay my employees and keep paying taxes. What will I do next month if the banks are still closed”, she asked, anxiously concerned. Suddenly, her anxiety gave room to something else. She became really angry, her body twisting and turning. “It’s the middle class who’s being threatened. The middle class has been paying and will keep paying The ones who want to vote ‘No’ are unemployed or retired. They can’t pay. ”, she said, gaining momentum as she went on. “They can’t chose”, she eventually said, suggesting it all comes down to money. Paradoxically, she wasn’t blaming the European Union or the politicians. She was directing her fear of uncertainty against the poor and the disadvantaged. I stopped for awhile as she kept talking and felt the weight of those words. She was a nice lady, but this was an eye-opener for me.
I realized then that this crisis is a new version of class struggle. The rich versus the poor – wether it’s the richer countries in the Northern Europe against the poorer, in the South – or the well-off against those who have nothing else to lose in the same country.
Despite the ‘No’ side won the referendum with 61% of the vote, the Greek Government agreed to new and tough austerity measures in order to get up to 86 billion euros ($95 billion) in a third bailout plan.
The day after the agreement was announced, I met Angie, a 38 year old theatre teacher who looked like she hadn’t slept for days. “I can’t take this anymore”, she said, staring into the wall of a café in the middle of Athens, too tired to raise her voice. “I’m so confused. I’m European in my head, but I no longer feel it in my heart”, she said, disoriented. She felt uncertain about the possibility of keeping her job and feared for the faith of her family, which, she thought, would be unable to stand the new measures. “They will sink. They will be ruined.” At some point Angie couldn’t keep it any longer and burst out: “I hate being in Europe right now.”
I left Athens feeling a lot like Angie. This sort of national divide, of social hatred was definitely not the European Union we were promised. But it’s the EU we have now. Maybe I’m wrong, but the end of the European Union begun this July in Greece. And that means we’re all at risk, facing a very uncertain future. We can’t all be Germans. Not all of us are Europeans. But we should realize this: We are all Greeks.
A version of this article has been published in Decât o Revistă.