Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras addresses the European Parliament. (Reuters photo/Vincent Kessler)

El Indio: The Isles of Greece! How the EU Misjudged the Greek Mood

JULY 12, 2015

“The isles of Greece! The isles of Greece Where burning Sappho loved and sung...”

Thus begins the immortal ode to the Greek revolution by Lord Byron. An English nobleman who lived most of his life a libertine romantic, Byron died a freedom fighter and Greek national hero in the early 1820s.

He fell in love with the Greek sunshine, then with the Greek cause, perhaps because, like him, most Greeks were Byronic: passionate, defiant, fatalistic and cynical. They still are. Like the heroes of their tragic dramas, they defy the Olympic gods and sneer at their immutable fate.

The gods and the goddess who rule the European financial architecture didn’t know that. So they miscalculated.

In the run-up to the July 5 Greek referendum on the bail-out package at one time on offer to the debt-crippled Greek economy, the leaders of the European Union (EU) bet that the Greek electorate would vote “yes” and accept willy-nilly the EU bailout formula. They assumed that only the most fanatical Greek nationalists would vote “no.”

And that most Greek voters would make a rational comparison between the pangs they’d suffer if they went out into the cold outside the Eurozone, and the rigors of the austerity that staying with the euro demanded.

The EU leaders thought the choice was a no-brainer: suffering austerity would be infinitely better than losing a lifeline to the only source of money within reach.

The EU was mistaken on two counts. First, it’s just as rational to conclude that the pain and the uncertainty of leaving the euro are still preferable to the crippling impact and the outrages of austerity. It’s not obvious that the only salvation lies in the lap of the EU.

Second, the EU erred in thinking that the referendum of July 5 was a rational process. To the Greek voter, it wasn’t.

It wasn’t about leaving or staying with the euro. Nor was it about bearing or dodging the yoke of austerity. To most Greek voters, I think, the referendum was all about human dignity. And all the emotions that surround one’s sense of dignity.

Even those who thought that a “yes” vote was the more pragmatic choice still voted “no.” Not a few among the crowd of revelers cavorting in the street to celebrate the “no” landslide must have felt like they were dancing on their own graves.

Maybe they were. If this proves to be a Pyrrhic victory and the Greeks have to give up the euro, there’ll be gnashing of teeth as imports of capital goods and fuel will dry up. But they have made a point.

Now it’s time to be conciliatory. To approach the creditors not as a supplicant but as a reasonable negotiator whose dignity is secure.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has proposed a deal that’s almost a clone of the one rejected in the referendum. It has all the tax increases and the austerity that the EU originally demanded. The EU leaders would look foolish rejecting the offer, since it has everything they want of a deal — give or take a few details. To the average Greek, it doesn’t matter if this leads to the same privations he was hoping to avoid. He has his dignity.

The Greeks aren’t blameless. They deserve some pain. But they don’t deserve being crushed by equally blameworthy creditors. The EU should now take a hint from the IMF and restructure the $300 billion Greek debt so that austerity becomes bearable.

Then the European project remains intact, the Greek economy gets a chance to recover and economies all over the world, including Indonesia’s, are spared from the contagion of a European crisis. Hopefully.

Jamil Maidan Flores is a Jakarta-based literary writer whose interests include philosophy and foreign policy. The views expressed here are his own. He may be contacted at jamilmaidanflores@gmail.com.

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