With Brexit, Greeks Worry About Europe's Future And Their Place In It

Jul 7, 2016
Originally published on July 18, 2016 9:20 am

Last summer, the day after 61 percent of Greek voters rejected austerity in a referendum, they celebrated by dancing in the streets.

Their "no" vote was seen as a war cry of independence from onerous technocrats in Brussels, whose policies, voters believed, were keeping Greece in perpetual recession and debt.

But Despina Biri, a Greek researcher specializing in health and science, was full of trepidation.

She opposed the tax hikes and job and wage cuts imposed by European Union creditors in exchange for bailout loans. She thought the "no" vote could be used to negotiate a more humane bailout deal. But she also worried that rejecting the creditors' terms would mean Greece would be forced to leave the eurozone, the EU's currency union.

The repercussions, she said, would be punishing.

"I don't think we would be sitting here drinking coffee," she said when I met her recently at Athens cafe. "There would have been major riots in the streets on a much, much larger scale than we've seen in recent years."

Some Greeks worried back then that exiting the eurozone would also mean leaving the EU. Some who voted "yes" to the bailout terms waved EU flags at rallies with slogans like "Menoume Evropi," meaning "We live in Europe."

In the end, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who campaigned for the "no" vote, caved in to EU creditors — especially after his government's standoff with them forced Greek banks to close. He accepted a new bailout deal with even tougher austerity.

Greek researcher Despina Biri has lived, studied and worked happily in the U.K. but after the Brexit vote, worries about prospects there. She plans to continue her studies in the U.S.
Joanna Kakissis for NPR

Greece remained in the eurozone. But Tsipras remained indignant about what he called a deficit of fairness and democracy in the EU.

When the U.K. voted to leave the union last month, Tsipras compared the EU to a sleepwalker heading off an abyss. The Brexit vote, he said, is a "wake-up call."

Nick Malkoutzis, editor of Macropolis, an Athens-based online journal of economic and political analysis, says the EU has, in recent years, treated some countries better than others, especially in the context of Europe's refugee crisis.

"The point was made to Greeks during the economic crisis that if Greece doesn't abide by the rules, it is undermining the very foundation of the eurozone and the EU, because it's a rule-based union," he says. "But then when the refugee crisis came along, you saw the EU come up with the relocation scheme, which is supposed to designate how many refugees each EU country can accommodate. And then you saw some countries, particularly in Eastern and Central Europe, completely flouting these agreements. And the question a lot of Greeks had was, 'Why do the rules apply only to us?' "

Malkoutzis, a dual Greek-British citizen born and raised in London, says Greeks have lost trust in EU institutions. Only 27 percent view the EU favorably, according to a recent Pew Global Survey, the lowest among all EU countries.

"But at the same time, there's greater trust there from Greeks than there is in their own institutions," he says. "So that's significant. They still believe that there's something to hold onto there."

Biri, the researcher, left Greece at 17 to study in the United Kingdom — part of a generation of young Europeans who have only known life in the European Union.

Now 30, she has learned five languages and holds degrees in molecular biology, biochemical engineering and health policy from University College London.

"Especially when I was studying in the U.K. and working, I sort of had this idea that, OK, I can stay in Europe and I can pretty much find a job anywhere I want," she says. "I can live wherever I want and all that. So now it's sort of slowly collapsing."

Biri worked in Britain until last year. Then she returned home, thinking she could apply her skills in Greece. She worked at the Greek health ministry, but left after a few months because, she says, no one wanted to hear the ideas she'd brought from abroad.

"I feel really powerless, you know," she says. "I have knowledge. I am willing to help. But it seems we couldn't agree on what needs to be changed."

She fears the EU won't survive a Brexit, and is planning to pursue a doctorate in the U.S. She says the U.K. no longer seems like an option for work. And she's sorry about that, because she felt accepted there and didn't experience discrimination.

"I mean, the worst I've had in all 12 years was somebody asking me whether my dad pays taxes," she says.

As she followed the Brexit debate from her home in Greece, she was dismayed by the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the "leave" campaign.

"I was hearing stories about racist attacks," she says. "I mean, my sister still lives in the U.K. I don't know what's going to happen to her. What happens if somebody makes a decision that, OK, we need to kick out all the EU migrants?"

She wants Greece to remain part of the EU, which it joined in the early 1980s after years of political and social turmoil. And she's not alone in this wish, Malkoutzis says.

"Greek society has grown very accustomed to that idea of being part of Europe, of being European, of creating this network with other countries and that there is much greater security in the numbers and the influence that the European Union offers than Greece being on its own," he says.

Unlike Greece, he notes, Britain didn't have a quarter of its workforce unemployed when it voted to leave the EU. "It wasn't in economic crisis, it wasn't close to bankruptcy. There was no threat to it," he says.

Brexit, in other words, was a completely self-inflicted crisis.

"And it makes you wonder," he says, "if Greek society and its political system has actually shown greater endurance than you gave it credit for after the last few years."

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Remember when it was Greece that seemed like the country most likely to leave the European Union, or at least leave the euro currency zone? Let's remember, a year ago, Greeks voted in a referendum and rejected economic austerity measures imposed on them by their creditors. But in the end, they swallowed austerity, and they remained in the EU. Now with the United Kingdom seemingly on the way out, Greeks are worried about Europe's future and also their place in Europe. Joanna Kakissis reports from Athens.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Despina Biri is a 30-year-old researcher who speaks five languages and has degrees in molecular biology, biochemical engineering and health policy. We meet at a cafe in central Athens on a hot summer day. Like many young Greeks, she is unemployed.

DESPINA BIRI: So I was trying, and I was applying for jobs all the time, but none of them ended up working out.

KAKISSIS: All of Despina Biri's degrees are from University College London. She left Greece at 17 to study in the United Kingdom, part of a generation of young Europeans who have only known life in the European Union.

BIRI: Especially when I was studying in the U.K. and working, I sort of had this idea that, OK, I can stay in Europe and I can pretty much find a job anywhere I want. I can live wherever I want and all that. So now, it's sort of slowly collapsing.

KAKISSIS: She worked in the U.K. until last year. Then she returned home, thinking she could apply her skills. Now, she's distraught about Britain's vote to leave the EU. She says she felt accepted there and did not experience discrimination.

BIRI: I mean, the worst I've had in all 12 years was somebody asking me about whether my dad pays taxes.

KAKISSIS: As she followed the Brexit debate from her home in Greece, she was dismayed by the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the leave campaign.

BIRI: I was hearing stories about racist attacks. I mean, my sister still lives in the U.K. I don't know what's going to happen to her.

KAKISSIS: She fears the U.K. will kick out EU migrants. Despina Biri says Greeks did not show this kind of intolerance when they faced an exit from the eurozone, the EU's currency union. They were angry at EU institutions for forcing job and pension cuts and tax hikes in exchange for bailout loans.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAKISSIS: They voted no to more austerity in the referendum last year, and they danced in the streets to celebrate the results. But in the end, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras ignored their will. He accepted EU austerity, and Greeks remained in the eurozone and the EU. After the U.K. vote, Tsipras addressed his nation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER ALEXIS TSIPRAS: (Speaking Greek).

KAKISSIS: He said Brexit was a wake-up call for the EU to be more humane and democratic. He compared it to a sleepwalker heading for the abyss.

NICK MALKOUTZIS: If you look at the polls, the belief, the trust in the European Union institutions has fallen a lot.

KAKISSIS: That's Nick Malkoutzis, the editor of Macropolis, an online journal of economic and political analysis in Athens.

MALKOUTZIS: But at the same time, there's greater trust there from Greeks than there is in their own institutions, so that's significant. They still believe that there's something to hold onto there.

KAKISSIS: He says polls show most Greeks want to remain in the EU, which they joined in 1981 after years of political and social turmoil.

MALKOUTZIS: Greek society has grown very accustomed to that idea of being part of Europe, of being European, of creating this network with other countries and that there is much greater security in the numbers and the influence at the European Union office than Greece being on its own.

KAKISSIS: Malkoutzis is a dual citizen who was born and raised in Britain, so he watched the Brexit campaign with particular interest. Britain, he says, unlike Greece, did not have a quarter of its workforce unemployed when it voted to leave the EU.

MALKOUTZIS: It wasn't in an economic crisis. It wasn't close to bankruptcy. There was no threat to it.

KAKISSIS: Brexit, he says, was a completely self-inflicted crisis.

MALKOUTZIS: And it makes you wonder, actually, if Greek society and its political system has actually shown much greater endurance than we gave it credit for over the last few years.

KAKISSIS: As for researcher Despina Biri, she now feels European countries will grow more insular, so she's heading to the United States for yet another graduate degree. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Athens. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.