Dreaming of a different kind of union


There may have been a souvlaki stall doing a brisk trade in the market street, but Athens felt a long way away today as I re-acclimatised myself to my little spot in south east London after spending the past two weeks in Greece, then Lancashire, before travelling to the Netherlands.

Back in the UK, I rely on Twitter mostly to keep up with what’s happening, which isn’t much different to being in Athens, although when I’m “Greece side” I can follow it in parallel with the news channel to get different perspectives and interpretations of events. Yet what you see so clearly when you are there, talking to people, wandering around Syntagma Square during a ‘No’ protest, sitting in cafes, seems harder to hold on to once in the UK.

In Athens, as on Twitter, you sense the urgency of the debate, feel that this isn’t just politics as entertainment, or lifestyle choice, this matters. Yet while walking around today and sitting again in the French Cafe, the conversations I overheard were mostly about moving home, doing work to the home, problems with schools and young babies. I’m not saying those things aren’t important, but do they have to dominate our thoughts and conversations so completely? In light of what’s taking place not only in Greece, but across Europe, it felt strangely dislocating to be in a place where there was so little engagement with the issue.

The UK media line rarely gives oxygen to the perspective that comes across so strongly in Greece, that this is a question of democracy, of people fighting to determine their own economic policies, not have them dictated by its creditors, fighting against continuing to carry the can for what was a bailout of the banks, even, for the right to choose your own government, even if it’s leftwing and not to the liking of Euro leaders. It’s hard, but not impossible, to keep up with what’s going on in Greece, to tune into the arguments that are causing so many to turn against Europe in preference of Grexit.

It’s one thing to try and make sense of what’s happening, but arguments about what caused the crisis and who is due blame don’t really do justice to the scale of it: Whatever happens to Greece – and all scenarios are likely to be terrible for the majority of Greeks – this drama has also been a disaster for the EU, which, along with the ECB and the IMF appears to be determined to dismantle Greece and quite possibly overthrow its government. Where’s the accountability, where can Europeans who don’t support this scenario make their voices heard?

The feeling of powerlessness that I felt watching Socrates Now in Athens remains with me, and is amplified, today. This past week I’ve been in Amsterdam and also North Holland. At a polder mill museum in Schermer, I was struck by the way that over the centuries, the Dutch people, facing the threat of destruction by the sea, not only succeeded in claiming large tracts of land, but established water management as a vital and common goal that still trumps other interests and disagreements.

The Dutch commitment to consensus building was not only evident in the vast, unceasing and costly project to hold back the water, I also heard about numerous examples of innovation and problem solving during my short stay. It was refreshing to be in a successful country where people were proud of what they had achieved together. It was also easy, unfortunately, to see how the values of thrift, hard work and duty so valued among the Dutch might play into a hardline position against Greece in the setting of the Eurogroup. But many Dutch people are also challenging such narratives, instead seeing the crisis as a Europe-wide problem to do with finance and debt.

Of course, it’s a challenge for all of us to try and see beyond our national preoccupations, and with each new twist of the drama, it becomes harder to imagine how troika-scale power could be tamed, let alone channelled towards benefiting the people of Europe. But while we’re dreaming, just think what the Greeks could show us about the “deep soul” of politics and democracy, and what the Dutch could teach us about what can be achieved by working together.

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