A few weeks ago I found myself sitting on a patio, sharing a bottle of red with a few old friends and enjoying the pleasant warmth of the evening, when someone asked me “So, Chris, which way are you voting in June?” He was referring, of course, to the upcoming referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. Normally, when asked for my opinion on a matter of politics, I can give a simple, decisive answer, followed by some context or nuance (“No, I am against military intervention – unless we do it right,” or “No, I don’t want Scottish Independence – but I can completely see why people do.”). But as I opened my mouth to reply, I realised that I didn’t know what to say, for the first time in a long time, so I fumbled and said “Can I get back to you on that one?”
If the referendum were tomorrow, I would, in all likelihood, voting to stay in, albeit hesitantly. I would make this vote in line with the views of many leftists, commentators, theorists and politicians. Caroline Lucas of the Green Party (arguably one of the hardest working and principled people in politics) has consistently and eruditely argued the case for staying in and reforming the EU into an organisation which prioritises internationalism, welfare support, and a common community. Owen Jones, as well, has written persuasively that while the EU has many elements to it that leftists might find repugnant, that the case for staying in and reforming was stronger than the case for going alone (Jones admittedly called for an vote to leave the EU – for the same reason I have doubts – but changed his mind) These are all arguments I agree with (with reservations, which I shall come to later), but had you spoken to me in the summer of 2015, you would have found yourself talking to a very angry Eurosceptic.
I spent a significant portion of July 2015 in Greece. I will not, for a moment, try to claim I can give an accurate picture or even snapshot of the country from a three week visit. What I can do is give my personal impressions of travelling around a country in turmoil. Over the course of my time there I spoke to dozens of people in sweltering maze like streets of Athens and on the slumbering streets of the tiny town of Edipsos, some few hundred kilometres to the north. I spoke to people of various ages and backgrounds, and the one thing I took away from my time there, and continued to remain in my mind long after I stepped off my plane at Stansted in the August rain, was of the absolute inhuman cruelty of EU austerity.
Greece had elected the radical leftist SYRIZA on a platform of opposing the austerity measures imposed by the Troika in early 2015. At the time of my stay in Greece, SYRIZA had overwhelmingly won a referendum to take this anti-austerity message forward. I was told before visiting Greece that one can read the political temperature of Athens by reading the street graffiti, and it came as no surprise to me that I saw the words “OXI!” (or “no”) daubed on walls, the slogan of the anti-austerity vote. Yet, within a few short weeks, SYRIZA had been brow-beaten, and Prime Minister Tsipras announced that Greece would accept a further bail out, with a package of privatisation and further cuts.
“They had no choice,” Andreas, an elderly man, wearing nothing but a pair of cut off jeans in the oppressive heat, told me. I met Andreas on the low wall of Edipsos harbour at about 12.30pm. Life moved at a different pace at that part of the world; activity ceased as the sun rose to oppressive heights in the sky, and the streets would be deserted from lunchtime till early evening, and life would then re-emerge and continue till the early hours. I was not one for day time sleeping, so I spent this time exploring, skipping from shade to shade, enjoying the warm breeze. Andreas and I began talking because he needed a light and I had one. My Greek was non-existent but his English was excellent, as was the onyx rich coffee he offered me from a flask. He smoked unfiltered cigarettes at a rate of knots, and spoke with one dangling from his lip while I apologetically preserved through two menthol rollies. “We will never win in this cabal.”
By “we” Andreas meant the left. An old communist, he had as a youth fought against the Military Junta in that treacherous period of Greek history where the UK government, in particular, had backed a violent fascistic monarchist group which tortured at least 3,500 political opponents. Now a SYRIZA member (the orthodox Communist KKE were “traitors” for their entrenched homophobia), Andreas spoke about SYRIZA in terms a lot of Greeks did – that SYRIZA had embodied the best hope that Greece had, and it had been crushed but not defeated. Andreas’ breezy manner hid a distinctly darker experience. We met quite regularly over my time in Edipsos, and on our last visit, Andreas told me that had a funeral to go to.
“I’m sorry,” I said, lighting my second cigarette and sipping the thick coffee. “Do you mind if I asked who passed away.”
He looked out across the bay, and his gaze seemed to get lost in the hazy hills on the mainland. “My daughter.”
Andreas’ daughter had done what many Greeks, faced with debts and financial uncertainty had done. She had killed herself. Hers was not the first suicide I was told about since the austerity measures began. I heard stories of Greek people who threw themselves out of the first floor window of their houses as debt collectors tried to break in downstairs; a local shopkeeper told me a friend who, after finding herself unemployed for months, had killed herself, and her children as well. It is estimated that suicide rates had risen by 35% in two years. Speaking to Medscape, George Rachitosis, Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Thessaly, noted that:
“Our main finding was that after 2010, when harsh austerity measures were implemented in Greece, we noted a significant increase in suicide rates for the years 2011 and 2012 in comparison to the period between 2003 and 2010,”
The rise in suicides was only one part of the problem. One of the most idiotic things I read that summer was an article that claimed that the rise of the UK Independence Party was comparable to the reign of Golden Dawn in Greece. Such a sentiment is so ludicrously divorced from the reality of fascism in Greece that I have to question the sanity of the author. As repugnant as UKIP are, and continue to be, there is no comparison that can be made between them and the thugs, gangsters and armed criminals of Golden Dawn. As I mentioned, Athens’ street graffiti is a symptom of its woes, and many Greeks I spoke to feared one symbol above all others:
Golden Dawn are not some noisy bunch of louts, swamping local Wetherspoons and bellowing offensive statements. Golden Dawn represents one of the most terrifying examples of militant Neo-Nazism in modern Europe, and is also the third party in the Greek parliament. Golden Dawn are not some existential threat; Golden Dawn, quite simply, murder people. They are not simply Nazis, but frightening criminals. In April of last year, 69 members of Golden Dawn were put on trial for crimes ranging from murder, attempted murder, and serious assaults. Horrifying video footage exists of black clad neo-nazi thugs smashed up market stalls of immigrants. I was told by almost everyone I spoke to about Golden Dawn that the group targets Jews, Muslims, queers, sex workers, SYRIZA members, anyone who did not fit into their political world view. And Golden Dawn is a much a product of austerity, imposed by the EU, as the suicides. Yanis Varoufakis, former SYRIZA finance minister, warned that further austerity would fuel the Golden Dawn, which, like many fascist parties, thrived in times of economic trouble. Similarly, reputable academic work suggests that austerity is a direct factor in the prominence of Golden Dawn. When Greeks spoke of Golden Dawn, they did so with a kind of genuine fear that I, with my comfortable English existence, had rarely seen in discussions of fascism. The fear has stayed with me long after I left the country.
My response to this was one of outrage. How dare the Troika, with the backing of the EU, create the circumstances for a proud, democratic society to suffer in such a way? How dare the Donald Tusks of the world speak of fiscal responsibility when ordinary people felt compelled to take their own lives? How dare the member states of the EU stay silent while the Greek people continued to press on – apparently alone – with such dignity in the face of all I have outlined above?
How dare they?
Of course, I am aware that this, all of this, is not the nuance needed for a political analysis. I am aware that none of these experiences should logically, casually, cause me to vote for Britain to leave the EU. Every fibre of my mind knows that is probably foolish, and that the architects of Britain outside the EU would not be principled socialists and compassionate progressives, but people like Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, the kind of intolerant little Englanders who’s proto-forms I, sadly, sat next to in lectures at Cambridge. Yet, to stay in the EU in the hope of “reform” seems a rather hopeless task when the people leading such reforms are people like Cameron? Is it false to hope for such reforms? Is it wrong to let the outrage guide my feelings?
I must, I suppose, belatedly offer my apologies to my friend on the patio. Until I can work out what my head and my heart feel on the EU, my answer to your question is a resounding “I just don’t know.”