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June 18, 2012

Defensive Greeks

GreeceOn Saturday night, sitting in between thousands of increasingly desperate Russians, I observed an example of Greek bravery, against an intense 90-minute siege. As an Italian, a part of me secretly believes that the best football, the most exciting , the most difficult and the most clever, is defensive football, the catenaccio (my Milanese part believes exactly the opposite, but fortunately football does not require intellectual coherence).

Shame Greeks were as defensive, but not as brave, on Sunday against German austerity as they had been against prodigal Russians. Even if Left voters rallied around Syriza, rightwing ones did the same around New Democracy. So we have, once again, a last minute survival of the Euro. It is not that a Syriza’s victory would have been a rising star, as some Greek friends believe: socialism in one country was impracticably for the largest country in the world (Russian fans on Saturday reminded me of that), let alone for the most dependent economy of the EU15. Tsipras’ project of defaulting while keeping the Euro would have been an adventurous bet and require more than a political, fiscal and accounting miracle (by the way, it would be less difficult for Italy, which does not have a primary deficit and could survive on its own Euros). Maybe, actually, Samaras will be able to negotiate better conditions from the EU than Tsipras would have: he has more friends and more (undeserved) credibility. The point is rather a distributional one: given his electorate, Samaras will not really touch tax evasion nor rent, the roots problems of Greek public finances. And I believe it is urgent, for the Left, to expose the distributional aspects, rather than the technocratic ones, of the Euro-crisis.

Russian minersHere in very sunny Poland (yesterday I even got sun-burnt while kayaking in the countryside) people do not worry about Greece nor the Euro (they are at the end of the news), but only about Euro 2012. On Saturday night, I left the stadium with thousands depressed Russians (what a difference with their singing at the beginning of the match), the best so far in the Euro), heading silently towards the city centre. In the middle of the long Poniatowski’s bridge over the Vistula, we run into an even larger crowd coming in the opposite direction: the Polish fans leaving the Fan Zone after Poland-Czech Republic 0-1. In this same place, on Tuesday Polish hooligans had tried to attack the Russians. This time, typically Slavic melancholy and hang-over united both sides in a depressed and totally innocuous mood. In Wroclaw (where Poland had played) there were some minor incidents, but even there, the large majority of Polish fans opted for joining the Czechs in celebrating the elimination of Russia – for both sides a goal in itself.


May 07, 2012

Thoughts on a normal president in not–so normal times

Musée Rodin

If François Hollande wanted to remind of the François Mitterrand moment of 31 years ago, despite his best efforts and nearly exactly the same score of 51.7%, the common background only underline the striking differences. The square itself has changed, after Mitterrand himself built the immense Opéra, in my view a symbol of his ambitious, often spectacular but ultimately failed attempt to democratise French culture. The quartier Bastille has changed too, largely sanitised and gentrified. But zoom into the crowds. As huge and as conscious of the grandeur of its revolutionary tradition as in 1981, the 2012 one is different. While in 1981 it sung L‘internationale, this time a very timid attempt at it in a corner of the square was bottled by La marseillaise and the stage sound system. But while in 1981 the flags were red and tricouleurs, in 2012 a number of disaparate ones have appeared, with the Algerian ones in particular (like in the Stade de France when France plays). Whether they like it or not, the République may have become less internationalist, but it has also become quite multicultural.

The 1981 victory was a real climax, as the opinion polls were too close to call. This time, the defeat of Sarkozy has been expected for so long, that the only surprising thing was the narrowness of the gap. And Mitterrand’s charisma was so strong that he actually did not need to go to Bastille. Hollande’s best asset, instead, has been to look and act normal. In other words, Mitterrand was bigger than the stage – but yesterday the disproportion was between the grandeur of the setting, and the normalcy of the performer.normal

Indeed, his opponent was not normal. I started disliking him already in 1995, when I was in Paris during that presidential campaign, the one Jospin lost with honour (unlike 7 years later). In 1995, the young Nicolas stabbed his mentor Chirac in the back to support the other righting candidate Balladur, who was ahead in the polls – the only good thing of Chirac then winning was the subsequent punishment of Sarkozy. Who was once more opportunistic in 2005, exploiting the No referendum to the European Constitution against Balladur and, again, Chirac. And as a president he has been neurotic in acting and inconclusive in ruling: he will be probably the only V Republic president not to leave a mark. Despite this, I must say that in the last televised debate Sarkozy was more impressive than Hollande: he even managed to look convincing when saying that German success is a success of his ideas (shame that the Germans actually respect trade unions and collective bargaining).

The results of the first round add to the feeling of anticlimax. The high score of Le Pen, and the good but not as high as hoped score of leftist Mélenchon may have strong consequences for French politics. If results are similar in the parliamentary elections of June (which is far from unavoidable), the Left Party will have a very small representation and the Socialist Party may have a comfortable majority alone. This may open the doors to a very moderate government. I keep hoping in two women, Martine Aubry as prime minister and Marisol Touraine as social affairs minister, but there is the risk that, to appease the markets, more moderate socialists will get the posts. And the consequences may be deep for the Right too: for the first time, a large number of Front National candidates might reach 12.5% and qualify for the second round. This will be a disaster for Sarkozy’s party UMP, which would face a disaster in the second round... unless it comes to an agreement with the FN. It sounds absurd, and both Fillon and Raffarin seem opposed to it, but other rightwingers have started saying that Marin Le Pen is not her father, and 70% of UMP and FN voters are in favour of an alliance (Ipsos opinio poll, yesterday)... In any case, this is the historic opportunity for the French extreme right to be ‘legitimised’ – what the Italian one achieved in 1993, with Berlusconi’s compliments.

Talking of extreme Right, one mention of the worst of all, the Greek neonazi Golden Dawn, who entered parliament with 7%. Xenophobia in Greece had up top now more a funnythan scary aspect, but it is turning really nasty. The Greek election night was much more thrilling than the French one. Early results indicated a narrow seat majority for the ‘pro-bailout’ parties (PASOK and ND), but a closer look at the Ministry of Interior website’s data (every now and then, having studied ancient Greek turns useful) revealed that cities were well behind in vote counting. And in cities these two parties scored particularly badly – eventually, ND and PASOK only reached 149 seats out of 300. I expect that external pressure will force at least some MPs of the ND break-away Independent Greeks to join the government, but in any case it will not be an easy time for Greece, and for Europe, if the bailout agreement is not renegotiated soon. So-called anti-politics is ripe, as seen in Germany and Italy in this same intensive electoral week-end. The Piratenpartei has entered the Parliament of Schleswig-Holstein, and the comedian “5 Star Movement” has overtaken Berlusconi’s party (itself a comedian party, if you think about it) in many Italian large cities, while, once again, leftist candidates overtake the mainstream Democratic Party. I don’t fancy either the Piratenpartei or Beppe Grillo, but maybe these kinds of populism are a better temporary safety valve than the extreme Right. It is up to people like Hollande, now, not to waste time.


November 25, 2010

The European Parliament's film prize: great art, worrying politics

In Berlin, like in all EU capitals, three movies were shown to the public last week: the finalists of the European Parliament’s LUX film prize(you can see the trailers on the website). What does the European Parliament have to do with cinema? Not much, but cinema is very important in European culture, and it is a “good” that cannot be left to the market, as the trade liberalisation would like. No European country can compete, in terms of market size, with American producers: languages are natural barriers. This is why we would need, for a level playing ground, quotas on the number of American movies on TV, or at least, strong public support to European cinema. And the best way to do it is to create synergies among the different European countries, increasing mutual interest.

The European Parliament’s prize privileges, in particular, films about multicultural dialogue that are to some extent multilingual, to get the public more used to hearing different speaks in the cinema – just as it happens now in European streets, after all. It will also produce 27 versions of the three shortlisted films, with the subtitles for each EU language. Indeed multilinguism can be very powerful in cinema, even more than in novels. I loved the recent idea by Godard to present a multilingual movie (“Film socialisme”) with unintelligible subtitles at the last Cannes, for the anger of monolingual Anglophone reporters – a very good point, but in the meanwhile subtitles are already one step further than dubbing, monolinguism and English domination.

This year, the festival’s topic was particularly interesting for this blog: migration. The three finalists were the Belgian Illégal (by Masset-Depasse), the Greek “Akadimia Platonos” (by Tsitos) and the German “Die Fremde” (by Aladag). No space for three reviews here, but let’s just say that they are three masterpieces, making full justice on one clear superiority of European cinema above the American: the capacity to be about real life, instead of mere evasion from it. The three stories are very different and deserve to be summarised.

“Illégal” is about a Russian woman living illegally in Belgium with her 10-yo son. One day is she found without documents and interned. To avoid expulsion, she refuses to reveal her identity and origin, knowing that after six months they will have to release her, and she will be able to reunite with her son. But life in a detention centre alongside other similarly desperate souls proves much more inhuman than she expects – can she endure what amounts to psychological torture for so long? Those who appreciate, and can stomach, tough claustrophobic movies about prisons (for instance two recent worthy European additions to the genre: “Hunger” by Steve McQueen, on Northern Ireland, and “Un prophète” by Jacques Audiard, on France), this is for you. I personally found the choice of a well-educated educated Russian as victim slightly over-the-top: if her desperate refusal to return to Russia is not totally implausible (she wants the son to stay, and the son will need her), it feels like a trick to get the viewers’ sympathy, as if more “average” illegal immigrants were less deserving. But indeed it is another powerful denunciation of the inhumane treatment of “illegal” immigrants.akadimia_platonos.jpg

The second movie is, instead, extremely funny. It portrays the middle-aged Stevros, spending day after day sitting outside his kiosk with his three friends on a little Athene’s square, drinking coffee (the picture of the four make a perfect image of the state of the Greek economy and of Greek gender relations). With no much else to do, a privileged discussion topic is commenting on the Albanian and Chinese workers (who of them works more? why do they do it?), and rewarding their “Patriot” dog for barking at any Albanian passing by. But one day, Stevros’s old mother, who sits equally motionless nearby, stands up and hugs an Albanian worker, speaking to him in Albanian and calling him her son. It appears that she had left him behind in Albania, when fleeing with newborn Stevros… Poor Stevros tries to minimise the event and to confirm, first of all to himself, his Hellenicity ("ok, my mother speaks Albanian, but it's because she had a heart attack"), but his friends start doubting he is still one of them… The first hour makes unstoppable laughing. After then, the joke starts running out, and some sentimentalism creeps him, but overall the film is a very good way for Europe to laugh at itself (not just Greeks; Italians too saw the Albanians as the source of all evils in the 1990s, but now that Albanians have integrated so well into Italy, they shifted their target to the Romanians; to some extent, all other European countries have their favourite targets, be it Moroccans, Pakistanis, Turks or Russians: there could be 26 EU remakes of this movie).

The final movie, “Die Fremde” (The stranger), tells of a Turkish young woman from Berlin, escaping with her little son from her violent husband in Turkey, searching refuge with her family in Berlin, but being then rejected by them too for bring shame on the house. In terms of structure, it is the most coherent and accomplished of the three, and the Kreuzberg district is very well portrayed. It dramatically says what I have heard often in Berlin: "I am not German for the Germans, I am not Turkish for the Turks".

The European Parliament chose the winner this week. As MEPs do not know anything about cinema (and some do not know anything about anything, as the UKIP Godfrey Bloom who yesterday was ejected for shouting “ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer"), I expected their choice to be not on artistic merit, but on political calculation. Leftwingers should prefer the social denunciation of “Illégal”; liberals should like the ridiculing of the bigot masses in “Akadimia Platonos”; and the populist Right would fall for the topic of Muslim honour killing in “Die Fremde”. But the Christian- and social-democrats, i.e. the largest groups? Eventually, “Die Fremde” won, which is a sad political sign about the feelings in the European Parliament. For MEPs, honour killing is a more urgent problem than the human treatment of undocumented migrants and of xenophobia - and probably just because for honour killing they can blame somebody else. I wish "Die Fremde"  had won the artistic prize it deserves, instead of a political one.


November 24, 2010

The Germans on terrorist alerts and Irish alarms

Since last week there is in Germany one of those unspecified terrorist alerts that Michael Moore ridiculed in his "Fahrenheit 9/11". Possible targets are airports, stations and Christmas markets in the big cities. Reichstag’s dome by Normal Foster has been closed to tourists, and there are scary pictures in the press of armed police with their German Shepherd dogs in front of the Brandenburger Tor. And we are continuously reminded that the 9/11 terrorists came from Hamburg and there is a good share of Taliban fighters with German passports.

On the other side, I have been through the airport at the week-end, and yesterday I was at a very big event with the economic and political elite, including Angela Merkel. In both cases extra security measures were clearly visible, but rather low-key and unobstrutive – any British airport without alert is more fussy than the German ones during the alert. Which begs the question: if these alerts are for political consumption, why does not Merkel use it to the full? Is somebody else behind it? Who, the media who don’t have anything else to show to sell? Or worse of all, if it is not for political consumption, should we then start worrying for real?

Not that the Germans seem to worry much. But with a self-deprecating attitude that seems to characterize all European nations, they blame themselves not to worrying enough, rather than congratulating themselves for non panicking. In the news they even report that in Britain they know much better how to behave in case of terrorist alert because the government informs everybody and people have been trained for any event. I can’t remember anything of this kind: it must be that the neighbor’s terrorist alert is always greener.

More seriously are taken the financial alerts: the Euro is not as loved and looked after as the DM but it is still something very important. Yet the reactions to the Irish crisis are very different from those to the Greek crisis at the beginning of the year (on which I recommend this working paper by Dorothee Bohle). When it was Greece needing bailing-out, all the German media were scandalized by the breaching of the Growth and Stability Pact and by the immorality of saving the undeserving, undisciplined Greeks. Now, while in the English speaking media (Guardian, Financial Times) there are articles criticizing German strictness and self-righteousness, actually, the Germans this time are being very quiet and condescending, back to the old motto "a good German is a good European". Merkel has expressed a little obligatory concern with fiscal discipline (well, she can't say the Irish are free to use the 85bn Euro as they like, can she? there is not enough Guinness on the island) but basically nobody objects to saving Ireland, and there is very little fuss about it.

Why the different treatment of the Irish and the Greeks? Certainly, you can lose virginity only once, and once the Growth and Stability Pact’s article on national debts being non-transferable has been violated once, the following violations make little news. Also, there are objective differences between the nature of the debt of Ireland and that of Greece: while Greece has been in chronic debt since independence, Ireland was running, until the crisis, a clean budget. Germans still remember, with a little shame, how just a few years ago Ireland had a budget surplus while Germany itself (tu quoque!) was breaching the deficit limit – and how the Council criticized Ireland for planning tax cuts, while it closed an eye or two on Germany. Beside these objective differences, there may well be a little bias: it is undoubtedly easier, in Germany, to despise the Southern Europeans (I know something about it), than it is despising the Irish.

But more important than the national bias may be the economic bias. That is, falling into debt because of unbalanced, “over-generous” social welfare and subsidies to a frail economy, as in Greece, is morally unacceptable. But falling into debt in order to save disastrously-behaving banks, in which incidentally the Germans have invested so much, is morally OK.


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