‘I am under the Wheels of the World, smashed to bits by a God.’
So cried a defeated and suffering Creon in Burial at Thebes, the play by Seamus Heaney based on Sophocles’ Antigone. (Spot the A-Level English Lit student.) Creon states these words, after having lost his wife, his beloved son and heir and ultimately his throne and support of his people after ignoring the decree of the gods and walling up his niece, Antigone. His people and his family suffered due to his pride and self-belief, and it took the deaths of those he loved most for Creon to realise his mistake. By the conclusion of the play, Creon is a lonely and dejected man, defeated by powers beyond his own control.
Ah, the epitome of Greek tragedy. How we know that it is not only confined to slim volumes of collected plays, when it is played out in daily life.
I’m not even attempting to be subtle about the topic of this blog. With my throwback to my A-Level days of old comes a reason of topical relevance. I am of course referencing the current ongoing Greek tragedy that perhaps even Sophocles would be hesitant to dramatise: that of Grexit, the imposition of the EU bailout terms in the country which gave the world democracy and the very real and human suffering faced by the Greek people.
After the recent complex and intensive episode – of bailout term rejection, referendum, majority of Greek voters rejecting the terms-that-were-not-current-terms, then for Prime Minister Tsipras to have no choice but to agree to harsh terms regardless of the will of his countrymen and women – one cannot help but draw parallels with Greece and its dire financial situation and the situation presented by Burial at Thebes. Both are played out on stages, and both hinge on the control and command to obey orders from vast, powerful entities.
In the case of Greece, the EU and its monetary institutions are the faceless gods, with Tsipras, in his determination to attempt to reject harsh terms imposed on his control, eerily akin to Creon. A Creon who thought he could create his own path and his own legacy for the good of his people, but ultimately had to buckle before the mighty pressure of multiple, frustrated demands from the other Member States at the eleventh hour.
Tsipras, and Greece in general, are under the heavy and forceful wheels of the EU, and dangerously verge towards being smashed to bits by the harsh bailout terms imposed by the Eurozone gods.
News broke through yesterday that the German Bundestag agreed to pursue new bailout talks following on from the collective sigh of relief heaved by the Eurozone after the EU agreed to provide €7 billion in loans to debt-crippled Greece.
But cracks are forming in the EU, with whispers of discontent across the Member States growing louder. The murmurs are for Grexit – to sacrifice one country to prevent the spread of infection, to save the rest of the Eurozone.
Such cracks were evident in the Bundestag vote. Whilst 439 German MPs voted in favour of pursuing new bailout talks, thus paving the way for the EU to commence fresh talks and potentially new negotiations, 119 Germans MPs voted against the motion. Notably, 60 members of Chancellor Merkel’s own party voted to reject the pursuit of another round of talks, highlighting the sense of growing frustration.
German Finance Minster Schäuble is one of those at the end of the proverbial tether. His sharp comments, his demand for greater Greek government-approved austerity and his hints at the Eurozone’s consideration of Grexit have been well-documented in the press. Yet yesterday he spoke passionately of the need to assist Greece, ‘Greece needs help’. Even then however, his exasperation was evident as he warned this was the last attempt to help with this ‘difficult task’ of Greece.
Greece is a ‘difficult task’ to be completed, a messy problem to be tackled: the language clearly reiterates the frustration of the EU and its desire to save its Eurozone project. But to what extent? In imposing these bailout terms via the cruel dangle of economic survival as terms are pushed into Tsipras’ hands, the EU is open to charges of anti-democracy, anti-national sovereignty and of turning its back on a fellow Member State – and its citizens – in peril.
To harken back to the A-Level English Literature comparisons, I studied Burial alongside Shakespeare’s marvellous tragedy of King Lear – a play which again illustrates how powerless we are when it comes to our destiny, and the speed in which the tables turn. Both plays present the stark reality of losing control to others through mistakes to the reader.
In Lear, the broken Gloucester is betrayed by one he loved and trusted, who should have defended him – his illegitimate son. Realising this betrayal, his powerless state and lack of control, he utters:
As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods. They kill us for their sport.
One cannot help but consider the words, the frustration, the lack of care afforded to Greece alongside the above quotation. Is Greece’s financial plight merely an annoyance to be treated as harshly as the EU monetary institutions see fit?
In her speech before the Bundestag, Merkel emphasised that trust had broken down – that being the trust between Greece and the collective EU states following Tsipras’ referendum call and his general obstinacy – and the challenge before the European states was to try to fix this broken relationship.
She was blunt in her assessment of the Greek situation, sating that there had been three options available:
1. To ‘bend the rules’ for Greece (aka allow Greece to be its own master and demand more lenient terms). But she argued such a route would result in the end of Europe’s ‘state of law’ – which Germany could not allow (i.e. rules are made to be followed, EU law must be adhered by all States regardless of their own particular situation).
2. Europe simply gives up on saving Greece.
As Merkel put it:
“The alternative to this agreement would not be a ‘time-out’ from the euro … but rather predictable chaos.”
(I.e. default, Grexit, the beginning of the end for the Eurozone).
But this could only happened with Greece’s approval – Tsipras has repeatedly stated he does not want Greece to exit the Eurozone – and that of the 18 other countries. And whilst the idea of finding an apparent simple solution by insisting on Grexit, the other 18 will not actually clamour for this. Doing so runs the risk of Eurozone market chaos, which will undoubtedly harm the 18’s economies in turn.
The problem of ever-closer Union is that there will be ever-closer domino-esque collapse.
3. No surprise that option three was the option Ms Merkel advocated, being that the member states collectively try one final time to determine whether it is possible reach consensus and an agreed solution with all 19 Eurozone states on board.
Ms Merkel says this has occurred, due to the EU values of national responsibility and European solidarity. (Solidarity with what, exactly? Germany is not suffering in solidarity with its Greek counterparts.)
The wheels of the EU are turning, however, with Greece strapped to the tracks.
Merkel also commented that in her view, it was not the Greek people who are responsible for their ‘misery’ – suggesting everything was out of the hands of Greece, for all their attempts to rectify their situation. The referendum allowed the Greek people to feel in control, but they ended up more powerless than before now the EU gods have spoken. And said what? Well, Ms Merkel said it was wrong to think that forcing greater austerity and reforms would ‘strangle’ Greece. She said that we should consider how Ireland, Portugal and Spain dealt with their crises. She conveniently forgot how unique each financial situation is for these countries, however.
European solidarity, when considered alongside the demands for austerity, equates to solidarity in shackles.
Germany voted in favour of new talks, with other European Parliaments following suite. Yet the clamour for Grexit grows ever-so-slightly in the background.
Greece must accept partial responsibility for the situation it finds itself in. There is no doubt that it should not have been accepted into the Eurozone and that it did ride the EU-gravy train upon its successful – albeit as a result of forgery -entry. Tsipras’ stubbornness and pride has resulted in the loss of any sympathy and support from member states who could have been his allies in negotiations. His personification of Creon was too evident in his referendum call, but his bluff was called only a day after the ‘oxi’ results as harsher terms were laid before him. The EU could not believe that it had been lead on such a chase, and its will rejected.
The beauty of tragedy is the sad truth it reveals. History tends to repeat itself, and this is something Tsipras should have known. For in 2011, the year of the second bailout for Greece, the-then Prime Minister Papandreou announced his intent to call a referendum on the EU-IMF proposals. The country had had many a demonstration against austerity and Papandreou sought the permission of the Greek people before imposed further austerity measures. Just like the members states recently voiced their anger at Tsipras’ referendum announcement, so too did the EMU leaders react with indignation in 2011. Merkel and the French President of the time, Sarkozy, issued an ultimatum: accept the terms of the bailout, which were non-negotiable, or the overdue €6 billion loan payment would be withheld. Under mounting pressure and facing a collapse of the Greek economy, Papandreou withdrew his call for a referendum a few days later – news which was widely greeted around the EMU and IMF.
The message is clear: you cannot disobey the orders of the EMU, and you are not in control of your own country’s destiny. Tsipras and Papandreou’s repeated folly was to use a referendum as breathing space, to send a message that they were in command via the will of the people. Tsipras, on carrying on with his referendum to the displeasure of the EU, must also accept some responsibility for Greece’s situation as it now faces a further painful austerity spiral, which may result in additional bailouts in the future.
But should Greece accept the remaining responsibility for the suffering of its people from imposed austerity measures, forced through in the EU’s (mistaken) belief that austerity will save Greece? Is Greece in fact being punished for its pride, initial greed, and subsequent treason in calling for democracy and rejecting the will of its European gods?
The next few weeks will be interesting, but telling. We shall soon discover whether Greece will be ‘smashed to bits’ and thus conclude its own modern tragedy on a very public stage.