It was the most unlikely of alliances gathered at Syntagma Square that sultry July evening. Anarchists, nationalists, the far left, the not-so-far left and those in between: all of them unanimously jubilant and collectively representing a 61 percent majority of the no vote on the Greek referendum vote. The composition was unprecedented. “I have never seen such a diverse group celebrating for the same reason,” a photographer friend remarked to me while we were there.
These were the final hours of a historic day. Greece had voted no to austerity in an impromptu referendum initiated by their prime minister, Alexis Tsipras. Patronizing warnings from EU officials about an impending “humanitarian catastrophe in Greece” from live news broadcasts playing on loudspeakers at the gathering were interspersed with celebratory speeches from activists who boldly joked that Kalamata olives would have to suffice as the supporting staple for Greeks in the event of a ousting from the European Union.
Musical respite came in the form of “Bella Ciao Ciao Ciao,” the folk song that was originally sung by rice weeders in the River Po basin, later becoming an iconoclastic chant of the anti-fascist movement in Italy. The chorus that continues to conjure images of resistance across the globe anchored the festive mood.
Meanwhile, just a day before the vote, Italy—home to this song and cradle of the largest Communist Party during the Cold War—carried on with business as usual. While anti-austerity supporters in Spain, Portugal and even some of the social movements in the northern European countries gathered to support the No vote, Italy’s civil society was conspicuously meek. The country’s own resistance to austerity measures, which also started in 2011, has failed to produce greater civic engagement, cohesive social movements or a united anti-austerity political force.
Having just arrived in Athens from Rome to witness the day of the referendum, the stark contrast in energy between the two neighboring capitals could not be ignored.
The days and weeks following the referendum vote would surprise not just Greeks but also anti-austerity supporters in other countries.
The mood in Athens went from celebratory to a squeamish unease quickly. Following the referendum results, it became apparent that the lenders would punish Greece for voting against austerity. Tsipras himself appeared surprised by the clear majority vote and might have hoped for a different result, one which would have legitimized his surrender and a legitimate alibi for re-elections. During the weeks that followed, the democratic will of the 11 million strong nation would succumb to the political will of a handful of oligarchs and capitulation from the Greek government. Rifts within the governing Syriza coalition would deepen and a disenchanted populace would be informed of a new round of elections.
Over the bailout negotiations Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi pleaded the case of Greece, claiming that a Grexit was not an option. If Greece to were to exit the Euro, heavily indebted Italy—also one of the main creditors to Greece—would lose the most next to Germany. The Italians stood to suffer an approximately 39 billion euro hit, or 2.4 percent of its GDP. This would result in Italy's debt doubling for the year. While Renzi sided with Greece based on vested interests as a lender and only when it came to final negotiations, he has done little to question the efficacy of austerity measures on his own soil.
An anti-climactic outcome in Greece following the referendum led to yet another round of punitive measures from Brussels. The country is mired in a political quandry where the mood amidst voters has ranged from mild relief and “I told you so, finger pointing.” to feelings of disbelief, discontentment and betrayal. With Syriza emerging victorious in the latest elections conducted on September 20th, the austerity terms will remain in place. The fiasco following the referendum has left most Greeks resigned towards an implausible “road to recovery” while the humanitarian consequences of the measures are already fading in the memories of fellow Europeans.
Meanwhile, there’s a sense that Italy, suffering its own economic woes, may face its own inevitable default. While the popular political chant of the Italian Prime Minister has been that “We are not like Greece (non siamo come la Grecia), Italy's debt-to-GDP ratio that has risen to 150 percent is as unsustainable as Greece. While it is true that Italy plays a complex role as a debtor and lender and that Italy unlike Greece, is not being bailed out, its own climbing debt has colluded with lack of growth and youth unemployment of 42 percent. In pure mathematical terms both countries are faced with a similar long-term fate.
While European leaders have been largely mum on Italy, especially with Renzi unabashedly acquiescing to Merkel's austerity demands, evidence of Italy's impending crisis has been accumulating. This article from Financial Times points out that “Italy’s economic position is unsustainable and will result in eventual debt default unless there is a sudden and durable change in economic growth.” With an IMF projection of 0.5 percent growth for Italy this year the financial lifeline of the fourth largest national economy of Europe is threatening to plateau.
So, why aren't more Italians challenging the lethargy of the left movements and mobilizing for new alternatives? One might say that the anti-climactic fate of Greece, where Syriza as the first ‘truly left government’ failed to deliver core promises, has further persuaded Italy to give up on its own left.
In Greece's Footsteps
Following the referendum, the worst case scenario that Greeks feared has indeed materialized. Yet, the reverberations of the socio-political movements and introspection amidst all segments of society cannot be undone. Greece needed an awakening for decades, but more so a backlash against the awakening to fully realizse what the European project meant, whether it was viable in the long run, let alone an equitable option for the country. The punitive measures imposed on Greece are unbearably harsh. But Greeks, are finally operating on the basis of informed reality—i.e., Europe will not heed democratic will or humanitarian crises—which many contend is the only way forward.
The main folly of the Greek socio-political movements that arose in reaction to climbing debt was that they did not imbue strong solidarity with organized civil society that challenged Syriza, especially as the party resorted to a increasingly populist approach upon gaining political prominence. When Syriza started to backtrack, the grassroots movements that contributed to its formation lacked alternate options in terms of leadership. But, many of the movements that predate Syriza and also those that emerged after the party came into being are now starting to adopt “post-party politics.” In other words they are moving towards civic engagement and social structures that can buttress sound policies but also effectively challenge any government in power. No more blind loyalty and faith in one political party that can save the nation seems to be an emerging motto not just in Athens but across Europe, where parties in power, from Denmark to France have consistently failed to deliver.
As Amalia Zepou, who leads the coordination of social initiatives at the Athens municipality, explains, these movements have been growing over the hardest hit years and are searching for solutions that come from within their communities instead of relying on the unpredictability of party politics.
During the first meeting with Tsipras earlier this year, Renzi had jokingly presented a tie to the newly elected Greek premiere, known for his casual attire. The latter received the present confirming that he would wear it once he found a “viable solution for Europe.” Along the same vein, when Tspiras rose to speak at the EU Parliament on July 8, he addressed the “people of Europe” imploring them that Greece’s bailout is a European problem. Renzi echoed this sentiment by urging German chancellor Angela Merkel to find a solution for “the good of the EU” and to stop humiliating Greece. “Enough is enough,” he said. But beyond hollow rhetoric, Italy as a state and a society has largely abstained from forming solidarity movements that coalesce with fellow ailing southern economies.
The mutual benefits of a Rome-Athens alliance should have always been evident given Italy’s own climbing debt. An unwavering partnership could help achieve much needed concessions from Brussels, growth for both countries in the midterm and ultimately fiscal expansion at the EU level. But to date, this has not happened. Without a single party that mirrors Syriza’s fervor or Podemos' competiveness, and that can form the beginnings of a new movement, Italy is woefully behind in challenging the failure of austerity
The recession period in Italy has only led to more divisive politics where right-wing populist movements have focused on anti-immigration and Eurosceptic rhetoric while a weak and fragmented left that has largely followed the coalition government’s stance.
Syriza was the Trojan horse that should have been capitalized on by Italy and France from the get-go to buy more time and put their balance sheets in order. But this was only possible if the southern partners had joined forces in opposing the austerity terms that Syriza was presented with from their first day in office. This simply did not happen. Tsipras's conjecture that Syriza's victory would spur other Southern economies to band together and actively support Greece at the negotiating table and on the streets of European capitals remained simply that—speculation.
For the last few years most left movements including those in Italy have proposed a European level debt conference between the debtors and lenders where the terms can be re-negotiated and where hybrids like Italy can play an important conciliatory role. While Southern European countries could find strength in unity, Italy—that is the closest to Greece in debt and anti-austerity interests—should play its part in coordinating with Spain, France and Portugal to create a new platform for dialogue between debtor and lender nations.
The Syriza led government called for such a conference in February and this notion has been supported by economists as a “political, social and economic no brainer.” If these southern neighbors had collaborated over the austerity years and displayed solidarity that went beyond their individual boundaries in years past, a conference might not be necessary. In the event, a future conference could play a key role in reflecting their mutual economic and social interests, and making the idea of a return to a “Club Med” not simply a matter of romantic nostalgia.
Preethi Nallu is Associate Editor for Warscapes magazine. She is a multimedia journalist and writer, originally from Hyderabad, India. Born in Iran, raised in India, she spent her university years at Washington University in St. Louis pursuing degrees in journalism and political science. Since graduating, she has lived and worked in Southeast Asia, Middle East, Europe and the Americas. Currently based in Rome, she combines text, visual and audio formats to produce in-depth narratives for mainstream media and UN agencies. Twitter @Preethi_Nallu