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They Were Told the European Union Would Make Them Stronger

Protesters outside Parliament in Athens, Greece. PHOTO: Daily Mail/AFP/Getty
  • After more than £200 billion in bail-outs Greece is still massively in the red 
  • Hospital budgets are down by half and VAT has soared to 24 per cent
  • In Athens one in three shops have shut and the centre looks run down

By Sue Reid | 17 June 2016

DAILY MAIL (Athens) — A few purple pansies planted under a huge cypress tree mark the spot on the lawn outside the Greek Parliament building where a life ebbed away.

Here in Athens’s Syntagma Square, just after breakfast time one weekday morning, pensioner Dimitris Christoulas put a handgun to his head and pulled the trigger.

The retired pharmacist had walked out of his flat in a middle-class suburb for the last time. He locked the heavy shutters behind him, and the door where he had hung a sign saying: ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’.

In his jacket he carried a note saying his pension had been cut to ribbons and he couldn’t face a future of ‘raiding rubbish bins for food’.

His only child, Emi, had met her 77-year-old father for coffee the previous evening, though he gave no hint that he was planning to kill himself.

‘Things have got worse for us Greeks since my father died four years ago,’ she says today.

Pensioners are in terrible poverty. Suicides have doubled to 3,000 a year. Almost one in three people have no work.

The young are emigrating. We have men of 40 still living with their parents because they can’t afford to marry or have a family. We have lost hope.

A political researcher, 46-year-old Emi has agreed to talk about her late father as Greece prepares to tighten its belt yet again on the orders of Eurozone finance chiefs (backed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel) who insist the country must continue to pay back its awesome debts.

The country was brought to its knees by its huge profligacy after joining the EU and then milking the system for everything it could get.

Public sector wage bills doubled and Spanish practices flourished. Paying taxes was optional for the upper and middle classes. Corruption and bribery were rife.

The country’s debts piled up even as the Greek gravy train hurtled towards the buffers. In a sign of those times, hairdressers were listed among the 600 ‘professions’ allowed to retire at 50 (with a state pension of 95 per cent of their final year’s earnings) on account of the ‘arduous and perilous’ nature of their work!

Then came the crash, and the EU finally woke up to the fact that one of its major member states was bankrupt.

A desperate deal was struck: in return for more than £200 billion in bail-outs, the country had to agree to savage cuts and enormous tax rises.

Despite this, Greece is still massively in the red.

Pensions, only claimable from a new (higher) age of 67, have been slashed ten times. Hospital budgets are down by half. VAT has soared to 24 per cent.

Meanwhile, 71,500 pieces of prime public property, including the nation’s regional airports, are being sold to international conglomerates to pay off the debts. A joke doing the rounds in Athens is that the entire country is ‘up for sale’, apart from the Acropolis.

The Greeks are reeling. One million jobs have gone, while disposable income is down by a quarter. At least 250,000 — notably young — doctors, dentists, engineers and IT experts have upped sticks for jobs overseas.

Most of those left behind are openly contemptuous of the EU. A poll earlier this month showed seven out of ten Greeks are Eurosceptic (compared with the UK’s five in ten), and two-thirds want some powers returned to their national government (a similar figure to this country).

Alex Constantinos, a 65-year-old retired state power worker, told me over a coffee near Vathi Square, in a part of Athens that grows shabbier each day: ‘Enough is enough. We should come out of the EU and the euro. These two things have destroyed Greece.

‘We used to be self-sufficient without the EU telling us what to do. We produced our own meat, caught our own fish, manufactured our own textiles.
‘These industries are destroyed because people have no spending money. Everyone of my age is in debt. They look in the bins for things to sell or to eat.’

As I say goodbye to him, I’m accosted by a smartly turned out gentleman brandishing a fake red Rolex watch. He is a 65-year-old former gynaecologist called Antonis, who says he’s not due a state pension until 2018.

‘Where else do I find money?’ he asks me politely in good English. ‘I sell watches or I starve.’

Down the road, I find a hotel, The Ionis, where all 160 guests are homeless Greeks. The Ionis used to be a tourist hotel, but the crisis shut it down. It was taken over by the Athens city authorities to help people who have lost their homes.

There is a waiting list to get in, and hardly anyone ever checks out — even though there is a midnight curfew, only three hours of hot water a day and guests have to clean their own free rooms.

Michael Samolis, 59, is one of them. A self-employed truck driver, he hit rock bottom five years ago as the Greek crisis began. His lorry was stolen by an Albanian gang and, because he had not paid theft insurance, he could not afford to buy another one.

Without an income, he struggled to pay the rent on his flat and ran into debt.

He recalls: ‘The pensions for my age group had vanished. I ended up giving away what furniture I owned, and I walked out into the streets. I went to the public hospital and sat there to keep warm some nights.

‘Each morning I would wake up and my first thought was where I would sleep in ten hours’ time.’

Then he heard of The Ionis. He was surprised to find the other guests had once been hard- working people like him. ‘There are former businessmen, IT consultants, office workers, and pensioners. Many are middle-class. The crisis has hit everyone,’ he says.

The evidence is plain to see all over Athens, where one in three shops have shut down. On the pavements where Athenians once promenaded, newly arrived migrants (both male and female) wander the streets and parks. There are reports that many are turning to prostitution to earn a few euros.

And in the dark alleyways, a new craze among the desperate seeking oblivion from the poverty is taking hold — a mixture of battery fluid and water heated with steam in a shisha pipe. You can buy a hit of this lethal brew in a small glass bottle for £1.20.

Not that Costas Karamanos, a 38-year-old in a striped shirt and carrying a neat shoulder bag, would be drawn into that.

Until a year ago, he was an assistant waiter at a smart hotel, the venerable Pentelikon in Kifisia, a tree-shaded northern suburb with marble pavements lined by Ferrari showrooms and luxury boutiques.

The Pentelikon restaurant was the go-to spot for the Athenian social elite. But last year, without warning, the entire hotel closed its doors, citing money troubles. Guests were told to leave immediately and staff, including Costas, to seek work elsewhere.

I found him on a balmy Friday afternoon waiting in a long queue for a free bowl of lentils and a piece of bread. The meagre fare was handed out by Father Chris Vlachas, a priest from the Greek Orthodox Church in a square off Sophocles Street.

It was once the thriving heart of Athens’s financial centre. Now it is full of bric-a-brac stalls and pound shops run by Chinese and South Asian immigrants.

Costas looks embarrassed when he tells me of the Pentelikon closure, before adding: ‘I get nothing from the state.

I daren’t tell my father, a proud man, that I come here for food. I live in the family home. I have a roof, but nothing else.’

Father Chris says it’s heart-breaking to see old people in the queue.

‘They give their little pension money to their jobless married sons or daughters to help their grandchildren. Then they come here secretly because they cannot afford a meal for themselves,’ he explains.

One result of this systemic poverty is that the social structure of Greece is changing. Three generations are moving into one house where there is one electricity bill to pay.

Young couples have only one baby, or no babies, because they are frightened at the cost of raising a family.
Some Athens maternity hospitals report the birth rate has fallen by a third in seven years of austerity.

Maritta Corley is a volunteer who runs a pharmacy at a clinic set up by private doctors in a southern suburb of Athens. It gives out free medicines to 1,000 patients every month, and counsels those who are suffering from depression.

At 56, and a former director of an import-export company, Maritta is one of many talented Greeks who cannot find paid work.

She explains emotionally: ‘My son of 34 got married last December. He earned €500 [£394] a month delivering medical equipment. He and his wife had a €200-a-month [£157] basement flat in Athens. They could not afford to live, let alone start a family.

‘He has just emigrated to California and is living on a friend’s sofa while he tries to find a job. If he does, his wife will join him.’

Maritta remembers the good times. ‘I know people who easily got loans of €3,000 [£2,360] from ten different banks.
Sometimes they borrowed money just to buy a new clothes. It was wrong, of course. But now you can’t get any kind of loan. Everything has stopped dead. People feel low.

‘You say: “Good morning” and they ask: “What’s good about it?” They walk around with heads down. In the supermarket, pensioners count their euros. No one fills their baskets any more.’

Two miles away, the middle-class suburb of Alimos is the last place you would expect to find a soup kitchen. It has a grand marina and, until the implosion of the Greek economy, there were thriving boatyards selling super-yachts.

Yet here, 316 families — each must have less than £8,500 a year in income — come each month to get grocery hand-outs from a citizen-run help centre. Former businessman Syros Giovanis, 53, and his wife, Christina, are among them.

They have three children of 20, 16 and 14 and have lost everything. Syros used to employ 25 people at his decorating firm, but by 2011 the orders were down to zero. His wife was the director of a supermarket chain that went bust.

He says: ‘We still have a loan outstanding on our house which we cannot pay off. I will not get a pension for another 14 years. We need help to put a meal on the table.

‘We try to keep this tragedy from our youngest, Sophia, but it’s been impossible to hide. My wife feels very uncomfortable about coming to a food bank.’

Waiting alongside Syros when I visited was Vasilini Kalovrekti, 24. She lives with her parents, who poured £500,000 into a restaurant selling Greek street food, which collapsed when the crisis hit.

The Kalovrekti family, like so many self-employed people, had avoided their taxes. So under the EU austerity rules, they can now receive no State help.

‘We have a house, but an empty fridge,’ says Vasilini. ‘My parents have suffered from depression. They feel their lives are ruined.’

Few will understand that more than Antonis Pilatis, 60, who lives with his wife in a village two hours’ drive from Athens.

He used to run a construction company with his brother, Vassilis. There were holidays, meals out — they lived the good life.

But when things went belly up, the brothers were owed money by three property development companies — which is still unpaid.

The only income Vassilis had was from the small state pension given to his 90-year-old mother, in whose house he lived.

In April, he took a gun and blew his brains out. Pilatis says: ‘My brother shot himself when our mother was away at the doctor’s in Athens.

He was so ashamed to be living on her pension. All he wanted was a job, but 90 per cent of companies have closed down round here.’

Shaking his head, he adds: ‘We Greeks may have been spoilt in the past. But whatever our mistakes, we don’t deserve this life.’

And so the misery of this benighted nation goes on as the autocrats of Brussels turn the screw ever tighter.
June and July are the months when repayments on Greece’s loans from the EU are due, and future repayment arrangements negotiated.

And this time, Germany — Greece’s main creditor — is refusing to cut the Greeks any slack. Yet the only way for Greece to recover and grow again is for it somehow to be relieved of its debt burden.

The International Monetary Fund — whose job is to ensure global financial stability — is usually very keen on fiscal responsibility.

Yet even it is saying that Greece needs some breathing space. But Athens’ creditors are having none of it.

So it is that, as pensioners starve in the streets, the mighty EU project limps on towards an increasingly uncertain future.

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