Britain reborn as Greek wild-child?

Greece, was painted as Europe’s wild-child last summer when it went to the polls in a Yes or No referendum on a multibillion-euro bailout and its attached demands from creditors.

A group of tourists pose for a picture in front of the temple of the Parthenon atop the Acropolis in Athens, Greece, July 2, 2015. prime minister Alexis Tsipras called on Greeks to vote ‘no’ in Sunday’s referendum on a bailout package offered by creditors, in a defiant address that dispelled speculation he was rowing back on the plan under mounting pressure. Jean-Paul Pelissier / Reuters
Powered by automated translation

ATHENS // It is a surreal experience to write about a possible EU Brexit from the country that was the first to raise the spectre of bailing out of the bloc. Greece, was painted as Europe’s wild-child last summer when it went to the polls in a Yes or No referendum on a multibillion-euro bailout and its attached demands from creditors. It was interpreted by many as the country deciding whether or not to stay in the EU. The initial vote resulted in a No although, just four days, later the government accepted the bailout on much the same terms.

Now it seems that the wild-child’s questionable ideas have spread beyond its borders.

Fast-forward one year and the Grexit has transformed into a Brexit. On June 23, the UK goes to the polls to decide its future in the EU. There are about 45,000 Britons living in Greece. Some of them have come here for work, others have retired to the country. For them, concerns about the Brexit mainly involve the logistics of their daily lives.

Christina Gregson, 53, is a teacher at a tuition school. She lives in Athens and has been in Greece since 1994. "Up until a few days ago I would not have believed that a Brexit was possible, not least because the people running the Leave campaign are both morons and bigots," she tells The National.

But her experience of the Greek crisis and the EU’s attitude to Greece means she is in favour of Brexit. “I think that the EU has behaved in a quite sickening manner in its disregard of the ordinary people and young of Greece,” she says.

As for what will happen the day after the vote, her main concern is her right of residency and that she might need to acquire citizenship to remain in Greece.

“This horrifies me mainly from a bureaucratic perspective. Can you imagine the nightmare of having thousands of British citizens all trying to get papers to stay?”

Her view is echoed by Edgar-Matthew Joycey, a foreign language instructor at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, who has been living in Greece for 40 years. “I am concerned that this referendum is part of a general forgetting of what the EU was about.

“The ill-informed and ignorant leaders of Europe don’t realise that their economic policies and lack of democracy and transparency are forcing Europe apart,” he says.

“I don’t think a Brexit will impact my life. It will change my status but unlike the UK, Greece, while being reticent about awarding non-Greeks nationality, is tolerant and understanding of long-term residents. I think it’s absolutely unacceptable that EU citizens living and working in the UK, some for a long time, are not allowed to vote in the referendum,” he adds.

He says he wants those who do vote to consider the consequences of their actions. Mr Joycey is married to a Greek, and while there are not that many UK citizens living in Thessaloniki, there is some concern among those who do, especially those without family connections in the country.

Marcus Walker, the Wall Street Journal’s European economics editor has been living Athens for little over a year now. He tells The National that a Brexit could have three possible effects. The first concerns Greece’s vital tourism industry; Britons have long been steadfast visitors to Greece, with their numbers briefly overtaking Germans in the first seven months of last year for the first time in a decade.

“A Brexit might well lead to a heavy fall in the pound and if that is the case then it makes it more expensive for Britons to go on holiday in euro-zone countries. So, suddenly, Greece would be that much more expensive for British tourists,” he says.

“The second effect is if the UK Treasury and other economists are right, a Brexit and the period of uncertainty that comes after such a vote could well lead to a recession in Britain or a period of very weak growth in Britain, which will have an effect on household incomes and tourism,” he says.

“The third and most worrying is what kind of spillover effect will a Brexit have in the EU. There are a lot of people among Europe’s political elite who are worried that this could have a centrifugal effect.”

He says a Brexit could open the door for other anti-EU parties, particularly in northern Europe, to demand referendums of their own, thus destabilising the entire EU project. “That in itself could also have an economic and a political impact. It would reduce the willingness of Greece’s creditors even further to grant Greece debt relief and help Greece back on its feet. A crisis in the EU could also knock the European economic recovery off track,” he concludes.

James Ker-Lindsay, the Eurobank EFG senior research fellow on the politics of south-east Europe at the London School of Economics, agrees with these concerns. “Indirectly, a Brexit could have a huge effect on the Balkans and Greece. In the worst-case scenario, there is a real fear that Brexit contagion could see the EU collapse, especially given the protracted deep crisis the EU has faced.

“Even if it does not go that far, it could well reduce the appetite for membership among some Balkan states. Indeed, one regional leader has already said that the EU has lost much of its ‘magic’ for the region. Again, if the UK comes up with a good model, others may wish to emulate it. For this reason, the period following a Brexit vote could determine the entire future of the EU,” he says.

Dimitris Papadimoulis, who heads the Brussels-based European parliament members of Greece’s ruling Syriza party, believes a Brexit would be harmful to both Europe and the UK. “It would damage the European and the global economy, lower the role and appeal of the British economy on a global scale, thus causing financial slowdown and increasing the already tenuous social and economic divisions in the country.”

Regarding Syriza’s thoughts on the Brexit, he says: “The Syriza party and the Greek government are against a Brexit. They are in favour of a democratic Europe, with social justice and growth.”

As for whether a Brexit would revive the ghost of Grexit, which so many hoped had been laid to rest, Mr Papadimoulis does not think there is any danger of that.

“These two issues are completely disconnected to each other. The discussion about a Grexit is outdated and I do hope that a Brexit will also be so on June 23.”

Follow The National's Business section on Twitter