André Gerolymatos is director of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Centre for Hellenic Studies at Simon Fraser University.
Greeks are numb. They're tired and fed up with the economic crisis. After months of anticipating financial collapse, some are almost relieved that the standoff between Greece and its creditors is coming to an end – any end. Others remain angry with Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras's government for having failed to resolve the crisis before now.
On the weekend, in a surprise move, the government announced a referendum to be held this Sunday on whether to accept the austerity measures demanded by Greece's creditors. Supporters of the ruling Syriza party took to the streets to advocate a No vote. Just one week to consider the pros and cons, even with talks continuing. The campaign is further polarizing a polarized country.
On Tuesday, the government defaulted on a €1.6-billion ($2.2-billion) payment to the International Monetary Fund. But it's the results of the referendum that will determine whether Greece remains in the euro zone, and even the European Union. Meanwhile, the European Central Bank will discontinue emergency funding for Greece's banks – economic collapse is imminent. This will come as a shock to millions of Greeks who voted for Syriza and believe that Greece will remain in the euro zone.
To paraphrase Winston Churchill, never have so many spent so much time to achieve so little. For the past five months, Mr. Tsipras's government has been in futile negotiations with the so-called troika of the IMF, the ECB and the European Commission. Additional meetings with representatives of EU finance ministers and prime ministers have been equally fruitless.
All parties involved conducted the discussions in an atmosphere of grandstanding, brinkmanship and acrimony. The greatest obstacle may have been the inability of each side to trust the other. Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis's flashes of arrogance and inexperience placed him at a disadvantage against the more seasoned EU negotiators. And on more than one occasion, some European ministers displayed a callous superiority, showing little appreciation for Greek sensibilities. Lost in the clash of egos was the notion that the EU is more than the sum of its economic parts. The consequences for Greece are dire, and the long-term impact on the euro zone is unknown.
In Greece itself, bank closings and long lines outside automated banking machines herald the grim reality that the country has already fallen off the edge of a precipice. Greeks now have to make do with an imposed limit of €60 a day from bank machines to cover the cost of food, medicine, rent, mortgages and other basic necessities. Supermarkets and grocery stores are running out of food as people stockpile supplies for an indefinite period of scarcity. Remarkably, there is no evidence of panic – just resignation.
The loss of everyday liquidity means that companies will no longer be able to secure credit and will begin laying off thousands of employees or sending them on unpaid leave. Unemployment, already at 25.6 per cent, will skyrocket. The lines at banks will also extend to food banks. The old and sick, the most vulnerable, will be at the mercy of charity for food and medicine. Thousands of educated young men and women have already left the country and thousands more will join them, draining the country of its best and brightest.
For most Greeks, the future offers only more misery. The Greek economy has shrunk by a quarter in five years, a humanitarian disaster in its own right, but further compounded by the daily arrival of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa. What will happen to these unfortunate souls is unclear. The local authorities responsible for dealing with the boatloads of human misery arriving on the shores of the Greek islands have lost their jobs, and it has become the responsibility of ordinary citizens – and even some tourists – to provide primary care for the refugees. How long will volunteers be able to support the refugees in these circumstances?
Beyond the agony of financial collapse, there are the consequences of a failed Greek state at the edge of southeastern Europe. A country incapable of dealing with hundreds of thousands of refugees will be equally hard-pressed to weed out any jihadists among them. It gives Russia an opportunity to exploit rifts developing within the EU. And if Greece leaves the euro zone, it may pave the way for others to do likewise and undermine the cohesion of Europe's common currency.
In the meantime, economic catastrophe will quickly transform into a political crisis. The Syriza government gambled and lost, the troika fumbled and it is ordinary Greeks who will pay the price.