The Rise of Nationalism: Greece

Greece has received significant international media attention over the past five years due to its worsening economy.  Seeking multiple bailouts from the European Union has brought austerity measures as conditions of the packages, angering citizens who rely on government welfare programs and cannot afford high taxes.  This anger over the terms the EU set brought to power the Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza) in January of 2015.  Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras pledged to renegotiate debt repayments that would not take away from government spending, but was unable to do so, agreeing to a $95 billion bailout package from the EU, International Monetary Fund, and European Central Bank in August 2015 that came with massive economic reforms and additional austerity measures.  The third bailout in five years, Greece has been unable to repay these loans, and “remains mired in political and economic uncertainty, and its future in the Eurozone is uncertain” (Heritage Foundation, 2016).

These neoliberal measures have clearly not worked for Greece or its citizens, but the EU continues to push the same solutions on a worsening crisis.  However, the bright spot for the Greek economy has always been their tourism industry, which accounts for 20% of GDP (Ward, 2015).  There was hope that strong tourist seasons would help contribute to the return of a strong Greek economy.  Yet with the arrival of large waves of refugees in 2015, there has been little-to-no revenue profits for the state. Compared to January-May of 2015, arrivals are down 1.3% and average expenditures are down 5.7% for the same period in 2016 (Tornos News, 2016).  The impact of refugees arriving en masse to islands on tourism has been swift and detrimental.  Many hotel and restaurant owners on the Greek islands nearest Turkey, as well as the Mayor of Leros Michael Kolias, mentioned tourism had seen a decrease of 70% so far in 2016 in comparison to sales and reservations from the tourist season of 2015.  They cited a fear of the refugee presence in keeping tourists away. (Kolias, 2016). This has resulted in protests and violent confrontations between citizens and refugees, and the movement of refugees to camps in the interior of the islands to “hide” refugees away from where tourists might see them.

As the economic crisis has worsened and the arrival of refugees has dramatically affected tourism, citizens have supported the rise of the right-wing, nationalistic political party Golden Dawn.  The party has seen a significant increase in support, obtaining 18 seats in parliament and becoming the third largest party in power during the 2015 elections (The Guardian, 2015).  According to Golden Dawn’s official manifesto, the party “fights against altering our racial demographics by the millions of illegal immigrants, and the dissolution of the Greek society promoted by both the coalition parties and the so-called left.  We propose a national strategy so that we can overcome the crisis imposed on our country.  We are struggling for a Greece which belongs to Greeks” (Manifesto, 2012).  While Golden Dawn, by numbers, is still considered a small minority of the Greek government, it cannot be ignored for the rise in support it has seen over the course of the economic and refugee crises.

Most notably, and with uncertain consequences, the majority of the police and military are members and supporters of the Golden Dawn party.  As the state has sought a stronger role in dealing with the refugee crisis since the EU-Turkey deal, they have shut down and evacuated many NGO-run refugee camps and informal settlements, moving them into state-run camps guarded by the military.  In effect, the state has put the very people who are aggressively anti-refugee in charge of protecting the refugees.  In speaking with volunteers from some of the informal settlements, it is unclear where refugees have been moved to and the state is remaining very quiet about it. 

Further frustration stems from the lack of state capacity across the Greek mainland and islands.  In conversation with Mayor Kolias, the island of Leros has not received any money from the national government.  Where EU funds for the refugee crisis have been going, he can only guess (Kolias, 2016).  The Deputy Mayor of Social Work for the municipality of Thessaloniki also provided a strong rebuke of the state’s ability to react.  She called the national response unorganized and sloppy (Thessaloniki Municipality, 2016).  Unemployment nationwide is at 25%, 12% in Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece, and 8% in the capital of Athens.  Power purchasing parity has decreased from 84% in 2009 to 62% in 2013 as a percentage of the EU average, and Greeks have seen a decline in wealth by 16,700 Euros (Thoidou, 2016).  Between the weakness of the Greek state and the negative impact the refugee crisis has had on tourism, it is no surprise citizens are hostile to both the government and arriving refugees, of which far-right parties are taking advantage of to manipulate feelings.

In a recent polling by Pew Research Center, the Global Attitudes Project noted that “the recent surge of refugees into Europe has featured prominently in the anti-immigrant rhetoric of right-wing parties across the Continent” (Wike et al., 2016).  Of those surveyed, 55% of Greeks believe refugees will increase the likelihood of terrorism in their country, 72% believe they are a burden taking jobs and social benefits, and 30% blame them for crimes more than other groups.  65% of Greek citizens hold an unfavorable view of Muslims in the country, and 78% believe Muslims want to maintain their distinct identities rather than adopt Greek customs.  In regards to negative attitudes toward all minorities, “Greeks have also become increasingly unfavorable (+14 points) since 2014, the last time Greece was included in the survey” (Wike et al., 2016).  The alarming rate of responses that were above the 50% majority threshold illustrate the increase in far-right views over the past two years.  The attitude of Greeks across the board is becoming more resentful of both the government’s inability to solve the economic crisis and refugees’ need for limited resources in an already starved environment.  The Greeks are a proud people, the descendants of one of the oldest—and arguably grandest—civilizations encompassing a rich history. Greek citizens are no longer sure of what their common destiny might be, or where their government will lead them, and in response—whether subconsciously or not—they have largely rallied in defensive of themselves, expressed through negative interpretations of nationalism.

Written by: Kaitlyn Lynes