Historic Vote May Determine Whether Greece Remains In The Eurozone

Jul 1, 2015
Originally published on July 2, 2015 3:42 pm

At the end of World War II with the continent in ruins, Winston Churchill famously proclaimed, "We must build a United States of Europe." He believed such a union would bring an end to centuries of European wars.

For 70 years Europe has been engaged in a political and economic quest to make that happen. But many in Greece, such as Athens cabdriver Jordan Repanidis, feel this historic reshaping of the Western world has a stranglehold on their country.

"If it is for me to get drowned," he says. "Let me drown by myself. Don't choke me."

Repanidis says he's planning to vote no this Sunday in a referendum asking Greeks whether they're willing to accept further austerity measures in exchange for continued bailouts from the nation's creditors.

After the financial crisis in 2008, other European nations loaned Greece hundreds of billions of dollars. In return, Greece agreed to tax hikes and steep budget cuts; many retirees' pensions have been cut by 45 percent.

Greece has had to keep paying back the loans despite what amounts to an economic depression. Repanidis says Greece is being squeezed too hard for its economy to recover. He's fed up.

"I don't want them to kill me," he says. "I don't want the European Community to kill me. I will do it by myself and I will be pleased."

But many believe if the referendum is defeated Greece will be forced from the eurozone and face economic collapse. George Deorgiadis, the manager of the Balux Cafe in Athens, a restaurant and beach club popular with locals, says he will vote yes. Deorgiadis says the well-being of the families of his 140 employees depends on his business surviving.

"The people are very scared, they stay at home," he says, looking at his mostly empty restaurant. "You have to protect the business, so to protect the business I think you have to say 'yes.' "

Like many Greeks, Deorgiadis thinks Europe is offering another bad deal, but that leaving the eurozone would be worse. Already, bank runs spurred the Greek government to close the nation's banks and block people from transferring their savings abroad. Greek citizens are limited to withdrawing 60 euros per day from ATMs.

The Greek stock market is also shut down.

Deorgiadis says with the restaurant half-empty he's forced to tell many of his employees to stay home. He says he's trying to give work to those who have children to support.

On Tuesday, thousands of people rallied in Athens in favor of a yes vote. The day before, thousands rallied in favor of no.

"Forty-two years old I am, and I studied economics," Deorgiadis says. "It's the first time in my life that I can't decide what's good and what's wrong for my country."

Of course there's an argument that Greece has itself to blame. Many economists agree that Greece for decades squandered opportunities to stem corruption and pass needed economic reforms.

Even so, multiple Nobel Prize-winning economists have just written opinion pieces saying they would vote "no" in the upcoming referendum, among them leftists Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman.

Dropping out of the eurozone would be tumultuous and could cause runaway inflation. But these economists say it would free the country from the manacles it's in now. And they say Greece might someday find its economic footing and be better off.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Next we'll hear from some people with a big decision to make. They're Greek voters who will participate next Sunday in an historic referendum to decide that country's future in the European economy. Greece has now essentially defaulted on its huge debt to the International Monetary Fund. In a new letter to its creditors, the Greek government says it will accept some of their austerity demands with conditions. NPR's Chris Arnold spoke to voters in Athens.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: At the end of World War II, Winston Churchill proclaimed, we must build a United States of Europe. And for 70 years, Europe's been engaged in a political and economic quest to make that happen. But many in Greece feel this historic reshaping of the Western world now has a stranglehold on their country.

JORDAN REPANIDIS: If it is for me to get drowned, let me drown by myself. Don't choke me.

ARNOLD: Jordan Repanidis is a cab driver in Athens. He says he's planning to vote no in the referendum. After the financial crisis, other European nations loaned Greece hundreds of billions of dollars. And in return, Greece agreed to tax hikes, steep budget cuts, many retirees' pensions have been cut by 45 percent, and it's had to keep paying back the bailout money. Repanidis says this squeezed Greece too hard and its economy can't recover.

REPANIDIS: I don't want them to kill me. I don't want that European community to kill me. I will do it by myself, and I will be pleased.

ARNOLD: But a nationwide economic suicide doesn't sound like the best idea to others here in Greece. George Deorgiadis is of the manager of the Balux Cafe in Athens. It's a restaurant and beach club popular with locals, but it's pretty empty today.

GEORGE DEORGIADIS: People are very scared and they stay home.

ARNOLD: In recent days, there have been runs on banks, causing the government to all but shut down the banking system. Deorgiadis says it looks to him like Europe is offering another bad deal, but he's worried that falling out of the eurozone would cause even worse upheaval. So he thinks he will vote yes in the upcoming referendum to take that deal to try to keep Greece in the eurozone.

DEORGIADIS: You have to protect the business, so I think you have to say yes. If this closed, it's 140 families.

ARNOLD: Deorgiadis says he's already telling many of his 140 workers to stay home. He's trying to give work to people with children to support. Yesterday, thousands of people rallied in Athens in favor of a yes vote. The day before, thousands rallied in favor of no. Deorgiadis himself seems deeply sad and unsure about what to do.

DEORGIADIS: I really don't know. I really don't know. I'm very confused about this. Forty-two years old, I am. I studied economics. It's the first time in my life that I can't decide what's good and what's wrong for my country.

ARNOLD: Of course, there's an argument that Greece has itself to blame. Many economists agree that Greece, for decades, squandered opportunities to stem corruption and pass needed economic reforms. Still, multiple Nobel Laureate economists have just written opinion pieces saying they would vote no in the upcoming referendum - dropping out of the eurozone would be tumultuous, could cause runaway inflation, but they say it would free the country from the manacles that it's in now, and they say Greece might someday find its economic footing and be better off. Chris Arnold, NPR News, Athens. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.