Protesting Greek Farmers And Grexit Rumblings Ominous Omens For The Future Of The European Union

Around 1,300 stockbreeders and farmers arrived in the Greek capital Athens on overnight ferries from Crete in the early hours of the morning of Wednesday 8th March 2017 to demonstrate against the government’s latest austerity measures. The protests turned violent, with farmers’ shepherds crooks clashing with riot police teargas, when the agriculture minister Evangelos Apostolou refused to meet a 45-member delegation representing the farmers.

Greek farmers have been historically exempt from taxation and have been described by George Pagoulatos, professor of European politics and economy at the University of Athens, as “in many ways, a classic example of one of Greece’s protected groups,” in addition to being “electorally very influential […] in certain rural constituencies.”

However they have been hit especially hard by the tax and pension reforms necessitated by the country’s severe economic crisis. Tax breaks on items such as fuel and fertilisers contribute to expectations that tax rates could rise to 26%. In addition, pensions will be cut by as much as 22% by 2022, despite that they have already been slashed 12 times and some pensioners are surviving on little more than €300 a month.

Protesting farmers have been a recurrent feature of the socio-economic unrest that has beset Greece since the financial crisis broke out seven years ago. There are no signs of an imminent solution and the public mood in Greece is gloomy: unemployment rates are at 23% (close to 50% amongst Greek youth); one in three is living below the poverty line and, according to research released by the Dianeosis thinktank on Sunday 5th March, 60% of Greeks said they did not believe the crisis would be over in the next decade.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) warns that Greece’s debt burden is much too high and not only unsustainable, but also likely to become “highly explosive.” There have been reports from Washington that the Fund believes Greece’s debt will rise to 275% of national income by 2060. With Greece’s debt repayments of €7.4bn due in July 2017 and bailout negotiations between Athens and its creditors having stalled, the possibility of a ‘Grexit’ is looming once again.

Pantelis Kapsis, a prominent political commentator told the British newspaper The Guardian, “I am very worried we are heading towards a rupture with the EU. There are lots of signs that at the back of their minds people in Syriza are entertaining various ideas of going it alone. What is sure is that we are entering a very difficult period which quite possibly could lead us to a point of no return.”

Not only could it lead to disruptive and harmful internal social problems, the possibility of Greece’s inability to repay debts this July and withdrawal from the European Union would threaten the union’s already uncertain future. One of the EU’s biggest achievements was the creation and expansion of a security zone, enabled by cooperation and interdependence and making a European war unthinkable. The irreversible processes of globalization mean that the cooperation integral to the EU is even more essential in the world of today. The refugee crisis, climate change, and international terrorism are transnational problems that states cannot resolve alone and, while Europe’s attention is focused on upcoming French elections and Brexit negotiations, it cannot afford to overlook Greece’s turmoil.