More than 30 million people are expected to flood Greece this year in another record tourist season but apart from returning to visit family and friends briefly, it won’t include the more than 500,000 Greeks who fled their homeland during a now eight-year long economic and austerity crisis and found jobs and a better life elsewhere.
They are at the point of no return.
It’s a now largely unspoken phenomenon, the despair that drove them – many under 25 who gave up trying to find work while government after government cut salaries, pensions, the minimum wage, and diluted workers rights – away from Greece to Germany, the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States, Australia, wherever they could find a job.
They were pushed out too by Greece’s notorious clientelist system rewarding political party loyalists and lackeys and not always the best and brightest, entrepreneurs and young people with ideas who found themselves stifled and unappreciated and gave up.
Prime Minister and Radical Left SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras, elected on a wave of anti-establishment rage in 2015 with promises to restore pay cuts, slashed pensions, put people back to work, stop corruption, end tax evasion and bring back a sense of dignity quickly reversed himself, falling in line to meet the demands of the country’s economic saviors, the Troika of the European Union-European Central Bank-European Stability Mechanism (EU-ECB-ESM) and the Washington, D.C.-based International Monetary Fund.
They put up 326 billion euros ($383.85 billion) since 2010 in rescue packages to save Greece from generations of wild overspending and runaway patronage but the monies run out on Aug. 20, leaving Greece to the mercy of the markets.
With economic indicators showing signs of a recovery coming – albeit after the country hit rock bottom and the government’s primary surplus bragging doesn’t include interest on the debt, the cost of running cities and towns, state enterprises, social security and some military expenditures – there’s no signs the exodus of those who left will reverse itself.
Greek expatriates have set up communities abroad, including an enclave in Dusseldorf, Germany where many have established neighborhoods much like those who left Greece 100 years ago for other countries did.
Constantine Kakoyiannis, drinking beer at a Dusseldorf cafe with a group of 40 friends, part of a group of engineers who left Greece too, toasted a few more who had arrived to find their new life outside their homeland, and were celebrated and welcomed.
“The situation isn’t getting better,” Kakoyiannis told The New York Times in a piece about why they won’t go home. “When you realize that your country has become a cemetery of dreams, you need to find dreams elsewhere,” he said, not what Tsipras would want to hear.
Many of those who gave up on Greece were the ones most needed to stay during the crisis: doctors, lawyers, business executives, technicians, IT specialists, architects, skilled professionals, many running as fast as they could to other European Union countries where they were prized and recruited after being shunned.
Tsipras has already declared a recovery without saying if it happens it’s largely because he reneged on anti-austerity promises at the same time he’s seeking debt relief, saying Greece can’t repay what it owes and he’s been unable to lure Foreign Direct Investors scared off by tax hikes, including a 29 percent corporate rate he imposed after saying he would cut taxes.
Indeed, while the numbers leaving Greece after slowed, it’s continuing, much like the number of refugees and migrants coming to Greek islands in the other direction shows no signs of ending.
Tsipras’ blueprint for recovery was to trot out old bromides that were the equivalent of economic MEGO’s – My Eyes Glaze Over – and his own Finance Minister, Marxist economist Euclid Tsakalotos said the country’s economy will need scrutiny for years, disputing the Premier with the bailout envoys fearful Tsipras will renege on reforms to them too.
It could be a false positive. Greece’s unemployment rate is still the highest in the EU, the government can’t even enforce old No-Smoking laws that have been ignored, nor new requirements companies and professionals must accept debit cards to avoid using cash that can be hidden to evade taxes.
“When an economy has been destroyed, it takes many years to rebuild,” Vasilis Kapoglou, who founded the Greek Engineers of North Rhine-Westphaliaclub after leaving Greece in 2013, as construction projects dried up told the paper. “The bailout may be ending, but the problems that drove people away aren’t.”
THE OLD WAVE
This isn’t the first pathway for Greeks to Germany. They came in the 1950s too when Germany wanted workers for mines and construction and to rebuild cities after the devastation of WWII bombing, the Nazi atrocities in Greece not keeping them away.
Today, in North Rhine-Westphalia, a booming industrial region that includes Dusseldorf and Cologne, there an estimated 130,000 Greeks working in technology, telecommunications and construction companies, as well as banks, hospitals and pharmacies, the paper said.
There’s so many that an area of Dusseldorf looks like the Greek area in Astoria, New York or Greektowns in Detroit and Toronto. The cafes are full of Greeks speaking Greek, sipping frappes like their counterparts in Greece, hanging on for dear life.
The stores offer so many Greek goods the neighborhood could be in Athens or Thessaloniki or Patra, everything from sweets to baptism gifts to baklava and gambling-loving Greeks playing backgammon. Travel agencies offer tickets to a place called Greece for those interested in seeing what it looks like these days.
What ripped the heart out of Greece was that the outflow was dominated by engineers just when investors were interested in the country again, such as electric car-maker Tesla planning to set up an R & D office in Athens: the company had already lured Greek scientists who went to the US.
“Engineers are connected to the development of a country,” Martha Ouzounidou, a chemical engineer from Thessaloniki who came to Dusseldorf in October after landing work at a German maker of electric car batteries told the paper. “But there is no development happening in Greece,” she said, and much of what is could be stymied by the notorious reputation for bribe paying in return for permits.
Those who stayed in Greece may be ruing the day they did, being supported by parents, some using slashed pensions to give their adult children coffee money for cafes where they can swap stories of woe with other colleagues grounded by disenchantment.
There’s also the reminder that the taskmaster of brutal austerity in Greece was Germany, whose banks are getting rich on profits off the bailouts, paid for by workers, pensioners and the poor, not the oligarchs or rich who hide their money in secret foreign accounts, nor politicians or the connected who took hundreds of millions in euros in bank loans and hid it away and defaulted.
The expats took their bitterness with them and it makes the coffee not so sweet in Germany if they have to think about their homeland and those Greeks still struggling. Kakoyiannis resisted leaving until early in 2016, six months after Tsipras closed the banks for three weeks, imposed capital controls and reneged on his own referendum in which voters backed his call to reject austerity – which he reneged on as well and implemented more.
His girlfriend, Kalliope Rapti, ran an online language training company in Greece but she gave up trying to deal with a Byzantine bureaucracy and shifting tax laws.
When she registered her business in Germany after they moved, the process took five minutes online. She plans to hire five employees this year.
“In Greece, it was a mess,” Rapti said. “In Germany, their approach is, ‘If we help you make money, you’ll pay taxes.’”
Kakoyiannis said his mother wants him to come home. “Go back to what?” he recalled replying. “To no job and no future?”
With plans for a baby, their child will likely be born in Germany, their new home. “In Germany, we have hope for the future,” Rapti said. “And so will our child.”