By Gaby Ochsenbein
The political mood in Greece has calmed down since the appointment of a coalition government last month, the Swiss ambassador in Athens tells swissinfo.ch.
Lorenzo Amberg said the will for the necessary change was slowly gaining a foothold, but admitted many ordinary Greeks were struggling to afford food and medicine.
On November 11, a new coalition cabinet led by Lucas Papademos was sworn in, easing the political tension.
On December 6, Athens witnessed riots following a ceremony to mark the shooting of a teenager by a police officer in 2008. But two earlier demonstrations – one in mid-November to mark the anti-junta Polytechnic uprising of 1973, as well as the general strike on December 1 – proceeded peacefully.
swissinfo.ch: Has the popular mood improved under the transitional government?
Lorenzo Amberg: There is less uncertainty than at the beginning of November. We now know there’s a coalition government that is endeavouring to carry out these cutbacks and economic measures.
That doesn’t mean this increased calm will last for ever, since there could be new elections in February or March. But for the moment people want to give the new government a chance and let it do its job.
swissinfo.ch: The talk is still that despite loans worth billions, Greece will go bankrupt anyway, have to leave the eurozone and bring back the drachma. Is this fear justified or simply paranoia?
L.A.: All fears exist in such a situation. Above all the realisation has spread that this is not just a Greek crisis but a pan-European crisis. That does not mean, however, that all Greeks believe Greece will leave the eurozone tomorrow.
According to surveys, a significant majority of Greeks believe Greece will remain in the eurozone. Most people are pro-European. There’s no noticeable anti-European feeling. People know that the country’s fate is closely tied to Europe.
swissinfo.ch: Are people prepared to tighten their belts? Do they understand that things have to change?
L.A.: There’s a widespread view that for a long time Greece experienced growth that was based not on production but on consumption, that people spent money that didn’t belong to them but was lent to them by the banks and the EU. They realise things can’t continue like that.
The penny’s dropping that certain structural adjustments must be made – in politics in general, in the running of individual ministries, in public life. What exactly that will look like, no one really knows. But the political will to change is there.
swissinfo.ch: Pensions are going down, taxes and prices are going up. Once again it’s the ordinary people who are being hit. One often hears of people who don’t have enough money for medicine or food. Is there a new poverty?
L.A.: This poverty can be seen in certain districts in Athens, not only among the illegal immigrants – that’s always existed – but increasingly also among the Greek population. Organisations such as Médecins Sans Frontières or the charitable wings of the Orthodox Church are reporting a large increase in those in need of medical aid or food.
It’s true that this crisis is having serious social effects. On top of that there’s unemployment, which according to official figures is at 18 per cent. Among young people it’s double that.
swissinfo.ch: Greece is also home to many very rich people who keep their fortune in Switzerland, among other places. How are negotiations going on a flat rate withholding tax between Switzerland and Greece?
L.A.: This issue has generated a lot of interest in the street and also in parliament. According to the Swiss finance ministry, meetings took place this year at a state secretary level. Bern also signalled its readiness to negotiate and informed Greece of the main features of an agreement, like those it has already signed with Germany and Britain.
swissinfo.ch: Are there other ways in which Switzerland could support Greece in sorting out its budget and the situation in general?
L.A.: Yes, for example in the area of migration. Switzerland and Greece are both members of Schengen [an EU agreement which did away with internal border controls]. We’ve established that Greece has serious problems dealing with waves of illegal immigrants, simply because it lacks many structures that exist in Switzerland.
This year a delegation from the Federal Migration Office looked at the situation and examined how Greece could be supported within the framework of Frontex [the EU agency for external border security] but also bilaterally, to cope better with the migration situation. As part of Frontex we sent several border guards to the Turkish border.
(Translated from German by Thomas Stephens)