Everybody’s looking at Germany. Jeremy Rifkin

“I’m fighting a lot”

Five years after the crisis broke out there, life in Athens is still difficult. However, Greek journalist and activist Elina Makri decided to stay. She talked with Julia Korbik – about daily struggles, the Greek media, and why she is romantic when it comes to the EU.

The European: Miss Makri, you’re a native-born Athenian and, after a hiatus abroad, still live there. It’s now been five years since the Euro crisis broke out in Greece. What does life in the Greek capital look like today?
Makri: It’s more different than you would probably think. Athens is often described as a ‘war zone’ – which it is not!

The European: How is it then?
Makri: It is a typical Mediterranean city and, like Istanbul, Athens separates the world into East and West. Of course, Athens is the place in Greece that has been stricken the most by the crisis. You won’t understand the crisis by going only to the Greek periphery and the islands. Athens is the biggest and most populous city. For a creative person, life there is very difficult, because political measures are taken in order to suppress creativity – in fact, they were taken many years ago: laws that nobody understands, with several confusing ‘windows’ of interpretation. But because of the crisis, the situation is now getting much worse. There are many struggles. So for creative people, it’s very tough to live there. I’m speaking about creativity at all levels, about artists, people who want to set up media and other businesses, people who want to have a normal and calm life.

The European: This sounds all very tiring.
Makri: Yes. The crisis has changed a lot of things and for me, for my generation, the most disturbing thing is what I hear from friends: a lot of them would like to have kids, but they’re afraid. The crisis blocks, and it completely changes what you’d like to have in life.

The European: You mean, you cannot plan and you’re always unsure of what the future might bring?
Makri: Plan? There is no such word. Plan what? If you don’t have a safety net like family or political connections – what is the plan then? You can’t survive on the kind of salaries which most of the people are paid. The state plays a very nasty role in this.

“There is still a lot of work to do in Athens”

The European: In what way?
Makri: As a freelancer, I don’t earn a lot of money. But still, the state takes 43 per cent of my income and forces me to pay indirect taxation, you would call it social security: a stable cash flow towards the state which doesn’t take into account my personal cash flow – which is not stable at all! Therefore it’s only logical that the Greeks are looking for ways to avoid paying taxes. This was in fact the favorite argument of German and Greek politicians in order to incriminate and intimidate the people and the civil society. It’s outrageous! But politicians know well what they are doing. I don’t like it, but I have been put in this situation. That is really something you’ll only understand if you’re trying to set something up in Athens.

The European: What about life outside of Athens?
Makri: Greece has 6000 islands. And a lot of mountains. Seventy percent of continental Greece is mountains and the rest is islands and sea. Governing a country like this is totally different from, for example, governing the Netherlands. There are more challenges. The living conditions in the countryside are less difficult. Take Crete, for example. It could be an independent state! It is rich, self-sufficient, has a very powerful economy, mountains and the sea. And its own deep traditions: Crete is a place producing a lot of civilization. The life there is simpler, as it is in general in smaller towns and cities.

The European: You left Greece to study abroad, then you came back. Why?
Makri: Honestly, it wasn’t a wise choice to come back to Greece. I left Brussels eight years ago because I like working in the streets; I don’t like sitting in a bubble. Right now I’d like to leave, because I want to see different things. But there is still a lot of work to do in Athens. I’m a political activist and I’m participating in a lot of projects on political innovation – so there are things to do and you can find meaning. And by meaning I don’t mean making money.

The European: So it’s about staying and trying to change something.
Makri: Yes, I’m fighting a lot. Even legally: I went against against the Greek Ministry of Education when I was 26 years old – and I won the case at the Supreme Court of Greece. I’m fighting with the tax department, I’m writing letters to so many public services because I doubt their way of doing things, their sense of justice, and I doubt their civilization, their way of pursuing life. It’s taking all my energy.

The European: Greece might be tough, but there must also be things you love about this country.
Makri: I’m a Mediterranean person: I laugh a lot, I’m doing things in a spectacular way, I cannot do them calmly. Life passes by so quickly! But right now, I’m fed up. I’d like to leave because I’m also a journalist and I like media innovation, but I cannot practice in Greece.

“The people don’t trust journalists”

The European: How is the media situation in Greece?
Makri: Very difficult. In Greece, we don’t innovate in the media sphere. Mostly because there is no money to invest right now. I think that there is a lack of media innovation in Europe in general – apart from Britain and Norway, maybe. We’re a bit behind in the digital era. In Britain and the United States there are so many media start-ups – why don’t we have them in Europe?

The European: And what is particularly bad about the media situation in Greece?
Makri: The mainstream institutions. They regurgitate what the government gives them. I have worked with media institutions and I felt so trapped. We don’t really have investigative journalists, but something more dangerous: there are journalists wanting to go after politicians and trying to cover some news, doing their public relations. And then, we have another kind of news coverage, an aggressive and emotional one, moving more towards an ‘anarchistic’ stance.

The European: So either you just reproduce what the government says or you’re too biased in another way.
Makri: Yes, there are a lot of opinionated articles. I’m not sure this is what the audience wants. Whenever I say I’m a journalist, people react in a very hostile way – they don’t trust journalists. The profession is not well respected. There is a lot of political money in journalism: numerous political party magazines are created. Under these conditions, introducing digital innovation is very difficult. It’s still all about saving the print. But as I already said: I wouldn’t say that we have a lot of media innovation in Europe. At least not in a language I can follow. My experiences with German media have been particularly bad: the things they were reporting were just wrong and very sensational.

The European: The big German tabloid Bild put the “Crash Greeks” on its cover. The Greek newspapers, on the other hand, didn’t hesitate to use Nazi comparisons. So it’s not a one-sided problem.
Makri: Absolutely. Sometimes I couldn’t believe this was happening: all the Hitlers in Greek media. Or to portray Greece as a country of lazy people like the German media did – I mean, I work seven days a week, if I have to. What I have also noticed is that German media attacked the Greek society as a whole, while Greek media mostly attacked German politicians. This kind of reporting is just dangerous.

The European: You’re creating a prize for investigative journalism in Greece. Can you tell me about it?
Makri: At this time, we don’t have an investigative journalism prize in Greece. Well, actually there is one for journalism in general, but everybody has already won it. So yes, I’m creating an investigative journalism prize for young professionals under 30. And it’s not limited to journalists, because what does the term ‘journalist’ even mean? Someone with a press card? For me, it’s also an opportunity to initiate more data journalism in Greece. ‘Data’ isn’t considered a good term in the Mediterranean, because it’s too numeric. The idea is to combine the awarding of the prize with a hackathon, so that journalists learn different ways of searching and creating stories. This prize is a completely new thing which started at a grassroots level.

“European media do not stimulate a real cross-border debate”

The European: When it comes to European media, the question is often raised as to whether a European public sphere exists: a public sphere transcending the national public spheres. What is your opinion on that?
Makri: I believe it exists, but the way national media have covered news until now is just not relevant to the European audience. Take, for example, the problem of illegal immigration in Greece at its European borders – they are not only Greek borders anymore! Or the referendum in Scotland and the UK. These are problems which concern all of us Europeans. Why does a country want to leave the EU? If you ask Greek people, they may have another solution to the British problem – but it’s necessary to explain the problem to them so that they don’t just read in the press what Cameron said or decided. European media do not stimulate a real cross-border debate, although our problems are common and debates such as the British one are more nuanced than just: Okay, let’s leave the Union. On the other hand, if you’re struggling constantly, you just don’t have time to think about what the Germans might be interested in. In Greece, such violent changes are taking place! I fear for everything, and I literally mean everything. I don’t have a safety net and I don’t know what will happen to me next week.

The European: You mean, thinking about a European public sphere is more of a minor issue because there are so many awful things happening in your home country.
Makri: Exactly. It’s probably something politicians want: when you’re in a crisis, you avoid thinking. You avoid comparing. But that’s what I’m trying to do when speaking about Germans and Germany in Greece: How do other Europeans live? Most of the Greeks don’t have time to experience it or they don’t want to hear about it. Technology helps enormously in telling stories in a different way, and I think we could do so much more in Europe.

The European: What are your hopes for Greece and for the European Union in the future?
Makri: Well, the Greeks will certainly survive. Greece is an ancient place, an ancient nation. I wouldn’t call it a ‘state’. It has already lived through so many difficulties. But I don’t like the fact that young people have to leave their country when they don’t want to. I wanted to leave Greece; I wanted to experience other things. But friends of mine are forced to because of the situation the politicians have created. I want things to stabilize within the EU. I have to admit, I’m really romantic and euphoric when it comes to the EU. A lot of people are blaming me for this.

The European: In what way?
Makri: They criticize me because I travel to Germany, because I talk to Germans. They claim I only tell the Germans what they want to hear. Even worse, that I accept their framework and only debate with them within this framework. I risk my head as a professional because I at least try to understand the Germans. Obviously Germans have different values from the Southern countries.

“Whatever is created by men can be destroyed by them”

The European: You said you’re romantic when it comes to the EU. How do you mean that?
Makri: I call the EU the three Ps: the most prototypical, political, paradoxical experiment. In Greek, even the word for experiment begins with a P! So that would make four Ps. That’s why I’m so romantic about the European Union; there is this element of: You don’t know where you are heading, but you can’t go back. But at the moment I’m really afraid this will happen.

The European: Because the Union might collapse?
Makri: We have to accept that whatever is created by men can be destroyed by them. I believe in free will: if people don’t want to fight for something, then you’ll have to accept it. You can’t force them. What you can do is to educate and inform them. That’s why I am willing to sit at the same table with people whose opinions I don’t share. To collaborate with Germans and speak with people from the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn (Chrysi Avgi) – the new ‘bear in the village’, as I call them, or ‘the devil’ for many people. When you explain things to them, you often realize how little information they have. If the British people want to leave the EU – let them, but at least educate them about the pros and cons. Prepare them.

The European: So this romantic personality of yours is more of a disadvantage?
Makri: Maybe. I hate institutions and I have always tried to avoid them, as they were always there to stop me. But I’m romantic about the European institutions. In my head, it’s something unknown, a government which doesn’t need a state. In Brussels, the European Commission building and the Council building are separated by only a road. In reality, it’s light years.

This interview was conducted at the “European Disputes” conference, where The European is a media partner.

Did you like the conversation? Read one with John Major: “We are the grit in the oyster”

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