4:00am

Thu October 20, 2011
Europe

European Leaders Try To Keep Debt Crisis From Spreading

Originally published on Thu October 20, 2011 11:50 am

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

More demonstrations are being staged today in Greece as its parliament votes on another round of stinging austerity measures. Yesterday's protests ended in vicious street battles between police and protesters. Meanwhile, European leaders seem deadlocked on plans to stop the Greek debt crisis from spilling into the rest of the eurozone. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli joins us on the line from Athens.

And, Sylvia, how are people reacting to yesterday's turmoil and clashes over these austerity measures?

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Well, it's the same rage as yesterday. It was the biggest demonstration in many decades here. The range of the protestors and the size of the turnout were huge - not just civil servants, students, but lots of professionals and shopkeepers and private sector employees.

There were thousands of people who never take to the streets - for example, an association of pensioners of the armed forces who were cheered by the rest of the crowd. This is really a showdown between the middle class and a government that people feel has betrayed them.

Unfortunately, the demonstration turned ugly with street clashes that lasted into the night. Police fired teargas into the crowd. They battled gangs of black-hooded youth who fired back with rocks and incendiary bottles.

MONTAGNE: And Sylvia, we've been hearing about these austerity measures in Greece for a long time now. Why this big outpouring of rage now?

POGGIOLI: Well, there's just more and more. The middle class is being squeezed. I heard many people say they simply won't pay the new taxes, and the perception here being unfairly singled out is confirmed by a report in the Financial Times. It found that the degree of financial pain imposed by international lenders on Greece is twice as severe as that imposed on the populations of Ireland and Portugal, the two other indebted countries that have received international bailouts.

MONTAGNE: Well, those European leaders who were scheduled to meet Sunday to try once again to resolve the eurozone crisis, are they giving off any signs that they've managed to reach an agreement?

POGGIOLI: None whatsoever. Yesterday, in a last minute decision, French President Nicolas Sarkozy flew to Frankfurt to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel. They are deadlocked over how to strengthen a eurozone rescue fund, how to recapitalize banks and how to get banks to take bigger losses on their Greek debt holdings. They made no statements after the meeting.

It took place on the sidelines of an event to mark the end of the tenure of Jean-Claude Trichet as president of the European Central Bank. And he told those present that the eurozone crisis requires immediate action in coming days.

MONTAGNE: So it sounds like the big players in the Euro drama feel a sense of urgency.

POGGIOLI: Well, you know, we have seen so many mixed signals, that it's not really clear what European leaders really want, especially the German chancellor. Merkel has repeatedly said that Sunday's summit, the sixth attempt this year to resolve the crisis, will not produce an immediate comprehensive solution.

And at this event in Frankfurt, it was her predecessor, the 92-year-old Helmut Schmidt, who put the spotlight on what seems to be the underlying problem that is paralyzing European leaders: petty national interests and lack of vision.

Schmidt was brought to the stage in a wheelchair. And in a loud voice, he rebuked the current leaders, saying anyone who considers his own nation more important than common Europe damages the fundamental interests of his own country. And in a clear reference to Greece, he said the strongest must help the weak. And he reminded his successor that after World War II, Germany's debt was also restructured.

But, you know, here in Athens, the Greeks did have one small satisfaction. Their soccer team Olympiakos had a big win against the German Borussia Dortmund team. And sports headlines today call this the revenge on the Germans.

MONTAGNE: OK, Sylvia, I guess life goes on.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Athens. Thank you very much.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Renee.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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