By Angeliki Koutantou
Several thousand demonstrators chanting “Europe! Europe!” rallied in front of parliament in Athens on Thursday calling for Greece to keep the euro, as the country edged nearer to a default that could force it out of the single currency zone.
Greece’s future in the bloc and even in the EU has hung in the balance as the leftist government of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, which swept to power five months ago on a platform of resisting austerity, has reached deadlock with its creditors.
“This is the first demonstration I’ve joined in for the last five years because it’s the first time that we’ve been at risk of quitting the euro,” said Alexandra Spei, a 50-year-old accountant. “I can’t imagine what the consequences would be like but I am sure it would be catastrophic.”
The demonstration, joined by some members of the country’s previous conservative government, appeared to be slightly larger than one a day earlier by supporters of the ruling Syriza party who urged the government to reject creditor demands for pension cuts and VAT hikes in exchange for vital financial support.
Opinion polls show strong support among Greeks for remaining in the euro despite the widespread resentment at the austerity policies imposed by its creditors, the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund.
“A clash with the lenders, which are our partners in fact, will lead to an exit from the euro,” said 50-year-old Eleftherios Zygouras, who sells car parts. “A country which imports most of the goods it consumes will be in a terrible position if it quits the euro.”
With European politicians now openly discussing the once-taboo issue of “Grexit”, a summit of euro zone leaders on Monday could be the last chance of reaching a deal in time after finance ministers failed to make a breakthrough on Thursday.
Without new funding, Greek officials have said they will not be able to make a 1.6 billion euro payment to the IMF which falls due at the end of June, almost certainly meaning default and a potential exit from the euro.
While the Greek economy has undergone a crushing recession with unemployment running at more than 25 percent and output declining about a quarter since the start of the crisis six years ago, many fear that life outside the single currency would be even worse.
“We’d have to make do with just basic goods,” said Yiota Balatsouka, 32, history teacher at a private school. “Greece has come a long way to become a European country and it would be a tragedy to go back now.”
Thursday’s rally was noisy but peaceful. However, like Wednesday’s pro-Syriza demonstration, it was much smaller than the protests that regularly filled Syntagma Square in central Athens at earlier stages of the crisis.