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With Brexit, Greeks Worry About Europe's Future And Their Place In It

Last summer, the day after 61 percent of Greek voters rejected austerity in a referendum, they celebrated by dancing in the streets.

Their "no" vote was seen as a war cry of independence from onerous technocrats in Brussels, whose policies, voters believed, were keeping Greece in perpetual recession and debt.

But Despina Biri, a Greek researcher specializing in health and science, was full of trepidation.

She opposed the tax hikes and job and wage cuts imposed by European Union creditors in exchange for bailout loans. She thought the "no" vote could be used to negotiate a more humane bailout deal. But she also worried that rejecting the creditors' terms would mean Greece would be forced to leave the eurozone, the EU's currency union.

The repercussions, she said, would be punishing.

"I don't think we would be sitting here drinking coffee," she said when I met her recently at Athens cafe. "There would have been major riots in the streets on a much, much larger scale than we've seen in recent years."

Some Greeks worried back then that exiting the eurozone would also mean leaving the EU. Some who voted "yes" to the bailout terms waved EU flags at rallies with slogans like "Menoume Evropi," meaning "We live in Europe."

In the end, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who campaigned for the "no" vote, caved in to EU creditors — especially after his government's standoff with them forced Greek banks to close. He accepted a new bailout deal with even tougher austerity.

Greek researcher Despina Biri has lived, studied and worked happily in the U.K. but after the Brexit vote, worries about prospects there. She plans to continue her studies in the U.S.
/ Joanna Kakissis for NPR
Greek researcher Despina Biri has lived, studied and worked happily in the U.K. but after the Brexit vote, worries about prospects there. She plans to continue her studies in the U.S.

Greece remained in the eurozone. But Tsipras remained indignant about what he called a deficit of fairness and democracy in the EU.

When the U.K. voted to leave the union last month, Tsipras compared the EU to a sleepwalker heading off an abyss. The Brexit vote, he said, is a "wake-up call."

Nick Malkoutzis, editor of Macropolis, an Athens-based online journal of economic and political analysis, says the EU has, in recent years, treated some countries better than others, especially in the context of Europe's refugee crisis.

"The point was made to Greeks during the economic crisis that if Greece doesn't abide by the rules, it is undermining the very foundation of the eurozone and the EU, because it's a rule-based union," he says. "But then when the refugee crisis came along, you saw the EU come up with the relocation scheme, which is supposed to designate how many refugees each EU country can accommodate. And then you saw some countries, particularly in Eastern and Central Europe, completely flouting these agreements. And the question a lot of Greeks had was, 'Why do the rules apply only to us?' "

Malkoutzis, a dual Greek-British citizen born and raised in London, says Greeks have lost trust in EU institutions. Only 27 percent view the EU favorably, according to a recent Pew Global Survey, the lowest among all EU countries.

"But at the same time, there's greater trust there from Greeks than there is in their own institutions," he says. "So that's significant. They still believe that there's something to hold onto there."

Biri, the researcher, left Greece at 17 to study in the United Kingdom — part of a generation of young Europeans who have only known life in the European Union.

Now 30, she has learned five languages and holds degrees in molecular biology, biochemical engineering and health policy from University College London.

"Especially when I was studying in the U.K. and working, I sort of had this idea that, OK, I can stay in Europe and I can pretty much find a job anywhere I want," she says. "I can live wherever I want and all that. So now it's sort of slowly collapsing."

Biri worked in Britain until last year. Then she returned home, thinking she could apply her skills in Greece. She worked at the Greek health ministry, but left after a few months because, she says, no one wanted to hear the ideas she'd brought from abroad.

"I feel really powerless, you know," she says. "I have knowledge. I am willing to help. But it seems we couldn't agree on what needs to be changed."

She fears the EU won't survive a Brexit, and is planning to pursue a doctorate in the U.S. She says the U.K. no longer seems like an option for work. And she's sorry about that, because she felt accepted there and didn't experience discrimination.

"I mean, the worst I've had in all 12 years was somebody asking me whether my dad pays taxes," she says.

As she followed the Brexit debate from her home in Greece, she was dismayed by the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the "leave" campaign.

"I was hearing stories about racist attacks," she says. "I mean, my sister still lives in the U.K. I don't know what's going to happen to her. What happens if somebody makes a decision that, OK, we need to kick out all the EU migrants?"

She wants Greece to remain part of the EU, which it joined in the early 1980s after years of political and social turmoil. And she's not alone in this wish, Malkoutzis says.

"Greek society has grown very accustomed to that idea of being part of Europe, of being European, of creating this network with other countries and that there is much greater security in the numbers and the influence that the European Union offers than Greece being on its own," he says.

Unlike Greece, he notes, Britain didn't have a quarter of its workforce unemployed when it voted to leave the EU. "It wasn't in economic crisis, it wasn't close to bankruptcy. There was no threat to it," he says.

Brexit, in other words, was a completely self-inflicted crisis.

"And it makes you wonder," he says, "if Greek society and its political system has actually shown greater endurance than you gave it credit for after the last few years."

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