For many Greeks, a 'no' vote on bailout deal doesn't mean no to the EU

To the leaders of the European Union who warn that Greece might soon be expelled from their midst, Lydia Lenossi has an ancient reminder.

Remember where Europe got its name? From the beautiful princess Europa, a popular figure in Greek mythology.

"The god Zeus brought Europa on his back as a bull from Phoenicia to Crete," Lenossi said, adding tartly of EU officials: "They forgot about it. There is no Europe without Greece."

Conversely, Lenossi believes that her country needs, and deserves, to belong to a strong, united Europe. Yet the retired actress is still voting "no" Sunday on a painful cash-for-cuts bailout deal that European partners have offered debt-ridden Greece and that the government decided to put to a snap referendum.

The plebiscite has sown bitter divisions across this sunny, storied land, with surveys showing the race too close to call. The vote is being portrayed, by many news outlets here and abroad and by some EU officials, as a stark choice for or against Europe, pro-euro or anti-euro.

But the reality is more complicated than that. In some ways, many "yes" and "no" voters are closer than their binary election options imply, including in their attitudes toward the European Union.

Polls consistently show that, whatever they feel about the repeated bailouts and austerity cuts their country has suffered in the last five years, about 75% of Greeks want their country to remain one of the 19 nations using the euro and therefore, by extension, a full-fledged member of the European Union.

The single currency is the EU's most important project in promoting greater harmony and integration on a continent ripped apart by two world wars. EU rules dictate that all member states — except Britain and Denmark, which opted out from the start — must eventually adopt the euro to be considered in good standing.

Greece joined the EU in 1981, the 10th of 28 nations to sign up so far. To many Greeks reared in the aftermath of World War II, a bloody civil war and a military dictatorship that ruled from 1967 to 1974, admittance to the club was validation that their country — the cradle of democracy — had stabilized and matured and was no longer a Balkan basket case.

Membership gave the Greeks, still relatively poor, access to badly needed funds to build their laggard economy.

"Wherever you went at the time, there were signs of the European stars, the European flag, in the constructions of buildings, the constructions of roads," said Othon Anastasakis, an expert on Greek history at Oxford University and an advisor to the Greek Foreign Ministry on EU affairs during the 1990s.

"European money was very, very much improving the lives of the Greeks," Anastasakis said. "That was the thing that really defined the popularity of the European Union in the hearts and minds of the Greeks."

Adoption of the euro in 2001 brought in more investment and an even better standard of living, further cementing the perception of the EU as a key provider of prosperity.

But successive governments in Athens went on spending sprees they could not afford — and hid their excesses. The debt crisis that blew open in late 2009 has haunted this country since.

In five years of emergency loans and brutal spending cuts demanded by creditors such as Germany, Greeks have watched their once-growing economy tumble into free fall. Many residents speak incredulously of scenes they thought unimaginable in their proud country — hungry people picking through garbage, despairing pensioners committing suicide — and accuse Greece's lenders of plunging their society into an abyss.

The left-wing government of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras contends that the new bailout package on the referendum ballot would bring yet more misery, especially for the poor and the elderly. Many Greeks who plan to join him in voting "no" hope to send a message to leaders of the EU: not that they want out, but that the EU should return to its original principles and stop riding roughshod over this nation of 11 million people.

"There were values — solidarity, democracy, freedom of the people.... There is nothing of that now," said Lenossi, the actress, who is 70. "They should not give precedence to money. Money is not the first issue. Humans are the first issue. We are not numbers; we are humans."

Nikos Aspradakis, 48, recalled the promises he felt were made.

"When I was voting in favor of the EU, I was told that my salary would slowly converge with French and German levels, that Greece wouldn't need to spend so much on its military anymore, that my democracy which has been shaken in the past would be secure, that there would be light at the end of the tunnel. I don't see any of that anymore," said Aspradakis, who works in the private sector.

"Now they are saying that I should have a salary like those in Bulgaria. Why? I want Bulgarians' salary to rise, not the opposite."

With his compatriots still heavily in favor of membership in the Eurozone and the EU, Tsipras has repeatedly sought to assure them that a "no" vote would not jeopardize either. That directly contradicts statements by the leaders of Germany, France and Spain, who warn that a win for the "no" camp will be taken as a desire to exit the euro. And quitting or being banished from the euro would mean giving up EU membership as well, the president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, has insisted.

Tsipras and his advisors have also tried to reinforce the idea that it is the EU that has let Greece down, with its "threats" and "blackmail," and not the other way around.

"It is a dark hour for Europe, as far as I'm concerned," the outspoken finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, said in a recent radio interview. "We are looking upon these developments with a great deal of sadness on what has happened to the Europe we signed up to."

Many residents say that an EU without Greece is as unthinkable as Greece without the EU, for reasons of geopolitical stability and because of shared roots and culture stretching back millenniums.

"We are not guests in a system run by others. We are an integral part of it," said a 50-year-old bank worker named Giorgos, who declined to give his surname, at a massive "no" campaign rally Friday evening.

"Yes" supporters agree that Greece belongs at the heart of the Eurozone and the EU, but they insist that a victory for their side is the only way to guarantee it.

Anastasakis at Oxford said the anger fueling "no" voters is understandable, because European officials bear responsibility for some of the missteps that have turned Greece's debt crisis into such an intractable mess.

But in the end, even many "no" voters realize that their future is bound up with the EU.

"They are furious at Europe," Anastasakis said. "But there is no other game in town for them."

Twitter: @HenryHChu

Special correspondent Pavlos Zafiropoulos contributed to this report.

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