Square of hope and glory : On the 6th anniversary of the magnificent OXI rally at Syntagma Square

The night the Demos found its voice,

for a brief, wonderful moment

On the afternoon of Friday, 3 June, as the working day drew to a close, I breathed a sigh of relief. A week of closed banks was almost over. Despite the long queues at ATMs and the uncertainty of what awaited us the following Monday, there had been no violence, no panic, no civil unrest. The Greeks had proved themselves a sensible people.

The media, however, had managed to fall below their already absurdly debased standards, competing with one another to find the most innovative ways to frighten the public away from voting no. Much of the reporting of the no sponsors and supporters would in other countries have been deemed incitement to violence. The opinion polls consistently predicted that yes would win with more than 60 per cent of the vote, while comment writers foamed at the mouth at the government’s audacity in holding a referendum against the creditors’ wishes. Meanwhile, the parliamentary opposition had managed to persuade its supporters to take to the streets in some numbers, waving EU flags and placards proclaiming, we are staying in europe!3

Later that Friday afternoon I received an email from Klaus Regling, the managing director of the European Stability Mechanism, the eurozone’s bailout fund. It was a reminder that he had the legal right to demand from me full and immediate repayment of the €146.3 billion lent to Greece as part of the first two bailouts. It was phrased in such a way as to suggest that I was personally liable, not least because as finance minister my name was on the loan agreement. It was too good an opportunity to pass up. I instructed my office to reply to our main creditor – to the man who had advised me to default to my pensioners instead of the IMF – with two ancient words. These were the defiant response of the king of Sparta, leader of the three hundred men who attempted to resist the entire Persian army at the legendary battle of Thermopylae in 480 bc, when instructed by the enemy to throw down their weapons: ‘Μολών λαβέ’ – ‘Come and get them!’

That evening two rallies took place, one in favour of yes, outside the ancient Olympic stadium where the first modern Olympics were staged in 1896, and one at Syntagma Square for the no campaign. The yes rally was held in the late afternoon, and was large and goodnatured, but the no rally at Syntagma was one for the ages. Since I was a boy, I had attended some magnificent, life-changing rallies at Syntagma Square, but what Danae and I participated in that night was unprecedented.

We walked to Syntagma from Maximos with Alexis and other members of the cabinet, their partners and aides. On the way we were mobbed by rapturous supporters. As we approached the square, the crowd’s energy exploded. A sea of five hundred thousand bodies consumed us. We were pulled into its depths by a forest of arms: tough-looking men with moist eyes, middle-aged women with determination written all over their faces, young boys and girls with boundless energy, older people eager to hug us and shower us with good wishes. For two hours, struggling to hold hands so as not to be separated, Danae and I were absorbed by a single body of people who had simply had enough.

People from different generations saw their distinct struggles coalesce on that night into one gigantic celebration of freedom from fear. An elderly partisan from the Second World War pushed into my pocket a carnation and a piece of paper bearing the phrase ‘Resistance is NEVER futile!’ Students forced to emigrate by the crisis who had returned to cast their votes begged me not to give up. A pensioner promised me that he and his sick wife did not mind losing their pensions as long as they recovered their dignity. And everybody, without a single exception, shouted at me, ‘No surrender, whatever the cost!’

I believed they meant it. The banks had already been closed for a week. The hardship imposed by the creditors was plainly visible. And yet, here they were, these magnificent people saying in one word everything that had to be said: ‘No!’ Not because they were recalcitrant or Eurosceptic. They craved the opportunity to say a big fat yes to Europe. But yes to a Europe for its people, as opposed to a Europe hell-bent on crushing them.

That night, as Danae and I eventually found ourselves walking up the marble steps leading to parliament, the phrase I had been looking for to describe what all this was about finally came to me: constructive disobedience. This was what I had been trying to practise in the Eurogroup all along: putting forward mild, moderate, sensible proposals, but when the deep establishment refused even to engage in negotiation, to disobey their commands and say no. The war cabinet had never understood this, but the body of humanity that filled Syntagma Square that night surely did.

That night the months of frustration, each terrible moment in Maximos, every disappointment along the way, all the nastiness and the stress had been wiped away, leaving nothing but contentment, and yet I was still not convinced that the no campaign would win the referendum. The demonstration suggested support for the cause had risen, but with the banks closed and the media screaming blue murder at anyone who even contemplated voting no, success looked unlikely.

Over dinner with Danae, Jamie and some other friends at an outdoor restaurant in the neighbourhood of Plaka, I was asked if Alexis and Euclid would resign were yes to win. ‘Alexis will form a coalition government with the opposition,’ I predicted, ‘after most of the true believers resign or are pushed.’ And I would be long gone by then, I said. But Jamie insisted I was wrong. No would win, he believed, and my leverage with Alexis would skyrocket, as I would have played a large part in delivering the result. Unconvinced, I nonetheless raised my glass to toast Jamie’s optimism. ‘¡Hasta la victoria siempre!’ he said with an intense and committed look – ‘To victory, always!’

Extract from ADULTS IN THE ROOM (Chapter 13), London: Penguin 2017/8