Austerity Helped Fuel Greece’s Wildfires

Wildfires are devastating Greek forests in the worst heat wave in 30 years. Thanks to years of austerity and a right-wing government pushing through further privatizations under cover of the pandemic, even the basic services required to fight the fires are desperately lacking.

A volunteer uses a water hose to extinguish a fire in the village of Markati, near Athens, Greece on August 16, 2021. (Angelos Tzortzinis / AFP via Getty Images)

When some hundred thousand hectares of the Greek mainland and islands erupted with the flames of more than five hundred fires in the first two weeks of August, the scenes were likened to an apocalypse. Dead storks dropped from the sky, exhausted firefighters passed out on the ground, villagers assembled their own makeshift fire trucks from farm pumps, and a Syrian refugee on the island of Evia used his van to charter locals to safety.

Twenty-two nations rushed to the assistance of Greece’s New Democracy government, with water bombers, helicopters, and firefighters sent in from countries including United States, France, Israel, Ukraine, and Romania.

As reinforcements arrived and locals defied evacuation orders to defend their homes unaided, the public began to question why the Greek authorities needed help at all — part of a growing outcry over the government’s general absence on the ground during what Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis declared “a natural disaster of unprecedented dimensions.”

Local mayors denounced the “insufficient” national resources attributed to fighting the fires, while residents told how provision of emergency food and water fell to shopkeepers and individuals. As one man on Evia observed, “all the government does is appear on TV and tell us that it’s a great success that we don’t all die in the fires. They should have hired firefighters instead of thousands of new police officers.”

The scale of the blaze and recent record-breaking temperatures across the Mediterranean made for conditions that were indeed unprecedented. But amid all the smoke and mirrors of efforts to downplay political culpability — with blame leveled at arsonists and unpredictable weather conditions — the fires made stark the priorities of a neoliberal government that has ruthlessly pursued private capital and authoritarian control over public safety.

In the rare event that a politician apologizes for something, you can be certain the scope of the damage is far greater than their contrition. Such was the case when Mitsotakis made a public appearance amid the backlash to express his remorse over the government’s “shortcomings” to the thousands of Greeks who had lost their homes, lands, and livelihoods. “We may have done what was humanly possible,” he said, “but in many cases it was not enough.” The fallacy of the PM’s characterization of official efforts was readily disproved.

The New Democracy government had systematically stripped funding from national firefighting services since coming to power. In 2020, it rejected the hiring of five thousand new firefighters and budgeted a meager €1.7 million of the €17 million requested to meet the service’s basic needs. The recent blaze has seen renewed calls for the sector to hire at least five thousand firefighters, a demand the government has yet to respond to.

Over the same period, the Ministry of Public Order and Citizen Protection was inflated with forty-five hundred new staff members and the defense budget more than doubled, making Greece one of NATO’s highest military spenders as a proportion of GDP. With just five hundred firefighters battling around the country, satirical memes circulated on social media showing flying police cars water-bombing the blazes and riot cops in firefighters’ hats.

Criminal Indifference

The government’s priorities have been apparent in Greece since the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The New Democracy government has systematically funded private hospitals over the austerity-wrought public health services, and fueled banks by leveling COVID-affected businesses with emergency “loans,” while seizing the state of exception to massively expand its policing powers alongside other authoritarian reforms.

In north Athens, which suffered some of the heaviest losses in the fire, government sources sought to justify their inaction by claiming variously that the forest was inaccessible or that they were caught off guard by turbulent winds. Such pretexts were quickly ridiculed by locals who posted aerial footage of the many roads through the site and meteorological reports of windless conditions, decrying the “criminal indifference” of the Greek state.

One resident in the area told how she visited the charred remains of her home the day after the blaze only to find that her neighbor, an influential businessperson, had a fire truck stationed inside the gates of his unscathed home. The public asset had apparently been appropriated with official consent and the firefighters told the woman they were unable to leave the house to put out spot fires on other properties.

Such commonplace corruption in the service of private interests is typical of Greece’s current ruling elite, who have sought to protect private capital while administering “shock therapy” to the nation since taking office in 2019. Amid the diversions of a public health emergency, New Democracy has hurried through a suite of reforms under the banner of the so-called “Greece 2.0” program. This has included mining protected areas and privatizing the electricity grid, abolishing university asylum laws, and introducing some of the most dramatic changes to labor law the country has seen in recent decades.

It is the same private interests which will feed off the destruction wrought by the fires — most notably, through the scourge of illegal developments that predictably spring up on burned public land, facilitated by Greece’s woeful forest registry, in a routine revenue-raising exercise for a predatory political economy. As one irate and exhausted firefighter wrote in a social media post during the peak of the fires, “my question is, will the villas you build make sense if is there no green around you anymore? How the hell are you going to breathe up there and we down here?”

It is this neoliberal creed that has informed the New Democracy government’s response to the climate crisis more generally. Unlike many right-wing governments around the globe, New Democracy has readily acknowledged the threat of climate change, announcing a €44 billion reform program that includes some of the most radical decarbonization targets among EU countries. Yet the plan is centered on the same pillars of privatization, marketization, and minimal public investment that characterize all New Democracy’s agendas, with little regard for the social and environmental consequences.

In 2020, for example, New Democracy passed a controversial new environment bill that has enabled the development of extensive private wind projects on the islands and mainland with scant or no adherence to environmental protection protocols. As an Athens-based political ecology researcher explained, “climate change works as an alibi for everything, including Greek capitalism. New Democracy’s climate change policy is based on a typical neoliberal ideology — that the market will save us from Armageddon.”

So when Mitsotakis stated in a climate crisis speech in May that Greece must “turn this great existential crisis into a great opportunity,” he was not referring to the possibilities for social transformation, job creation, or investment in the public sector — he was referring to a business opportunity.

Confronted with criticism over the government’s handling of the fires, the prime minister has announced compensation sums of €6,000 per damaged household and €4,500 for the injured — meager amounts when compared to the scale of the destruction. And as new flames arise around the country, there is ongoing cynicism about the government’s willingness to allocate any substantive resources to alleviating the economic toll on individuals and small businesses and preparing a firefighting force adequate to the task. “Everything needs to change,” Mitsotakis told the nation in the aftermath of this month’s fires. Faced with the ashes and another looming economic crisis, many Greeks are feeling the same.