A grassroots campaign is taking off against the proposed privatization and commodification of one of Greece’s last-remaining utopias: its coastline.
Seashores are one of the clearest manifestations of what is generally considered to constitute “the commons”: a place where access is free and the gratification of being present can be the same for all, irrespective of the size of their paycheck. Unfortunately, in real life this is not always the case. A seashore undisturbed by humans represents for many (even unknowingly) a utopian vision of what society can be in that grey area which is neither private nor state-owned.
However, actions such as those by Greek Finance Minister Yiannis Stournaras, who recently proposed a bill threatening the right of access to the country’s beaches, are a burning reminder that the seashore — just like the square — is no longer a common space. Rather, it is a space that the government donates to the people by concession, until the opportunity arises to enclose and subsequently monetize and valorize the former common property. The Greek bill for the privatization of the seashore, besides proposing restrictions on the public’s longstanding constitutional right of free access to the coastline, also proposes to grant developers the right to appropriate the seashore and to provide amnesty to existing structures built in breach of current legislation.
There was an immediate public outcry in opposition to the bill. With the help of a group called ‘Save the Greek Seashore: A Citizens’ Initiative’ — a grassroots, nonpartisan mobilization that aims to “safeguard Greece’s unique and irreplaceable shoreline as part of humanity’s commonwealth” — the news about the bill spread fast through social media. The opposition was strong: more than 122,000 signatures were collected in a petition demanding the bill to be scrapped. Spearheaded by the people and with the support of environmental NGOs, the movement created such a storm that even members of the ruling parties are now jumping ship.
On Tuesday, May 13, 2014, the Greek government unexpectedly announced that the bill would be halted and reconsidered with potential amendments after the European elections, which took place on May 25. Even though this delay constituted a small victory for the movement, the coastline is far from safe yet, even more so because attempts to privatize beaches in Greece are nothing new.
In 2007, the citizens and the municipality of the area of Elliniko (a suburb of Athens) opposed a group of mafia-run private companies that arbitrarily enclosed a public beach, obstructing people’s free access to it. When the citizens and the municipality took down the barriers, it seemed like a small triumph. However, the private businesses have since filed 85 lawsuits and still claim hundreds of thousands of euros in compensation in an on-going court battle.
In a different case, in May 2012, it was the Municipality of Piraeus itself that leased two of the municipalities’ beaches to private companies for the sum of €134.000. Once again, a strong local movement arose to resist the decision. The Mayor of Piraeus, in an attempt to pretend that the enclosure of the beach is for the greater good, argued that leasing the beaches would help end their extensive abuse and abandonment.
Unlike the cementocracy that raided the coastlines of other European tourist destinations like France and Italy, Greece has until now managed to protect its natural coastline from such rampant exploitation, allowing the Greek people — who have been so badly hit by austerity measures — to find their utopia in spaces of outstanding natural beauty. As we have seen in the case of community opposition to the construction of an open-pit goldmine near Skouries in Halkidiki, people don’t care about the price of gold: they demand the right to their mountains. And similarly, people don’t care about the financial potential of the golden sand: they demand the right to the seashore.
In the current climate of Greece’s economic crisis, there is an aggressive push towards economic growth, which is now being used to entrench a neoliberal agenda. Privatization of public and common wealth is high on the list of the Greek government. From the gold mines in Halkidiki to the management of water, citizens are being deprived not solely of their natural environment, but also of the most basic necessities of life. Now, corporate interests and the Greek government have realized the market potential captured in the golden sand, and they are trying to exploit it to full effect.
What we are witnessing is an attempt to appropriate one of our last remaining “commons” through different levels of control: the state, sometimes involving local authorities, and private capital itself. It might be unknowingly that they, the servants of capital, are trying to dispossess us of our last utopias and fill them with concrete. But these utopias are what constitute life for people, just like the air they breathe and the water they drink.
As Eduardo Galleano taught us, and as we will need to remember while we keep fighting for the right to the seashore, the purpose of Utopia “es para caminar” — it’s to keep walking. The battle of the commoners for the seashore will continue, as they look down with pity at the servants of capital, who in their battle to promote the neoliberal dogma have managed to commodify even their own utopias.
Maria Hadjimichael is a researcher in the governance of common resources, with a focus on marine issues, at Aalborg University in Denmark.