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What Greeks are saying to Europe: We won’t be bullied

After Greeks delivered a shocking rebuff to Europe’s leaders on Sunday in a vote to reject international creditors’ bailout terms, it’s clear Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s accomplishment is real. He appears to have forged a consensus in Greek public opinion – a rare feat in a country with no dominant political party.

The size of the victory went well beyond the polling consensus that the referendum was too close to call. Six out of ten Greeks said “no” to European Union demands – a staggering figure in any election. This suggests that Tsipras tapped into a deep-seated feeling among Greeks to send the EU a message.

That message is not just a “no” to austerity. It’s a “no” to how Greeks have been portrayed by European politicians and media: they live off EU largesse, avoid taxes, spend lavishly. More painfully, Greeks have been portrayed as lazy, and don’t pay a price for violating the EU’s complicated budget rules.

“No” clearly spoke for a touched-nerve, particularly in rural, private-sector Greece.

In a country of only 11 million people – about the population of Georgia – about 2 million live in the Athens metro region, which is dominated by government spending and workers. You would think that Athens, filled with public employees, would have been the heart of “no” voters, defending the size of the Greek state.

In fact, Athens was the one region that appeared evenly divided. The broader Greek public – in the country-side and on the islands — had a different message to deliver.

Greeks working in the private sector and living in rural stretches and scattered islands were the heart of the “no” vote. These are the small farms, hotels, and restaurants that dominate Greece’s private economy. Contrary to the stereotype, Greece’s private sector – filled with small and medium enterprises – actually work harder with fewer benefits than their German and northern European counterparts.

Private sector Greeks were willing to say “no” to those who buy their olives and cheese and tomatoes. They were willing to say no to the people who visit their beaches and villages and historic sites.

Over nine out of 10 tourists in Greece each year come from Europe. As hospitable as Greeks are, they didn’t seem to care.

Greeks had come to resent the idea that they had not paid a penalty for flouting EU rules. Five years of economic contraction, over 30% unemployment, and 60% youth unemployment was enough suffering.

Still, while the vote may have felt good, there is hard work ahead for Greece if July 5th is going to be Greece’s new independence day.

Tsipras now must deliver on some key items: convince the European Central Bank to stabilize banks, re-embrace elements of austerity, and (this is the hard part) convince Europeans to give him debt relief.

To get debt relief, he must demonstrate he will continue to meet budget goals for the foreseeable future.

In the past six months, he has not shown either that he has the political will or that he has a group of people with technical know-how to get that done. But he now may have a chance to change that equation. The size of his mandate, the departure of finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, and perhaps a reshuffle of his cabinet to shed anti-Euro hardliners, may give him the room to maneuver.

One big lesson Greece has taught the EU: you cannot intimidate another country into a narrow technical solution to a big complicated political and economic problem. And the EU must consider the impact on the private economy when it evaluates whether a country has paid a price for missing targets.

As distasteful as many current Greek officials appear to be to outsiders, Eurocrats came across in Greece as much worse. While impressive in their technical skills, they alienated regular Greeks with their righteousness and obsession with rules that ignored their impact on real people.

Greece’s private economy has spoken. Now it is up to Greek and EU political leaders to respond.

William Antholis is the CEO of the Miller Center at the University of Virginia. He served as Director of International Economic Affairs on the White House National Security Council from 1997 to 1999.