Greek Elections 2019
Syriza is down but not out. Now it must fight Greece’s march to the right
The party of government, New Democracy, is no modernising force – it has adopted the discourse of the far right
Incoming New Democracy PM Misotakis with outgoing Syriza PM Tsipras
Winning 31.5% of the vote is not exactly the political annihilation that many had predicted for Syriza. Yes, the party suffered a defeat in Sunday’s election, but the results showed that it is here to stay as a strong centre-left force.
Critics, many from the left, blame the outgoing Syriza-led coalitiongovernment for accepting catastrophic EU- and IMF-driven austerity policies. For them, the former leftwing firebrands failed to do sufficient battle with the neoliberal forces in Brussels and Washington and this is why Greek voters punished the party. A crucial feature of this narrative is its very conscious omission of any reference to the September 2015 election. It was called by Syriza after it abandoned its radical left programme, and “betrayed” (according to some) the results of a referendum in which the Greek people rejected austerity and signed up to acceptance of the bailout conditions. Syriza won 36.3% of the vote in that election. Losing 5% since then does not represent a massive rejection, but it is a major setback.
What Syriza attempted to do within the parameters of the situation it inherited was to protect some of the most vulnerable people in society. Among other things, it gave citizenship to second-generation migrants, and brought back within the Greek national health service the 1 million people who had been excluded by the previous government because they were uninsured – it did its best to act in defence of a social vision for Greece. It was also one of the few parties that upheld such a vision within Europe.
Implementing the EU/IMF memorandum, however, meant that a big part of the taxation burden ended up on the shoulders of the lower-middle class and middle class, and many of these voters subsequently felt alienated. It is not accidental that the new prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, while on camera talking to a shop-owner a few weeks ago, hinted that tax evasion checks and controls on businesses implemented under the Syriza government would come to an end on his watch. One wonders how this will go down with Greece’s EU partners who previously rejected the Greek government’s economic proposals for a fairer distribution of the costs of the memorandum. After all, Greece may be out of the memorandum as of August 2018, but it still remains under supervision.
There are of course many other contributing factors to this defeat. The devastating pictures after the Mati wildfires in 2018, which claimed the lives of almost 100 people, were confirmation that the criminal ineffectiveness of the Greek state still continued under Syriza. The agreement with North Macedonia – one of the great recent Greek victories – came at a cost: it enabled the far right to advance its nationalist discourse in parts of Greece. The uncomfortable coalition with the rightwing, nationalist Anel, even after its dissolution, continues to associate Syriza with political figures that most left-leaning supporters of the party find distasteful. Despite all of its sins, however, Sunday’s election proves that Syriza is a strong force in Greek politics.
Meanwhile, much of the media is trying to present prime minister Mitsotakis (son of a previous prime minister Konstantinos Mitsotakis, and a member of a family that has dominated Greek politics for generations) as a moderate-moderniser. This picture fully misses the crucial point that New Democracy has in fact shifted to the right. In Greece (as is happening across Europe, including Britain) the traditional party of the right has adopted, and made mainstream, the discourse of the far right.
During the election campaign, New Democracy advanced two different lines of argument in an intertwined offensive. The first was the neoliberal modernising argument about growth and investment, through tax relief to businesses, further privatisations (including in healthcare) and all those things that after the 2008 crisis brought hundreds of thousands of Greeks and other Europeans to their knees. The second strand echoes the Trump/Johnson discourse, attacking every minority and mocking anyone in need. Greece has never been the natural home of a “liberal” or moderate right, but given what the country went through after 2010, it is shocking to witness the brutality of these reinforced attacks on social values.
One reason for celebration, of course, is the exclusion of fascist Golden Dawn from the Greek parliament (it failed to pass the 3% threshold), a huge victory for anti-fascist activists. But this feel-good mood is immediately spoiled if one realises that at least part of the far-right vote transferred to New Democracy. This is why a strong opposition will be crucial for democracy in Greece.
Marina Prentoulis is a member of Syriza and a senior lecturer in politics at the University of East Anglia
The Dream that became a Nightmare
One year after taking power, Greece’s Syriza government is facing a wave of popular discontent. By Panagiotis Sotiris. First published in The Jacobin February 2016.
Taken out of context, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s speech celebrating the first year of the Syriza-ANEL government on January 24 might have sounded inspiring: full of references to democracy and popular sovereignty, openly claiming the legacy of the Greek left, defending important government initiatives and denouncing the conservative establishment.
But context is everything. Because at the same time Tsipras delivered his speech, farmers all over Greece were discussing ways to escalate their mass protest against his government’s pension reform, which would increase their social security contributions well beyond their means. The rebellious mood extended to other parts of society as well: lawyers, engineers, and other self-employed professionals were announcing they would continue their own protests, and trade unions were preparing for a February 4 general strike.
Syriza, in other words, is finally facing a wave of popular discontent.
Last week’s general strike was a turning point, with shops closed and mass rallies all over the country — particularly in rural Greece, where farmers joined forces with professionals, the self-employed, and union members. In some places these rallies were bigger than the 2011–12 anti-austerity demonstrations.
Though dubbed “the movement of the tie” — a reference to its middle-class character — the unrest among self-employed professionals (lawyers, engineers, doctors) is fueled by economic insecurity and hardship. The mobilization has put extra pressure on professional associations to adopt a more militant stance, demanding the repeal of the proposed measures instead of accepting the government’s calls for “dialogue.”
So far Syriza has characterized the demonstrations among the self-employed as protests of the affluent middle classes who voted “yes” in the referendum and refuse to pay their fair share. In reality, the new system of social security contributions is putting extreme pressure exactly on those parts of the “professional classes” that are not affluent and whose “self-employed” status disguises that they too are workers.
Moreover, for young degree holders — in a country with extremely high youth unemployment — the new pension system practically means they must abandon hope of pursuing a career or simply migrate. Already more than two hundred thousand young Greek degree-holders have sought employment abroad.
The farmer mobilization has been even more explosive. A mass rally in Salonica on January 28 led to the cancellation of the Agrotica Fair, one of the country’s biggest agricultural trade fairs. Farmers have also carried out mass roadblocks in many areas, halting highway traffic across Greece.
Each of the dozens of blockades act as an assembly point for local farmers. One of the most militant constellations — representing sixty roadblocks, with a strong presence from the Greek Communist Party and other left-wing forces — is planning to hold a large national protest in Athens this weekend.
The government knows the protests are a big problem — agriculture remains important in the country, and farmers are a powerful voting bloc. Its response has been twofold: first, insist that not passing pension reform would jeopardize the country’s farm subsidies from the European Union and participation in the eurozone. And second, divide farmers by trying to negotiate with some of the less “intransigent” protest elements and attempt to discredit the movement among the wider public.
While frustrated with the government, farmers do have the support and solidarity of local communities. And much is at stake. Increased social security contributions would drastically reduce their income, making small-scale farming even more precarious.
The system the government is attempting to introduce resembles the “three-pillar” system the EU promotes: namely, the combination of a national state minimum pension, a state-guaranteed occupational retirement system based on contributions (albeit with a low replacement rate and increased age requirement), and a private savings account.
In other words, the government is promoting a neoliberal reform that will likely only become more draconian since the European “institutions” are pushing for even lower replacement rates (the percentage of a worker’s pre-retirement income that is paid out by a pension program on retirement) and for immediate cuts to pensions already being disbursed. This last demand, inscribed in the third memorandum, is crucial because it’s not only pensioners who rely on these funds, but their younger, unemployed family members.
The neoliberal reforms don’t end there — sweeping privatization is also on the agenda. The sale of fourteen regional airports to a German-Greek consortium and the announcement that an offer for the Port of Piraeus from a Chinese company has been accepted are just the signs of things to come. The privatizations followed the recapitalization of the Greek banking system, which was made on terms favorable to private shareholders and investors. These private interests then gained control of the banks despite the huge infusions of public money.
In defense of these policies, the Greek government points to a parallel program of social measures that would alleviate economic hardship. But so far, the measures only seem to reach those in extreme poverty — such as the “solidarity card,” a sort of food stamps program — or consist of long overdue family law amendments such as extending the civic pact to same-sex couples. Even the long-awaited higher education reform bill — which was supposed to repeal some of the more authoritarian measures introduced in universities after 2011 — has been retracted twice because of pressure from the “institutions.”
Nevertheless, Syriza has still been able to present itself as a popular party. The rise of New Democracy’s Kyriakos Mitsotakis — a politician who represents the hard neoliberal, anti-populist wing of the Greek center-right and enjoys the support of both big business and Greece’s creditors — has provided Syriza with a clear foil. The message is simple: things could always get worse — imagine if those guys were in power.
In this sense, the current political debate sounds like one in other European countries, pitting a neoliberal center-right against a social-democratic center-left. Yet there is an important caveat: not only have both Syriza and New Democracy accepted the third memorandum, but the actual decision-making process in the country lies not in the Greek parliament but endless negotiations with European representatives.
In reality, the Syriza leadership’s message is a cynical one: if austerity is being administered, at least it’s the Left doing it — as if having a left government is an end in itself. In the 1980s and 1990s, Pasok played the same card to push austerity measures, exploiting the fear of the Right in a country that still had memories of civil war and dictatorship.
This sense that Syriza wants to retain power at all costs was reinforced by former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis’s revelations concerning the Greek government’s pre-referendum negotiation tactics. The Syriza leadership, Varoufakis said, had rejected in advance any thought about a rupture with the eurozone and refused to prepare for eurozone pressure. This stance accounts for the quick decision to capitulate to the creditors despite the referendum’s results.
In another noteworthy interview, the Bank of Greece’s governor revealed that in the days before the vote, he was discussing with his legal advisers, former prime ministers, and other public figures ways to obstruct the Greek government from breaking with the eurozone. In any other context, this would have been considered a nascent coup d’état. In Europe, it is the new normal.
At the same time, the EU and the IMF are pushing for even more aggressive reforms. Not only are they rejecting the Greek government’s pension reform and demanding extra cuts, but they are making it clear the process of evaluating the country’s progress (the condition for receiving the next bailout payment) will not be easy. Moreover, the reluctance of the EU to guarantee safe passage for refugees and asylum seekers and the decision to close borders across Europe is putting more pressure on Greece — currently the main entry point on the continent for refugees.
More than a year after Syriza’s election, the country remains in the throes of a deep social and political crisis. Mitsotakis’s election to the leadership of New Democracy has given new impetus to a right wing that seeks a government of traditional pro-austerity forces.
The combination of escalating protests and troika pressure for even harsher measures has put the Greek government in an untenable position. For their part, Tsipras and the Syriza leaders are reportedly considering an early election as a way out of the current impasse. But the troika has little patience for elections. In fact, they prefer coalition governments and a general sense that it is impossible to democratically challenge neoliberal policies.
It is too soon to say whether the Syriza-ANEL government will remain intact, or whether there will be another election or a different government coalition. Much will depend on the size and duration of the current protests, and the labor movement’s involvement in the protests. The February 4 general strike was a sign of hope. But we should not forget that in the present social and political climate, despair about social conditions exists alongside disillusionment about the possibility of change.
This contradiction is even more intense if we take into consideration the strategic crisis of the Greek left. So far, Syriza’s transformation from anti-austerity movement to neoliberal government has not been countered by an alternative strategy. The discussions in the European left regarding a potential “Plan B” — championed by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Stefano Fassina, Varoufakis, Zoe Constantopoulou, and the left of Podemos — indulge fantasies of “another Europe” and in particular “another euro.” This position ignores the lessons of the Greek experience: that a progressive solution inside the eurozone is impossible.
Yet equally problematic is the attitude, common in both the Greek Communist Party and some tendencies of the anticapitalist left, that Syriza’s capitulation obviates the importance of discussing strategy. Disconnected anticapitalist rhetoric and references to an imaginary “Red October” or “people’s power” cannot hide the fact that some have refused to engage in a serious debate on strategy and tactics, the potential and challenges of a radical left government today, and a transition program that could bridge the gap between immediate demands and socialist transformation.
The same goes for attempts to simply repeat the path of Syriza, even in the form of a militant anti-euro, anti-austerity party (the road chosen so far by Popular Unity). “Fail better” mantras cannot be a substitute for strategy.
What is needed is to actually learn from what happened. Greece proved that political change is possible, provided that we translate social dynamics into political projects. It also proved that without a clear and well-prepared strategy of rupture, defeat is practically inevitable. Greece offered the testing ground for simply governing using the existing institutional framework. We now we have the results of that experiment.
Without a will to break with existing international “legality,” and without a reliance on the power of extra-parliamentary movements, Syriza was doomed to failure. At the same time, Greece shows that while a break with the burden of debt and the eurozone’s financial straitjacket is a necessary condition to reversing austerity, it is not enough: what is needed are real alternatives that push against market logic. Without such alternatives, we will only be able to tell people that their lives are in ruins (something of which they are already well aware) — not instill confidence in them that anything can change.
One year ago, it was impossible not to see some potential in Greece’s shifting political tide. It seemed that a window of opportunity had opened for the forces of the radical left inside and outside Syriza. With Syriza’s surrender, it seems the Left has chosen to close that window itself. But that need not be the end of the story.
The depth of the Greek crisis — accentuated by the continuing crisis of European integration and occurring in the context of a global economy marked by sharp contradictions — means “stabilization” is still a pipe dream. Yet even amid the wreckage, the Left has an opportunity to begin to restore political confidence, starting with the current pension reform struggle.
Rebuilding Greek social movements and the Greek left are the two mighty tasks in front of us — and our only alternative to despair and surrender.
Three days that saved the Euro
With Greece on the brink of expulsion from the euro, there was one final chance to avoid catastrophe. Ian Traynor tells the inside story of a dramatic showdown ( extracts from article published in the Guardian October 22nd 2015)
Late on the afternoon of Friday 10 July, as European finance ministers were packing their bags for Brussels to attend yet another meeting on the Greek debt crisis, a shocking email from Berlin landed in the inboxes of a very small number of top officials. Earlier that week, the Greek prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, had been given an ultimatum by his fellow European leaders: deliver a radical new blueprint for economic reform and spending cuts – or face bankruptcy.
Tsipras had delivered a new set of proposals, but before officials could meet in Brussels to discuss them, the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, delivered a preemptive strike: if the Greek government would not undertake more drastic reforms, the German email said, “Greece should be offered swift negotiations on a time-out from the eurozone.” There had been speculative talk that Greece might have to quit the single currency – and sentiment among other euro members had hardened against Athens in the six months since Syriza, Tspiras’s leftwing movement, came to power – but until now, no one had formally proposed pushing the country out.
“It was clear,” one recipient said. “It was written down. It was harsh. It was brutal.” Schäuble, the most experienced politician in power in Europe, had gone for the jugular – and the email sent alarm bells ringing in Paris, Rome, Frankfurt and Brussels.
“It was never officially distributed – only to core people,” said a senior official involved in the meetings, who saw the email on the Friday evening. “It showed a tough stance. It was clear that Grexit was an option. It meant that on Monday we would start the preparations.”
Schäuble’s demands gave shape to the weekend of tense negotiations that followed – the most fateful days in the history of the beleaguered single currency, culminating in 17 hours of talks that dragged out until 8.30 on Monday morning. After five years of crisis that had seen Greece bailed out twice – and the rescue of four other eurozone countries – the question was whether Greece could remain in the euro, or become the first country to be kicked out. In order to stay, and secure another bailout, Athens would need to capitulate to German demands on austerity, overhaul its welfare, pension and tax systems, and surrender sovereignty over large parts of policy-making.
Schäuble’s proposal popped up on screens in the upper reaches of the European Commission at around 6pm that Friday. It took the form of a one-page memo – what Eurocrats call a “non-paper” – sent by Thomas Steffen, one of Schäuble’s deputies in the German finance ministry. As well as calling for Greece’s suspension from the single currency for at least five years, it also proposed that Athens would transfer assets worth €50bn – a quarter of the national wealth – into a trust fund located in Luxembourg and controlled by the European Stability Mechanism, the eurozone’s bailout fund. It would be a massive asset-stripping enterprise, modelled on West Germany’s privatisation of East German state property after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989: gradually, the assets would be sold off, and the proceeds used to pay off Greek debt.
It seemed like a proposal designed to ensure a Greek departure from the euro: one official from a country participating in the talks recalled that he texted a colleague to say that there was now a “60% chance of Grexit” – for the first time, he said, he thought this was not only possible, but likely.
“A lot of people were really scandalised,” a senior diplomat in Brussels said. “It was incredible. No country could have accepted this.” For Matteo Renzi, the Italian prime minister, the Schäuble ultimatum was an untenable exercise in German humiliation of Greece. It had to be stopped.
There were those among the leaders, central bankers, and 19 eurozone finance ministers who wondered whether Schäuble was serious. But senior figures at the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the Luxembourg-based euro bailout fund, who had been involved in negotiations all along, realised he was not bluffing – in fact, they had known about Schäuble’s plans for a long time. They believe that Schäuble made his mind up at the beginning of the year – even before Tsipras was elected as prime minister – that the Eurozone had to be protected from weaklings: Greece was a liability and had to go.
Schäuble’s manoeuvre on Friday 10 July was breathtaking because it broke a taboo: membership of the euro is supposed to be irrevocable, and Schäuble demonstrated for the first time that Germany believed that the single currency was not forever – and that it was willing to push another country out. The revelation scared politicians across Europe. Someone like Renzi, watching the defenestration of Tsipras, could be forgiven for thinking: “Am I next?”
Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, and his chief of staff, Martin Selmayr, were taken aback by Schäuble’s email, and they immediately summoned the two members of the European Commission responsible for the single currency, Valdis Dombrovskis of Latvia and Pierre Moscovici of France. Juncker also called President François Hollande in Paris: both men were determined to keep Greece in the euro, but they worried that if Merkel shared Schäuble’s resolve to eject the Greeks, they would be powerless to stop her. “Juncker and Hollande agreed this was dramatic and must not be carried,” said a Brussels source. “But no one was sure if this was just Schäuble or whether it had been agreed with Merkel.”
While Schäuble and his fellow finance ministers made their way to Brussels on Saturday morning, Weiser convened his working group of senior officials – but it had effectively been hijacked by Schäuble’s proposal. Although the proposal was not formally discussed, participants said it hovered silently over the session. The meeting was tense and sombre. But it was nowhere near as bad-tempered as what was to come.
The three days that followed Schäuble’s shock announcement would see finance ministers and central bankers locked in negotiations until midnight on Saturday before giving up in failure. They resumed their discussions on Sunday morning, before passing the baton to the national leaders – whose summit began at 4pm and ran through the night for 17 hours.
It was the most intense, most fractious, and most heated debate ever held by those responsible for the European economy – retold here through interviews with more than a dozen of the policymakers, negotiators, and witnesses at the marathon meetings in Brussels. Nobody knew which way it would go until the final hour.
The stakes could not have been higher. Financial markets were waiting to pounce on any signals of weakness when they opened on Monday morning. Kicking out the Greeks would have sent a terrifying signal to the weaker countries of the eurozone, a warning that they must observe German-led instructions on sound budgets, austerity, public expenditure cuts, structural reforms. In short, if they did not become more German, they might become the new Greece.
But keeping Greece in the euro would be difficult: after five years of the largest bailout in history, European confidence in Athens had sunk to an all-time low. In Greece, collapsing standards of living, soaring poverty, endless austerity, and the diminishment of national sovereignty had culminated in the election of the eurozone’s first government of radical leftists, who had pledged to defy Berlin and Brussels by rejecting austerity and yet remain part of the Euro.
In the end, it would come down to an unexpected last‑minute compromise between Merkel and Tsipras, after 10 gruelling hours of overnight negotiations.
By June, the negotiations with Team Tsipras were not just stalemated, they had resulted in a complete breakdown of trust between the two sides. Negotiations were going nowhere. The existing €130bn bailout – Greece’s second – was to expire on 30 June. If the Greeks would not act, the creditors would.
On 1 June, with the deadline fast approaching, Merkel sidestepped Schäuble and Dijsselbloem and called a sudden meeting of key European leaders at her gleaming chancellery in Berlin: Hollande and Juncker attended, along with Mario Draghi and Christine Lagarde, the director of the International Monetary Fund.
Merkel’s mini-summit began late in the evening and lasted until 2am, resulting in a five-page “aide-memoire” that outlined what the Greeks would have to do to salvage the situation. It was the beginning of the endgame.
Merkel’s main aim was to resolve any remaining differences between European leaders and the IMF and ensure they were all on the same page. “Everyone had different interests, but this set out the minimum conditions for a deal with Tsipras,” one person who was present at the meeting said. “We left with the basis for a third bailout.”The next morning Lagarde phoned Merkel to reaffirm what had been agreed and to stress that the IMF wanted no more negotiation. It was take-it-or-leave-it for the Greeks. But what followed was a frantic month of shifting deadlines, multiple “last chances”, several ultimatums, four summits and four meetings of the eurozone finance ministers in Brussels and Luxembourg.
After all this, there was still no deal – and on Friday, 26 June, Tsipras quietly left a summit negotiation in Brussels at lunchtime after having private talks with Merkel. Without telling the Europeans, he returned to Athens and, at midnight, called a national referendum on the terms of a hypothetical agreement with the eurozone, which he described in a speech as “blackmail” and “humiliating”. Merkel was really shocked, according to people familiar with her views. Tsipras hoped that the referendum, which was set to take place on 5 July, would send a powerful message to the other eurozone countries. As the Greek energy minister Panagiotis Lafazanis put it: “If the Greek people say a big no, it is going to be impossible for those who wield power not to take note unless democracy no longer exists.”
Tsipras insisted that the plebiscite was not about quitting the euro. For the furious leaders of the eurozone, that was exactly what it was about: Merkel, and even Hollande – who had been most sympathetic to the Greeks – declared that a no vote would be a vote to leave the single currency. On 29 June, Juncker, in the most impassioned press conference he has ever given, laboured the point against a backdrop of the Greek flag, sounding as if the Europe to which he has devoted his adult life was dissolving.
But the 30 June deadline lapsed without a semblance of a deal, meaning that Greece had no bailout and was broke. In the referendum on 5 July, the Greek electorate listened to Tsipras, rather than the eurozone leaders, backing the prime minister with 61.3% of the vote and delivering a resounding OXI to austerity and the Europeans.
The no vote destroyed what little trust remained between the parties, and Greece’s departure from the euro moved up the agenda. The European Central Bank froze its liquidity support for Greek banks and capital controls were imposed. In Greece, this had an immediate impact, as banks closed and long lines of people formed in front of the few cashpoints that still had notes left to dispense. The brinkmanship on both sides had surpassed all expectations.
But there is nothing Europe’s leaders envy and admire more than success at the ballot box. Tsipras’s 61% mandate told Merkel that the young prime minister was a force to be reckoned with. “They were impressed by how well he won the referendum,” one senior official involved in the negotiations said. “They didn’t like the outcome, but they realised how formidable he is.”
This was the unpromising backdrop to the critical weekend of negotiations. Still, in the days before the finance ministers were to meet on Saturday 11 July, there seemed to be a few glimmers of hope. On 7 July, Varoufakis, who had done nothing but exasperate his fellow finance ministers, offered his resignation. The arrival of his replacement, Euclid Tsakalotos, a soft-spoken leftist educated at St Paul’s and Oxford, eased tensions immediately. “The new finance minister had a completely different attitude,” said a senior EU official who dealt directly with Tsakalotos. “They started seeing us as human beings and not as robots. It made things so much easier.”
Tsipras had drastically changed his position on the terms of the bailout. Just days after the Greek people had rejected Europe’s austerity terms, Tsipras performed a u-turn. In order to secure a third bailout, he produced a new set of tough reform proposals very similar to those he had just campaigned against. In a dramatic debate that ended in a vote several hours after midnight on the night of Friday 10 July, the Greek parliament gave Tsipras an overwhelming majority in support of his proposals. Unfortunately, these were the proposals that Schäuble had torn to shreds in his own memo – sent only a few hours before the Greek parliament sat down to vote.
European Union summits take place in a large, charmless pink granite building in Brussels, headquarters of the European Council, representing the 28 member states – and home to the office of Donald Tusk, the council president, who convenes and chairs the summits.
… It was here, at 3.30pm on Saturday 11 July, that the Eurogroup of finance ministers sat down with the top officials from the “troika” of Greece’s creditors: the European Commission, European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
The officials from the European Commission and the European Central Bank responded positively to the new Greek proposals: they gave the ministers an initial assessment of the Greek offer, which was viewed as Tsipras’s first serious attempt at compromise, and a decent starting point for that weekend’s negotiations.
But the eurozone’s fiscal hawks were never going to have it: they would author the programme, not the Greeks.
This much became clear when Schäuble and Dijsselbloem arrived, and any early optimism quickly dissipated. “How can we expect this [Greek] government to implement what it is now promising?” Dijsselbloem said to reporters. Schäuble was grim-faced, bristling with contempt. As the media scrum clustered at the entrance to the building for the “doorsteps” that are a curious ritual in the life of a reporter in Brussels, the German predicted “extraordinarily difficult negotiations”.
The Schäuble paper, by now known to most of the participants, had shredded Tsipras’s latest offer. It read: “These proposals lack a number of paramount important reform areas to modernise the country. Labour market reform, reform of public sector, privatisation, banking sector, structural reforms are not sufficient. This is why these proposals cannot build the basis for a completely new, three-year programme.”
Hardliners in the finance ministers’ meeting did not even want to discuss a new bailout, preferring to move straight to talk of how to handle the fallout from ejecting the Greeks. Alexander Stubb and Peter Kažimir, the Finnish and Slovak finance ministers, led the calls for the shift to the so-called Plan B scenario: Greece’s expulsion from the euro. (It later transpired that Stubb had come to the session with instructions not to discuss or endorse a new bailout.)
The prevailing mood at the meeting was aggressively anti-Greek, with the exception of the French, the Italians, and Cyprus. Schäuble was measured, but others, one minister reported, were “unpleasant and nasty” towards Greece.
The only one who directly challenged Schäuble on the fundamental point of ejecting Greece from the currency was Michel Sapin, his French counterpart. Publicly, Sapin would later dismiss the Schäuble paper as “playing to the gallery”. Privately, he told the conference there was no legal provision for a country to leave the currency, temporarily or otherwise. Grexit was not an option. He was right, but this was a legalistic argument: Greece could not be formally ejected, but things could be made so difficult for Athens that it had no choice but to quit.
Over the course of the meeting – which one participant described as “manly” – momentum seemed to be gathering to kick the Greeks out. Schäuble did not say much, but after a few hours, he came up with another intervention calculated to shock. He proposed that all the Greek functionaries working in EU institutions should be ordered back home to Athens to rebuild their own country – on the grounds that they were precisely the kind of people the Greek state needed to overhaul its notoriously dysfunctional public administration. As protesting voices were raised, Schäuble, unrepentant, said: “I’m the only one being creative here.”
The most substantial challenge to Schäuble came from Mario Draghi. He insisted that €25bn in the bailout package had to go to recapitalising Greece’s four main banks; Schäuble complained that €37bn had already been poured into these same banks in 2012, and there was no point repeating the exercise. If the banks were to be shored up, Schäuble insisted, their own investors, shareholders and depositors should be bear the costs of recapitalisation. But Draghi, supported by the commission, argued that such a “bail-in” would trigger a mass exodus of funds from Greece, where capital controls and withdrawal limits had already been imposed to limit a run on the banks.
Mario Draghi, who had declared three years earlier that he would do “whatever it takes to preserve the euro”, would not countenance a Greek exit, while Schäuble remained the most articulate proponent of ejection. The French and the Italians were surprised by how serious most of the other countries were about kicking Greece out. But Dijsselbloem skilfully steered the discussion away from a direct recommendation and, with his team, drew up a statement in the early evening. It was rejected by the hardliners – including the Germans, Slovaks, Finns and Dutch.
At 7pm, realising that things were going nowhere, Dijsselbloem called a break. As the meeting of finance ministers shuddered to a stalemate, the media went into overdrive. Schäuble’s kick-out-the-Greeks proposal had been leaked – and published on the website of Germany’s leading conservative paper, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ). Officials and spokespeople were deluged with questions about the German ultimatum, but they insisted uneasily that there had been no discussion of Schäuble’s proposed five-year “time-out” for Greece. Witnesses to exchanges between the ministers occasionally surfaced looking panicked. When accosted by reporters they were lost for words.
Through the entirety of the euro crisis, Schäuble’s finance ministry in Berlin has been the most promiscuous leaker of documents on Greece – so it was widely assumed that Schäuble’s office had leaked the paper to Thomas Gutschker, a reporter with the Sunday edition of the FAZ, to step up the pressure on Greece. When asked, Gutschker declined to reveal who had leaked the paper – but three other sources, all of them German, pointed the finger at Juncker’s German chief of staff, Martin Selmayr. According to these sources, Selmayr had hoped to discredit Schauble’s hardline proposal by revealing it publicly.
When the finance ministers reassembled at midday on Sunday, before each of them was a four-page paper that Dijsselbloem and his team had put together after the ministers had gone to bed the night before. “Dijsselbloem and Wieser decided to throw everything into the document,” one of the participants said, “including everything that was not agreed.” The document included the terms of the Schäuble memo, including its two key demands – the five year time-out and the Luxembourg trust fund to sell off Greek state assets – in spite of the fact that several officials protested that it had not been formally discussed the day before. The contentious points were put in square brackets, meaning they had not been agreed. Nonetheless, their inclusion strongly suggested that Schäuble had insisted they remain – and that he still had broad support. In fact, that morning, before Merkel departed for Brussels, Schäuble held a teleconference with her and Gabriel, the vice-chancellor; he was sufficiently confident of their backing to insist that the time-out clause remain an option.
At 4pm on Sunday 12 July, Merkel, Tsipras, and the other 17 Eurozone national leaders arrived for their summit meeting – along with the heads of the European Commision, the European Council, the European Central Bank and the IMF. The mood was already foul. The finance ministers’ meeting the day before had failed to break the impasse, and the arriving politicians were tense and grim-faced.
As late as Sunday morning, it wasn’t even clear who was attending. Earlier in the week, Tusk had declared Sunday could see a “last-chance” gathering of the full European Union – including non-euro members such as the UK – which would have signalled the end for Greece, with a meeting devoted to preparations for the aftermath of the country’s departure. But the Saturday finance ministers’ meeting had been so cantankerous and emotional that Tusk decided at the last minute to assemble only the eurozone leaders, in one last attempt to iron out their disagreements. He was very worried: acutely aware that the Saturday sessions were tantamount to failure, and determined to avoid a complete collapse. The national ambassadors of all the EU countries had also been scheduled to meet for a session devoted solely to dealing with what would come after Greece left the euro. Tusk cancelled it.
The leaders’ summit took place on Level 80, the secure top floor of the dreary council building – a large space with wood panelled walls, where delegates sat around a big oval table or wandered off to confer or make calls – and in Tusk’s smaller office, three floors below. Though there were more than two dozen people in attendance, the meeting essentially revolved around a negotiation between Merkel and Tsipras, mediated by Tusk and François Hollande. The first of their sessions came about three hours into the meeting, when Tusk called a break and summoned the other three into a smaller discussion.
“It’s like extensive mental waterboarding,” said a senior official at the time. “They [Merkel and Hollande] need to see if he [Tsipras] is really going to do it.”
Most of the leaders of Europe were mere bystanders to history in the making. They dined. They sipped white wine, made small talk, and napped, while their aides waited in the delegates’ rooms on other floors. The two Italians, Renzi and Draghi – prime minister and central banker – had time to get to know one another better. Juncker, when not sleeping, sat with Draghi to study the complex arithmetic for a bridging loan to forestall a Greek default on its debt repayments. Lagarde and Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, were occasionally engaged by Tusk. The rest idled. The president of Lithuania and the prime minister of Slovenia got fed up and left early.
“We’d never seen anything like this,” one person said. “Three or four people meeting separately and making decisions, and everyone else with nothing to do, some of them dozing. People don’t like that. It left scars.”
Merkel and Tsipras spent more than 10 hours cloistered away from the summit, locked in their own psychodrama, which would make or break the euro. Tsipras, uncomfortable with economic detail, asked if he could bring in his finance minister, Euclid Tsakalotos. No problem, Merkel said – but then, of course, she would need Schäuble. Faces dropped, then lightened. She was only kidding.
Schäuble’s time-out was quickly deleted from the paperwork as gratuitous. If there was going to be a deal, there would be no Greek exit from the euro. If the summit failed, this would be the outcome in any case: there was no need to spell it out.
Tsipras’s own red lines quickly became clear: first, he did not want the IMF involved in another bailout – or at least wished to be spared the embarrassment of requesting IMF assistance. Second, he did not want to submit to the creditors’ insistence that he roll back some of the legislation passed by Syriza – to reverse some pension cuts, halt privatisation, and reinstate some public-sector workers – on the grounds that it had not been approved by the eurozone. Third, and most significantly, he could not accede to Schäuble’s Luxembourg trust fund, which he saw as an outrageous European attempt to pilfer the Greek family silver.
At one point late on Sunday night, Tusk summoned Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, into a smaller meeting with Merkel, Hollande and Tsipras, who an observer described as “very unhappy”. Rutte had a particularly tough position on the demand that Tsipras roll back the legislation the eurozone had not approved; Tusk saw him as a representative of the eurozone’s northern and eastern fiscal hardliners, along with the Finns, Slovaks, and Baltic states. It was Lagarde who helped fix a formula to defuse the legislation issue, according to participants in the negotiation: brought in by Tusk to discuss the matter with Tsipras, she proposed that while some of the laws would have to be undone, others could survive on “humanitarian grounds” – to cushion the impact of austerity for the poorest Greeks.
By three in the morning, things looked bleak. The Greeks and the Germans were immovable. The French and the Italians were alarmed. And the rest of the eurozone countries – including Portugal, Ireland, and Spain, which had suffered through the austerity conditions imposed by their own bailouts – were increasingly unwilling to make concessions to Greece. The willingness to do Athens any favours had melted away.
At this point, Hollande left the meeting and took 10 of his aides, including Sapin, to the office of the Italian delegation. The French president knocked on the window: “Is Matteo there?” He went in and asked Renzi: “What should we do about Greece?” After half an hour of conversation, Hollande and Renzi resolved that Greece had to stay in the euro at all costs. Renzi then went to Merkel and Tsipras, and implored them to strike a deal. “Angela,” he told Merkel, “now you have to decide.”
Half an hour later, at 4am, Tusk was confident enough that an agreement was near that he reconvened the entire summit. A breakthrough appeared to be at hand, although the Greeks were still muttering about the IMF and the Luxembourg trust fund. But then Tsipras disappeared for half an hour to make phone calls to Athens. When he returned at 5am, he was pale and intransigent. No deal. Merkel was similarly stony-faced. But Hollande and Tusk would not countenance failure. Tsipras told them the trust fund was “impossible and unacceptable”.
Tusk again broke up the summit and ordered the Greek, German and French leaders into another session. It was the most brutal of the entire weekend – and came perilously close to forcing Greece’s expulsion from the euro. For three hours, the leaders debated Schäuble’s €50bn Luxembourg trust fund – but none of those present could agree on the figures or the structure. Tusk feared he was presiding over a historic failure. By 6.30am, he was resigned to defeat: he had concluded that Merkel and Tsipras were more concerned about not returning home looking like losers – they were actively seeking ways not to agree.
Almost everyone except Merkel and Tsiprasregarded the final sticking point – the trust fund – as faintly ridiculous. The €50bn sum was seen by the others present as an irrelevance: nobody could imagine where Greece was going to find €50bn in assets to privatise, and the idea of surrendering them to a trust fund in Luxembourg was an insult to which no government could possibly agree. “It is not possible to generate this €50bn,” one senior official involved in the negotiations said. “Everyone knew this.” Both Lagarde and Juncker regarded the idea as “symbolic, but ridiculous,”. Other participants recalled that they were astounded to see the trust fund become the ultimate obstacle to an agreement after five years of crisis, describing it as “stupid”, “nonsensical” and “senseless”.
But for Merkel it was a bottom line, an achievement to take home to an increasingly sceptical parliament. For Tsipras, the fund was damaging, but if he had to swallow it, he insisted that it be based in Greece rather than Luxembourg, so he could at least claim some kind of sovereignty over the arrangement. Merkel conceded the point, but she would not agree to Tsipras’s request that half the fund be earmarked for investment in Greece; she would only allow €10bn to be diverted for that purpose, while the other €40bn would pay off Greek debt and aid its ailing banks. There was still no deal. Tsipras faced returning home to a calamity. Merkel wanted to give up, and suggested holding yet another summit two days later.
And then Tusk’s phone pinged. It was a text from Rutte, the Dutch prime minister. He and several other leaders who had been sidelined in the negotiation but were carefully following its progress had assembled a proposal they thought could break the deadlock – Rutte’s text to Tusk suggested that Merkel’s €10bn pot for investment in Greece be increased to €12.5bn. Hollande tried to talk her into it, but she balked. Tusk and Tsipras agreed to the new formula, said to have been devised by the Portuguese prime minister, Pedro Passos Coelho.
Tusk appealed to Merkel’s sense of history, of her legacy. He told her he could not believe that the eurozone was flirting with catastrophe because of a paltry €2.5bn. The European Union was on the brink of political suicide. Merkel agreed to talk about it, to run through the figures and look at different templates for structuring the fund.
A deal was nearly at hand. At 6.30am, Tsipras asked if another member of his team could join the final session to help draft the compromise deal. Heads turned to see Glenn Kim, a Californian investment banker of South Korean heritage, walk into the room – the only one of the Greek negotiators wearing a tie. “It was such a strange thing,” one senior official recalled. “He came straight into the leaders’ meeting. People were surprised – but by that time it was just so late, people were so tired, and it was just one more strange thing.” Kim, a 20-year veteran of Lehman Brothers, who had been sent to London to wind down the bank’s European operations after its collapse, had a sure grasp of the arcane detail of financial catastrophe – which is why he had been hired by Varoufakis, earlier in the year, to beef up an inexperienced Greek team in their negotiations with European creditors.
Now he had joined the negotiation, along with Merkel, Tsipras, Tusk, Hollande and Tsakalotos, for the decisive final steps. After 17 hours shut up together in the European Council headquarters, the eurozone leaders had finally struck a deal. At 8.39 on Monday morning, the Belgian prime minister, Charles Michel – the first leader to grab his phone – sent a one-word tweet: “Agreement”.
In the end, Tsipras had capitulated to a script written in Berlin – reneging on his election pledges and splitting his own party, which did not prevent him from winning the snap election he called in September. But the bigger question may be what the chastening experience of that tense weekend did to Germany and Europe. Schäuble’s bid to banish Greece from the eurozone had not succeeded, but it had resurrected the spectre of German bullying – the outcome of the summit, Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote, amounted to a demonstration of German power at the expense of German leadership.
Merkel had listened to Schäuble, opted not to stop him, and then in the end, overruled him – perhaps less for the sake of saving Greece and the euro and more to avoid being blamed for the unforeseeable consequences. When it was all over on Monday morning, her reflections on the deal were typically pragmatic: “The advantages,” she reasoned, “outweigh the disadvantages.”
Yanis Varoufakis: How Europe Crushed Greece
Sept 8 2015 published in New York Times.
ATHENS — Since the beginning of Greece’s financial crisis in 2010, two prime ministers have been swept from office after they were forced to adopt an unfeasible package of austerity measures in exchange for a bailout from the troika, as the eurozone authorities — the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund — are known. It pains me to watch the same fate befall a third prime minister, my friend and comrade Alexis Tsipras.
In July, when Mr. Tspiras was forced to capitulate to the troika’s latest “program,” it spelled the end of our government. It also caused a split in our party, Syriza, between those who reluctantly agreed to implement the program and the rest of us (approximately 40 Syriza members of Parliament, out of a total of 149) who did not. The general election set for Sept. 20 is a result of this crisis.
For my part, having resigned as finance minister over the troika’s ruthless, humiliating imposition, I plan to sit this one out. I will not contest my parliamentary seat in a sad election that will not produce a Parliament capable of endorsing a realistic reform agenda for Greece.
Nor can I support the adoption of a troika program that everyone knows is destined to fail. There was a clear consensus, shared not only by myself and Mr. Tsipras, but also by Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, and officials at the International Monetary Fund, that the new bailout deal was not viable.
I will not, however, join those who think that exiting the eurozone, to bring about a major devaluation with a reintroduced drachma, is in itself a program for Greece’s recovery.
The cause of this continuing trouble for Greece lies in the eurozone’s existential crisis. The pioneers of the single currency, of whom Mr. Schäuble is the last active member, were undecided whether the euro should be modeled on the international gold standard of the interwar period or on a sovereign currency, like the dollar.
The gold standard relied on strict rules that were unenforceable during a crisis. In a severe downturn, these imposed the greatest burden on the worst-hit economies and thus made exit the only alternative to a humanitarian crisis. This is the reason that President Franklin D. Roosevelt took the United States off the gold standard in 1933, expanded the money supply and helped pull America out of the Depression.
A sovereign currency, or state money, demands a different, more flexible set of responses based on political union, as the French government and others have recently proposed. The great questions that Europe must answer are: What kind of political union do we want? And are we prepared to act quickly enough to prevent the fragmentation of the eurozone?
Europe’s indecision is a result of a deep rift between Berlin and Paris. Berlin has traditionally backed a rules-based eurozone in which every member state is responsible for its own finances, including bank bailouts, with political union limited to a fiscal overlord’s possessing veto power over national budgets that violate the rules. Paris and Rome, cognizant that their deficit position would condemn them to a slow-burning recession under such a rules-based political union, see things differently.
It was in the context of this standoff that Mr. Schäuble felt that accepting an alternative plan for Greece’s recovery, in place of the troika’s program, would weaken Germany’s hand vis-à-vis the French. Thus little Greece was crushed while the elephants tussled.
We had such a plan. In March, I undertook the task of compiling an alternative program for Greece’s recovery, with advice from the economist Jeffrey Sachs and input from a host of experts, including the former American Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, and the former British chancellor of the Exchequer Norman Lamont.
Our proposals began with a strategy for debt swaps to reduce the public debt’s burden on state finances. This measure would allow for sustainable budget surpluses (net of debt and interest repayments) from 2018 onward. We set a target for those surpluses of no more than 2 percent of national income (the troika program’s target is 3.5 percent). With less pressure on the government to depress demand in the economy by cutting public spending, the Greek economy would attract investors of productive capital.
As well as making this possible, the debt swaps would also render Greek sovereign debt eligible for the European Central Bank’s quantitative easing program. This in turn would speed up Greece’s return to the money markets, reducing its reliance on loans from European institutions.
To generate homegrown investment, we proposed a development bank to take over public assets from the state, collateralize them and so create an income stream for reinvestment. We also planned to set up a “bad bank” that would use financial engineering techniques to clear the Greek commercial banks’ mountain of nonperforming loans. A series of other reforms, including a new, independent I.R.S.-like tax authority, rounded out our proposals.
The document was ready on May 11. Although I presented it to key European finance ministers, including Mr. Schäuble, as the Greek Finance Ministry’s official plan, it never received the endorsement of our own prime minister. The reason? Because the troika made it abundantly clear to Mr. Tsipras that any such document would be seen as a hostile attempt to backtrack from the conditions of the troika’s existing program. That program, of course, had made no provision for debt restructuring and therefore demanded cripplingly high budget surpluses.
The fact that few people ever got to hear about the Greek plan is a testament to the eurozone’s deep failures of governance. If the “Athens Spring” — when the Greek people courageously rejected the catastrophic austerity conditions of the previous bailouts — has one lesson to teach, it is that Greece will recover only when the European Union makes the transition from “We the states” to “We the European people.”
Across the Continent, people are fed up with a monetary union that is inefficient because it is so profoundly undemocratic. This is why the battle for rescuing Greece has now turned into a battle for Europe’s integrity, soul, rationality and democracy. I plan to concentrate on helping set up a Pan-European political movement, inspired by the Athens Spring, that will work toward Europe’s democratization.
Naturally, this will take years to bear fruit — years that Greece cannot afford. In the meantime, I shall continue to promote our plan for Greece’s recovery as a true, viable alternative to the troika’s impossible program.
THE REAL THING: AN ANTI-AUSTERITY EUROPEAN GOVERNMENT
This is the transcript of a speech delivered by James K Galbraith at an ETUI conference in Brussels on 20th March 2015 and published April 7th 2015 in Social Europe.
I have just come from Athens where I have, for the last several days, had the high privilege of working with the government of Greece, and especially with the Finance Minister, my very good friend, Yanis Varoufakis. I’ve actually had two occasions, so far, to observe the drama that’s unfolding in Europe from a close vantage point.
The first one was during the week of the negotiations that led to the landmark agreement on 20 February. And then, in these last few weeks in Athens, which had their own drama as they led up to a series of payments, including a very substantial one that was due to the International Monetary Fund. All of which were, let’s say, events followed with distinct interest around the world and especially in financial circles.
What is at stake in Greece goes very far beyond merely financial questions. It goes beyond the question of the fate of a small and historically very badly governed country with weak institutions that has suffered abominably in the wake of the crisis over the last five years, losing 25% or so of its output. And having unemployment rates that are comparable to those in the United States during the worst period of the Great Depression, unemployment rates that exceed well over 50% for the youthful population, and facing severe stresses in every aspect of (its) public and social (activitie)s.
It goes, as I say, even beyond that very grave situation, which is visible on every street and on every wall in Athens. It goes beyond that to the future of Europe and beyond that, to the meaning of the word democracy in our time.
But what the Greeks have done, and this is what has attracted me to become as engaged as I could be in this situation, what they’ve done in the past few months, is astounding. They have dismantled – I think definitively – and banished an entire previous political class.
They have ended a rather rotten and corrupt previous, two-party duopoly, and they have installed a government of dissidents, activists and professors – including, of course, a Finance Minister who was for years, until very recently, banned and blacklisted from Greek television by the then existing authorities. That man is now the Finance Minister of the Hellenic Republic.
And the Greek people did this, by the way, in the face of a wall of resistance from their own media, which continues, and in the face of a wall of incredulity from their European partners, which also continues. I would say that possibly nothing quite comparable to this has happened in Europe since the election of Solidarity in Poland at the end of the 1980s. And it is obvious that it has had a galvanising effect on the political atmosphere outside of Greece, in fact, in many places around Europe, and is spreading an aspect of possibility that was not there before, opening up a window of opportunity. I believe the word in Spanish for the atmosphere that is emerging is ‘podemos‘. And that is the breeze which is wafting fresh air over the entire European scene.
I have been, of course, watching the European scene with some care for the last five years especially, and the transformation, the psychological transformation, is already perceptible outside of Greece. Inside Greece it is a fundamental fact that one can observe at any time.
At the same time it is also true that the new government confronts an elaborate, well-laid political and economic trap. It’s more than a trap actually. It’s more like a minefield or an obstacle course that is entirely of human construction. It’s purely artificial.
The trap is comprised of deadlines, deadlines for reviews, deadlines for payment schedules and cash flow hurdles, that were put in place before the 25 January election, in some cases with a view towards the likely timing of that event. It is comprised also of caps on liquidity assistance to the banking system, on issuance of T-bills by the government and the ability to discount T-bills at the European Central Bank – which came into play after the election.
Each of those measures can be, and has been, rationalised as a measure of supervision or oversight or precaution. We can argue about whether that’s a legitimate rationalisation or not. I would have my questions, my doubts. But what one can say for sure is that the ensemble of these obstacles and, let’s say, precautionary financial measures, is, from a macroeconomic standpoint, from a psychological standpoint, fundamentally counterproductive. It adds materially to the instability that is perceived with respect to the Greek economy, to the instability of the financial system. It adds materially to capital flight, and to the political pressures that have been on the government and to which neither the government, nor the Greek public has shown any inclination to bow.
To get past the trap, to get through the minefield, has required manoeuvres of a fairly high order of adroitness in at least three stages. The first was to establish, in principle, that the previous agreement, the Memorandum of Understanding as it was called – which had subjected Greece to a form of colonial government, according to which practically everything that the government did was dictated from outside, by the institutions known as the troika – was a thing of the past. That it was finished, that the Greek public had rejected being ruled this way in an open and decisive election. And, at least in principle, that proposition was accepted, after some fairly rancorous negotiations that led to the communique on 20 February. This was a major step forward, although one that did come at the cost of deferring certain measures in the SYRIZA election platform, including raising the minimum wage, not reversing privatisations that have previously occurred and accepting a primary surplus target, which, although lower than the previous completely unrealistic one, was and is still constraining on the Greek government.
The second stage, still ongoing, involves establishing this reality at the operational level. It involves establishing a professional, acceptable working relationship between the international teams, which do have a legitimate role. And that role is finding out the facts and assuring the European partners of the good faith of the Greek government. And that has required an adjustment on the part of the international teams who came back to Athens, I think, still hoping that they could conduct business as they have done before, basically under the same operational rules that had governed under the Memorandum of Understanding. They found out that that was not the case and there was a certain amount of friction that was associated with that discovery.
I think it’s fair to report, in the last several days, some progress has been made. Technical discussions were suspended for a while, with the proposition being that the teams would present their request for documents from the Greek government in writing. And the teams are now doing that. They are working to present a list of documents that they require and that request will be responded to. The Greek Ministry of Finance has issued a statement saying that they view this as a constructive development. It’s putting the relationship between the two sides on a proper footing of good order and regular exchange of documents.
A third stage in the process is one which has to be resolved at the political level. And that involves restoring the liquidity of the Greek government and giving enough financial stability to the banking system so that economic activity can begin to resume. That’s been a major problem, especially in these last two months, in the atmosphere of fear that surrounded the election and the atmosphere of uncertainty that has succeeded it. Basically, banks have suspended most of their activity and a great deal of capital has left, requiring, as I say, these intermittent and rather small increases in liquidity assistance to keep the system in function.
But that is not sufficient to allow the government the breathing space, either to develop its programme of reforms, or to begin to open up the prospect of some recovery in the economy. And a decision to move past that mechanism of destabilisation had to be taken at the political level and it is possible that that was accomplished, in part at least, in Berlin (on March 29).
And here I think, as was the case before the 20 February agreement, the pragmatic intervention of someone, for whom I don’t ordinarily offer a great deal of effusive praise, namely the Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, has to be acknowledged. It’s a pragmatic step which may amount to a turning of the corner and an easing of the pressures that have been extremely problematic in recent days from the European Central Bank.
So as these manoeuvres, as I call them, mature, there emerges an interesting possibility. And that is the possibility of a politically stable, anti-austerity government in Europe, led, as I think you probably have observed, by forceful personalities, and presiding over an economy which is so far down that it has no place to go but up. And that may well be, within a short period of time, on a track of some recovery, some improvement in jobs performance and stabilisation of its external debt situation.
This would be in the wake of a crisis that was brought on by the neoliberal financial policies of the early part of the 2000s. Which was then aggravated and prolonged by the austerity ideology that succeeded the crisis, by the profoundly counterproductive policies with which Europe has reacted to the crisis. And so the possibility that an anti-austerity government might lead the beginning of a recovery from the austerity regime is, I think, a present reality and it is, of course, a nightmare in certain quarters.
It is, of course, the worst thing that could happen if you happen to be associated with the larger political system, and the larger economic policy that Europe has been pursuing. And there are a lot of people who are associated with that ideology and with those policies, and you can see their reaction in recent days.
They have thrown down one last line of mines and barriers, which has been visible to everybody, and I think it deserves a word, even though it is not strictly speaking a word about economic policy. That is a campaign of political character assassination, which has been aimed specifically at one pillar of the potentially forthcoming Greek revival, and that is my friend the Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis.
This part of the game is a familiar one, certainly familiar to Americans. Americans of my generation have seen versions of it aimed at progressive, or ostensibly progressive, political figures on various occasions.
There are always two major features to a successful attack of this kind. One of them is the great principle that freedom of the press is a concept that applies most particularly to those who happen to own one, which, in this case, are the rightists who own banks, which own media companies.
And the second essential element is the altogether reliable response, especially in large audiences, when references are made in public to the fact that the human male is normally endowed with a reproductive organ. Did I state that with sufficient delicacy to get away with it?
Of course in the cases of my friend Gary Hart and of President Clinton, there were issues here which, if you happen to care about those things, could be raised. In the case of President Obama, we have a man whose visible family life is more pristine than any since Ozzie and Harriet. But, in his case, that second essential element was therefore wholly absent, which is why President Obama was not taken down by this kind of attack.
And in the case of Yanis Varoufakis, the attackers have essentially the same problem. Real life affords no plausible foothold, or is it perhaps a handhold? or is it perhaps a finger hold? And, so, the whole thing had to rest on an alleged fleeting gesture in a long ago quasi-academic lecture. The phrase for this is: scraping the bottom of the barrel.
But it is something which has been part of the political and media dynamic, aimed in a very specific way at the one figure who has done the most to transform the political climate of economic policy discussion in the world, and especially in Europe, in the last four months. And his position in doing that was built upon a record of years and of millions of words of effective and largely accurate analysis of what has been going on.
So we need to watch and be careful not to make too little of these matters, which may seem trivial or may be easy to dismiss, but which are in fact, intended to achieve a very specific political purpose.
This I think will pass. It will pass because the leader of the Greek government, the Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, is the real thing. I’ve gotten to know him, not as well as I know Yanis. But I have to say, I’ve met a lot of political leaders in my time and I have not known very many who approach Alexis in his ability to assess a political situation with a very cool eye and to make a very solid judgement about it, which is why he came from nowhere – after less than four years, really, in less than a year and a half – to be the Prime Minister now of a European country.
The Greek people after all, elected their government in complete defiance of their own media and they have rallied behind it in the crisis that followed the election by margins that reached 80%, which meant that half or so of those who voted against them in the election have come to support them, at least at some point in the period that followed.
There is a spirit of dignity in Athens that is worth a great deal more than money. That’s something very profound to observe. I’ve only observed it on maybe two or three occasions in a lifetime. And that is a spirit which is contagious and it may be felt in Spain, and it may be felt in Portugal and it may be felt in Ireland, and elsewhere before long.
So I hope that you will not find me too portentous if I convey to you just how much this particular moment, and the chance to participate in it, has meant to me by closing with the words of Zola: la vérité est en marche et rien ne l’arrêtera. Merci.
THE GREEK DRAMA – A preliminary review of the first four weeks of the SYRIZA government.
by GSC co-chair Isidoros Diakides February 2015
The Greek epic has already acquired all the features of an exciting action thriller, with all the appropriate drama (and hubbub), with constant surprises, twists and turns. And we still are at the opening scenes.
The exhilarating SYRIZA win, with thousands of activists across Europe gathering in Athens on election day to be part of ..”history in the making”, the cliff-hanger on the night on whether SYRIZA will secure an absolute majority, the breathtaking speed with which the new government was formed and hit the ground running, all helped to set the scene and the pace of the thriller.
The speed, the exceptionally high-calibre of the new cabinet and the frenetic diplomatic and charm offensives of Alexis Tsipras and his ministers, kept the interest and the energy levels high and in a certain way has taken Europe by a storm. Overnight, Tsipras and Varoufakis, his finance minister, became celebrities, with very few other European politicians having anywhere near the same levels of recognition.
And then the skirmishes around last week’s early negotiations with the powers that be, with the daily and sometimes hourly twists and turns, leaks, claims and counterclaims, accusations and counter-accusations, have raised the suspense and the adrenalin levels even higher. It is hard to believe that the elections happened less than a month ago; normally a new government would still be finding its feet and only just starting to get its hands on the reins.
But the dramatic last few days, with all these hastily convened Eurogroup meetings (3 within a week) have already started raising certain questions and it is worth taking stock. Is the SYRIZA government up to the mammoth task it has undertaken? Is the mighty self-appointed queen of Europe Angela Merkel and the international neo-liberal establishment behind her, worried? Have the Greeks already started capitulating against the overwhelming odds ? Are they still on course to deliver what they had promised before the elections, or have they already compromised?
Although it is early days yet, the pundits have started already expressing opinions.
But before we go any further, lets remind ourselves of a few basic facts:
Firstly this is not, and never was meant to be, a fight of equals; what we have is a small David fighting with his bare hands against a well armed mighty Goliath. No one, not least the Greeks who voted for SYRIZA, expected the powers that be to concede the Greek demands without an almighty fight and, in any case, not so soon. They know that the odds are overwhelmingly stuck up against them and they are prepared and bracing themselves for a long and most probably bloody fight. No one in Greece had any illusions about that when they voted SYRIZA.
The simple fact that Greece has no option but to challenge the very basis of the current political status quo of the whole EU and beyond, as the only conceivable way of extracting the country from the deadly embrace of its “saviours”, ensures that this is so.
Secondly, this is not, and never was meant to be, a simple battle of wills and force (otherwise the Greeks would not stand a chance and they never had any illusions about it). It is also about brinkmanship, tactics, determination, speed of reactions and much more.
Thirdly it has to be understood that this is not an economic issue, however much the establishment wants to present it as such. It is a political issue and one of major importance to all of us across Europe and beyond. If it was just an economic issue, the amounts involved, (even including some write off of parts of the debt to render it sustainable), albeit significant for Greece (whose GDP is accounting for less than 2% of EU’s GDP), are so small within the European context (say in comparison with what the UK had to pay to bail out its banks, or the EU’s current Quantitative Easing) that a solution would have been found already. The real sticky point, and the reason why Germany and the interests it represents at this junction, are determined to prevent an early solution, is their, justifiable in my view, fear of what they call “contagion” ie that if the new Greek government appears to be winning any serious concessions, or is allowed to even try its alternative to the current austerity based, neo-liberal political orthodoxy and status quo, it will inevitably encourage other EU countries to follow the same path, resulting in a fundamental political shift of monumental proportions.
Finally, this it is not a simple match between two teams, with the winner decided within a fixed amount of time. What we’ve seen until now is nothing more than the opening shots, the early skirmishes, jostling for tactical positions for the real fight which is yet to come.
Crucially this week’s negotiations had very little to do with the actual substance of the matter; they were more about impressions, messages and tactical positioning, hence the almost absurd emphasis on wording. It is true that the Greek government, desperate to secure some breathing space in order to start its reforms and the implementation of its pre-election promises, has its eye on the substance. The other side however is far less interested in the substance, its main priority being to ensure that the Greek government appears defeated, chastened, discredited, so that it sends a message to any other country whose people may be thinking of going down a similar path. You can bet that whatever deal is negotiated, either now or in the near future, Ms Merkel or Mr Shauble and any others amongst her acolytes speaking on her behalf, would present it, whatever the deal, as a humiliating defeat of, and a climbdown by, the Greeks. And of course, at the same time, this tactic also aims to divide the Greek people, the party of SYRIZA and their supporters across the world.
Within this context, some early observations are:
SYRIZA and the Greek population know that they cannot win this uneven battle on their own. They need to both marshall support from outside forces and ensure that the country inside is united in its resolve and behind the government’s efforts.
And on both these counts, the early indications are that the Greek government has scored some important points. Last week, opinion polls indicated that 65-80% of all Greeks, regardless of what they had voted two weeks earlier, are behind the government and trust it. The change in the public mood, the new self-confidence, pride and determination is palpable. For the first time we have mass demonstrations in Greece in support, rather than against, the government of the day.
Similarly with securing allies from outside the country. Tsipras’s government knows that it cannot rely on the current political establishment in other countries and therefore he has to reach beyond them, speaking directly to the public and the civic institutions, like social movements, trade unions and so on. Again European public opinion is turning. Awareness of the issues and with it support for “little David” has been growing with amazing speed. Even the traditionally hostile German public (few weeks ago up to 75% of the Germans wanted Greece expelled from the Eurozone) is turning (last week an opinion poll indicated that now 51% want Greece to stay!).
These are useful tactical positions, achieved by the new government in preparation for the big battles that lie ahead.
As regards last week’s bruising exchanges and negotiations, it is obvious that the first priority of the Greek government was to avoid a direct clash at this early stage, something that the other side seemed determined to provoke; witness the constant provocation, the insulting language that German ministers, officials and puppets have used eg Shauble calling the Greek proposals vague, naiveand Trojan Horse like, or the CE of the German Stock exchange likening Tsipras and Varoufakis to the Taliban and so on; these very undiplomatic and provocative statements, were released on the run up to the last crucial meeting of the Eurozone finance ministers, i.e. what was meant to be a major “diplomatic” effort to negotiate a mutually beneficial agreement between two EU partners!!
The Greeks seem to have resisted these challenges and by carefully using constructive language, constantly talking positively about, and even praising, their opponents, always stressing that what they want is a fair deal to the benefit of all sides and so on, they have managed to create a pressure on the hawks and to avoid this trap of an early showdown. Instead they seem close to having secured the desperately needed breathing space they are seeking.
On the substance of the draft agreement reached yesterday (which has already been attacked by Greece’s enemies and a number of friends and so called friends as a sell-out, compromise, betrayal etc) the bottom line is that, whatever the wording and the public statements, when you analyse it carefully it does not close the door on Greece eventually achieving virtually everything it wants, (albeit with some measures probably delayed for a few months, hence the current statements from SYRIZA MPs that they are still on course to deliver their promises within their 4 year term).
Whether they will succeed (and lets not forget that it is still a case of a small David and a mighty Goliath) remains to be seen. But at the moment they seem to be on course, however heavy the odds are against them. The average Greek is relieved that this early showdown was avoided at this stage and they seem satisfied that they have at last a government that is, at least, fighting on the international scene on their behalf. They have no illusions (never had) about the difficulties ahead, or the size of the odds against them.
The showdown may still happen at some time down the line; but, when it happens, if it happens, the SYRIZA government would have a lot more public support, both inside and outside the country, having demonstrated that it did everything possible to avoid it.
I think that the Greek government needs right now all the support we can all provide, always remembering that this is not just about Greece, but about all of us, all the anti-austerity, anti-corruption and democratic movements across Europe. The stakes are high for all of us. This is our war and Greece happens at this junction to be the frontline.
The bottom line is that now that the war has started, either the one side will win, or the other. If we allow the Greek government to fail at this stage, we will not only see the current historic window of hope closing and the whole progressive movement set back for a very long time. We will also have allowed a situation whereby the only outlets left for the growing popular discontent with the current neo-liberal, austerity based, anti-democratic stranglehold of all our countries, would be the growing extreme Right and neo-fascist forces, (complemented no doubt, due to the frustration and defeatism, by a small rump of probably equally dangerous extremely militant nihilistic movements).
And within this context, anything anyone of us says or does, at least for the next few months whilst the hope is still alive, has to be filtered through an assessment of which side of this war it helps and which side it undermines. Above all, I would suggest that we must avoid for the moment, however apprehensive we some of us may be, any talk of betrayals, compromises and what have you, however inevitable such things appear and however habitual these things are within our, undoubtedly well meaning, left circles.
And of course, the drama keeps unfolding and, like all of us, I cannot wait for the next instalment of this exciting thriller, not just as a passive viewer, but, hopefully, as an active participant.
Greece must not stand alone.
Support for the new Greek government is vital and in Labour’s interests argues Mike Davis, editor of Chartist 1.2.2015
Hope, dignity, bread could summarise the slogans of the newly elected Syriza party in Greece. It has been an historic victory, the first radical left party to be democratically elected in Europe since the Second World war. Expectations of the people will be high for the new government. So too will be opposition from banks, corporate capital and neoliberal politicians.
Elected on a landslide vote, gaining 149 seats – two short of an absolute majority and 36% of the poll – Syriza, led by the 40 year old Alexis Tsipras, has grown from small beginnings 10 years ago to replace the discredited socialist party Pasok as the hope and champion of the Greek people for an end to five years of crippling austerity.
Spain 1936 & Chile 1970
Parallels with the newly elected Spanish popular front republican government of 1936 or the Chilean government of Salvadore Allende in 1970 are not fanciful. The commitments of these two earlier governments to radically redistribute wealth and power, to nationalise the banks and secure a new deal for workers and peasants are not dissimilar to the radical commitments of Syriza to end the debt burden and poverty of a beleaguered people resulting from the harsh conditions of the bailout, to build a ‘bottom-up’ social transformation, and to end corruption and tax avoidance of the corporate and political elites.
The Spanish republic was rapidly immersed in conflict as anti-democratic forces allied with the monarchy and landed gentry took the form of a military insurrection led by General Franco. After a three year civil war the Republic ended in defeat. Salvadore Allende’s radical ‘Marxist’ government was upended in a bloody coup supported by the US CIA. Both reactions led to the deaths and imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of workers, socialists, communists and democrats.
There are two striking differences with republican Spain and Greece in 2015. There is no Hitler or Mussolini to aid Greece’s home grown fascists in Golden Dawn and the deep state military which has been licking its wounds since the overthrow of the Colonel’s junta in 1974.
Secondly, globalisation. This means a Syriza-led Greece faces a more complex corporate financial opposition in the shape of the neoliberal dominated IMF, European Central Bank and EU. These powerful forces that have already wreaked huge damage on the Greek economy through its compliant governments are now positioning to overturn the democratic will of the Greek people. Read more here
Why we must support a SYRIZA government in Greece
Andrew Burgin writes on the current crisis in Greece and the prospect of SYRIZA coming to office (published in Left Unity ) 10.12.2014.
Greek prime minister Antonis Samaras has called a presidential election, which will take place this month. It’s the parliament that elects the president but if the electoral sums don’t add up – which so far they don’t – and no president is elected, then the government must call a general election. In the event of a general election, it is likely that SYRIZA – the party of the radical left – will be the largest party and will form the government. Concerns about a SYRIZA victory are expressed clearly by the stock market: the Athens exchange closed 12.8% down the day the presidential election was announced.
The poster reads: “Their struggle is your struggle too! Everyone to the streets!”
The markets may be down, but there is great popular enthusiasm for a SYRIZA victory. Support for the party has grown hugely over the last few years because it rejects the austerity policies which have brought Greece to crisis point and will it break with neoliberalism.
This will be the first workers’ government elected in Europe since the Popular Front took office in Spain in 1936. It would be a government in which the working class holds office in the parliament while the other institutions of state will remain in the hands of the ruling class. This will create a highly unstable political situation. Take the police force for example – at the last election it is said that nearly 50% of the police voted for the fascist Golden Dawn party and some in the military have close links with the fascists and have helped train their combat units. The British establishment bears a good deal of responsibility for the existence of Golden Dawn as it was Churchill’s shameful decision to turn on the communist partisans who fought Nazi Germany alongside Britain in the second world war which sowed the seeds for the rise of the extreme right in Greece today.
What will this government face and what will our responsibilities as socialists in Britain be?
A radical left government will face an enormous and deepening economic and social crisis. As it implements social and economic reforms, breaking with the policies that have wreaked disaster on Greece, it will immediately come under pressure from the Greek ruling class and the extreme right. It will also face external pressure too from the European Union and the international financial markets.
Its central defence will come from mass support in the streets and in the communities. The social solidarity centres that have been created by the movement in the last few years will also have an important role to play. A SYRIZA government will be rebuilding a country whose economy has been almost destroyed by the demands of international capital and whose social fabric has been ripped apart.
Over the last five years the Greek economy has been attacked on all sides. It has been the laboratory rat for austerity Europe. Greece has been the testing ground for the most extreme neoliberal policies contrived by the Troika – the IMF, the European Central Bank and the European Commission – which is attempting to definitively end the era of the welfare state, stamping out all social spending in the interests of the international financial system.
The social and economic results are heartbreaking: the health service has been decimated. Primary health care has almost been wiped out and public health care is also non-existent. Vaccinations have stopped leading to epidemics of malaria. The budget for medicines has been cut by 70%. Pregnant women without private health insurance receive no care and are turned away from hospitals even in labour. Unemployment remains at 26% with youth unemployment almost 60%. Salaries and pensions have been slashed. More than half a million children are malnourished.
Despite the harshest austerity measures the Troika are promising further deep spending cuts and a further slashing of pensions. The people of Greece have reached the end of the line with austerity and thus anti-austerity SYRIZA has become increasingly popular. Rising from 4.8% in 2009 to 27% in June 2012, the party now consistently polls higher in public opinion polls. SYRIZA had the largest single party vote in the recent European elections.
A future SYRIZA government has pledged to reject the EU’s austerity Memorandum and has said it will seek to introduce significant social and economic reforms. It has promised to launch emergency programmes for food and healthcare, raising wages and pensions etc. It will repudiate the debt burden which is strangling the country. The mere election of such a government will create a wave of expectation not just in Greece but throughout Europe. Millions will be moved to action.
Already the markets are anticipating a SYRIZA victory and are increasingly worried about the reforms that the party has promised to introduce. The Financial Times reported on December 9th that senior SYRIZA politicians had recently presented their economic programme to a meeting of hedge funds and banks. One senior analyst from Capital Group, a fund with $1.4tn of assets, described the programme as ‘worse than communism’ and ‘total chaos’: ‘Everybody coming out of the meeting wants to sell everything in Greece.’ Bank of America Merrill Lynch described the SYRIZA economic programme as a ‘Greek Tragedy’. There is no doubt that international investors will attempt to frighten the Greek people into rejecting SYRIZA in a re-run of the project fear that enabled the conservative New Democracy party to gain a narrow victory in 2012.
The Wall Street Journal has called SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras ‘the Hugo Chavez of the Balkans’ saying that his economic programme will set him on a ‘collision course with the rest of Europe’. This will be true in terms of the European elites – but not with the people of Europe.
Of course there is a possibility that the stakes are so high – support for Podemos in Spain indicates that the trend of resistance to neoliberalism is not confined to Greece alone – that European capital will seek a compromise. Some reports suggest that Angela Merkel will agree to a comprehensive Greek bailout if SYRIZA sticks to its position on debt write off. Such an option is fraught with problems for Mrs Merkel, not least the boost it would give to far right German nationalist forces, objecting to what they see as payouts to southern Europe.
If this happens it would be a remarkable development: European capital would have been forced to end its ultra-neoliberal experiment in Greece and thus its death knell would be sounded elsewhere too. There would be a potential for the unravelling of the austerity narrative that the left must be ready to seize upon.
But as things stand currently, we must be prepared for a SYRIZA government to come under enormous attack. And if and when it does, the defence of this government – that has pledged to increase public spending, renationalise services and restore pensions, wages and jobs – will doubtless be the priority for the whole movement in Greece. And it will have to be so throughout Europe too. The anti-austerity measures that a SYRIZA government will seek to introduce can only be won and defended through mass struggle.
The might of international capital has to be confronted – a potentially overwhelming task, but the last two years of surviving and fighting back in the context of extreme hardship mean that the Greek people have already built strong foundations and structures of community solidarity and resistance. The self-organising social solidarity centres and initiatives which have sprung up all over Greece, in which SYRIZA plays a major part, provide social pharmacies, food distribution with farmers bringing food directly to the people, mental health care, drop-in centres, social kitchens, skills shares and much more. In essence, everything that communities need to support and sustain themselves: already these are centres of working class social and economic resistance and will no doubt develop as centres of political resistance in the event of a state onslaught on a SYRIZA government. It is in this arena that a government of the people will be defended by the people. The Greek people have led the struggle against austerity in Europe organising no less than 35 general strikes over the last four years.
SYRIZA will be under tremendous pressure and there may be those within SYRIZA that succumb to those pressures. Should there be such a capitulation by the party as a whole then this would be a disaster for Greece, and would also be an enormous setback for the European Left project. It is a situation that we must all work to avoid by extending active solidarity and support.
There are those on the left who seek to write the obituary of this government before a shot has been fired – they claim that SYRIZA represents only a somewhat more radical version of the Wilson governments of the 1960s and 70s in Britain. And further they argue that SYRIZA has already capitulated to capital. If this is the case then capital, as noted above, hasn’t noticed. The challenge to these left critics of SYRIZA is whether they will support the formation of such a government and whether they will fight to defend it – it constitutes the front line in the struggle against the system which will destroy us all unless, collectively, we resist. As SYRIZA activist Stathis Kouvelakis states, ‘The moment of truth is near! For SYRIZA, the radical Left and the popular forces, things are quite clear: fight to the end, win the battle or perish!’
The defence of a workers’ government in Greece will not just be a test for those in SYRIZA itself but it will be a test for all who consider themselves socialists across Europe. A defeat in Greece will open the path to Golden Dawn, an openly neo-Nazi organisation and that would strengthen reaction across the continent.
It will be the responsibility of the labour and trade union movement here and elsewhere to come to the aid of this government. We will need to support the measures it takes and work to strengthen it against its enemies, to help it withstand those pressures. We will need to build international networks of support and political and material aid.
In 2011, the Greek resistance veterans Mikis Theodorakis and Manolis Glezos launched a ‘common appeal for the rescue of the peoples of Europe.’ This appeal called for a united European front of action to turn back the tide of austerity sweeping through Europe. In Britain, that appeal led to the founding of the Greece Solidarity Campaign (GSC). The GSC has built strong links with the movement in Greece. We have organised a number of important delegations and have organised solidarity aid through our Medical Aid to Greece campaign. The Trades Union Congress and many individual unions support the work of the GSC. The ground has been prepared for the scale of solidarity that is required. The movement in Britain is well placed to engage with the work of supporting the people of Greece in what will be their hour of need.
Support for a government of the Left in Greece will also come from the new parties of the left throughout Europe including our own party, Left Unity. Our recent party conference took the decision to become a sister party of SYRIZA through seeking affiliation to the European Left Party. We will rally to support a government that promises to break with austerity.
We must all now urgently rise to this challenge.
595 Women Cleaners show the way after an 11 month battle against government and Troika!
by Sonia Mitralia. Member of “Women’s Intiative against the Debt and Austerity Measures” and member of the “Committee against the Debt – CADTM Greece”.
After 11 months of long and bitter struggle, 595 public sector cleaners have become the embodiment, the symbol, the soul, the life itself of the most ferocious resistance against the politics of austerity in Greece.
These women have subsequently become a political force and become the leadership of the current resistance movement, daring to confront such powerful enemies as the Greek government, the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the IMF.
And yet, after 11 months of struggle, having defied the government and the TROIKA and become their main enemy, after having short-circuited the implementation of austerity measures and maintained a strong media presence, these fighting women cleaners are not always considered as a distinct political force by those opposing the politics of austerity.
The fact is that, from the moment the Troika-imposed austerity measures were inflicted, women came out en masse on the streets and their resistance seems to have its own quite distinct dynamic, rich in political lessons.
In the four years of austerity politics which have transformed Greece into a pile of social, economic and above all human ruins, people have spoken only a little about the lives of women and of course even less about their struggles against the diktats of the TROIKA. Therefore public opinion has been surprised by this exemplary fight which is conducted exclusively by women. But is this fight really so surprising?
Women have participated en masse in the 26 general strikes. In the “movement of the indignant” they occupied city squares, set up camps and demonstrated. They mobilised in the front line in the occupation of the television channel ERT which the government had summarily closed and they were involved in continuing the independent running of ERT. Acting in an exemplary way, they became the soul of the strike committees of the universities’ administrative staff fighting against the “reserve pool” policy, (ie transfer at 75% of normal salary to a pool for 8 months and then the sack). 25 000 public servants, the majority of them women, will be the victims of staff cuts in public services. And it is also women who are the vast majority of volunteers in the Social Solidarity Movement and the self-managed solidarity health dispensaries which are trying to deal with the humanitarian crisis and the collapse of the health services.
The mass participation of women in the resistance movements against the destruction of the welfare state by the politics of austerity, is not surprising and did not happen by chance. First, as we know, the position of women sits in the eye of the austerity storm. The destruction of the welfare state and of public services, is throwing their lives up in the air: since the majority of public sector workers are women and women are the main users of public services, it is women who are being doubly hit by cuts of all types. They have therefore a thousand reasons for not accepting this historic regression in their position as women, which would equate to a veritable return to the 19th century!
It is true that in the early phases women did not identify themselves as a distinct political force, sharing as they did the same demands and forms of struggle as men in the movement. They were there in very large numbers, that was it.
However, women very quickly distinguished themselves by their forms of struggle and their radicalism, within the pioneering struggle against gold mining in Skouries, in Chalkidiki, Northern Greece, taking on the Canadian multi-national Eldorado Gold. Even if the press and public opinion ignored the significance of their gender in the way they were fighting, the police did not! In fact the riot police targeted women quite specifically, using ferocious and selective repression in order to terrorise the whole population through the women and in order to annihilate all disobedience and the whole resistance movement. Criminalised and imprisoned , women were subjected to humiliating violence, sexual violence too, specifically ‘tailored’ to their bodies and their gender.
In the second phase, women develop initiatives and forms of struggle of their very own.
It started when, in order to implement the harshest part of the austerity programme and comply with the terms imposed by the “lenders”, the government targeted as first priority the women cleaners at the Ministry of Finance, Inland Revenue and Customs offices. In August 2013 it moved them into “the reserve pool” (which meant that for 8 months they would be paid only 75 % of their salary of 550 Euros per month, and then be sacked). The government followed exactly the same strategy as in Skouries. The objective was to attack first the weakest and those with the least chance of getting support, ie the women cleaners, and then follow it up by attacking the bulk of the employees, making 25,000 civil servants redundant. And it was timed at the moment when the resistance movement was getting exhausted by the relentless austerity measures.
The government believed that this “category of poor women workers from the lowest class”, paid a meagre 500 Euros a month would be dealt with quickly and squashed like flies. It assumed the women were not very intelligent, which explains the origin of the cleaners’ slogan : “we are not stupid bitches, we are women cleaners”.
The aim was to privatise the work of the women cleaners to make a gift to private cleaning companies. These mafia-like companies, known for being champions of tax-fraud, would then re-employ them at 200 Euros a month (ie 2 Euros an hour), with partial insurance, no employment rights – conditions akin to semi- slavery.
These women decided not to give in. They had been sacked from their jobs, sacrificed to the demands of the TROIKA; they were between 45 and 57 years old, many single parents, divorcees, widows, in debt, responsible for children or unemployed husbands or caring for disabled dependants; they had no access to “early retirement ” pensions and that after 20 years of working ; they had no chance of finding another job. So they decided to take control of their lives and take their lives into their own hands.
It was this small group of women who decided to change the established forms of action adopted by traditional trade unions. They have taken the initiative to self-organise, with a nucleus of women cleaners at their core, who had already fought and won battles 10 years ago achieving long term contracts. They have worked hard, like the proverbial ant and like the spider, they have patiently woven a web of national scale.
Because these women employees of the Ministry of Finance had been thrown on to the street and there was no longer any point in going on strike, they decided to build a human wall on the road in front of the main entrance of the Ministry of Finance on Syntagma Square, the central Athens square which is the most emblematic location of power.
It is not by chance that it is women who have created these imaginative forms of action.Overlooked because of their gender and social class, marginalised by the unions and having no links with the traditional organisations of the Greek Left, they were forced to make a lot of noise so that they could be noticed and heard. They had to create an image in order to become visible.
Instead of passive strikes and short-lived ineffective days of action, they chose direct collective action. They use non-violence, humour and spectacle. Wearing crowns of thorns on their heads at Easter, nooses around their necks outside the party offices of New Democracy, with music and with dance, they are demanding the immediate reinstatement of each and everyone.
These are novel actions in Greece. The women have occupied and blocked the entrance of the Ministry of Finance and they chase the officials of the TROIKA when they want to enter the Ministry, forcing them to flee and use the back service door with their bodyguards. They confront and engage in physical skirmishes with the special police units. Every day they are devising new forms of action, which are reported in the media and are attracting the attention of the whole population. In short, they are breaking the isolation.
In this way, things that are usually presented as lifeless and soul-less statistics, with numbers describing record levels of unemployment and poverty, all these abstract concepts, become human, acquire a human face, become real women in flesh and blood, who moreover have strong personalities and their own political will. They have names like Litsa, Despina, Georgia, Fotini, Dimitra … And through their example, their courage, their perseverance and their determined rage to win , they are giving back hope to all the victims of austerity.
But .. it is important to be aware that the riot police are bullying these women almost every day to make an example of them, because their bosses fear that the women’s actions might spread. The whole country is watching this sad spectacle of the women, many of them older women, who day after day are trampled on, manhandled and injured by the police “Rambos”, who could be their sons. And why? The simple reason is that the TROIKA itself wants to break them, because they are an example, a model, to be followed by all those who are oppressed; because they are at the front line of the rejection of austerity politics, not just in Greece, but everywhere in Europe; because their fighting spirit could become infectious…
More than ever, the struggle of these 595 heroic women cleaners, is also our struggle. Let’s not leave them fighting alone. They are battling for us, let us battle for them too. Let’s organise European and International Solidarity.
The end of tolerance and the new populism
Talk of growing Eurosceptic fringe groups masks ideological difference behind a single label of reactionary populism. Marina Prentoulis and Lasse Thomassen urge the left to show its new face June 2014 published in Red Pepper.
Reflections on the 2014 local and European election results have heavily stressed the rise of the populist far right. Clearly they have emerged as a leading political force at home and abroad, but this is not the whole story.
UKIP, the French Front National and the Danish People’s Party have declared an end to tolerance of ‘the others’. This refers both to migrants and asylum seekers invading ‘our’ space, and the elites hidden in Brussels and Strasbourg governing without ‘our’ consent. Whether ethnic others or political and cultural elites, they are not part of ‘us’, and our intolerance of them is promoted as natural.
Seen from the mainstream and from the left, these parties capitalise on the anxieties experienced within communities increasingly subject to internal social diversity and external economic control. Although UKIP et al. present themselves as rebels against ‘establishment politics’, they are nothing more than its monstrous offspring. This is the same politics that has allowed democratic accountability and participatory citizenship to take the backseat as neo-liberal interests dominated Europe.
The old parties are clearly in crisis and losing electoral ground to new parties, right, centre and left. Concerned politicians of the mainstream parties are calling meetings to tackle the problem. In their minds, the challenge no doubt has little to do with them and the neo-liberal policies they have been backing. It is a challenge that has, for some time now, been dismissed as ‘populist’—a description which writes it down to the ignorance and fears of the ‘peoples’ of Europe.
Bridging the divides
The success of the radical left has drawn less attention, but there has been steady progress towards an alternative ‘populist’ discourse. Like the populism of the far right, the narrative of these groups is also intolerant of current political elites, and cast in the name of the peoples of Europe.
Mainstream politicians currently accord both the far right and the left the same label: Eurosceptics. But the new left populism that is slowly winning ground across Europe is rooted in different legacies and pursues a very different vision than the more successful far right. Whatever their success, one thing is sure: enough of traditional politics.
New parties, coalitions and movements are developing across Europe. In the south there is Syriza in Greece (26% of the vote in the EU elections); Izquierda Unida (9.9%) and Podemos (7.9%) in Spain; the Five Star Movement (21.2%) and L’Altra Europa con Tsipras in Italy (4.3%). To the north: Die Linke (7.4%) and Front de Gauche (6.3%) in Germany and France respectively.
The popular mobilizations that have followed the economic crisis in southern Europe contain a new (anti-)political discourse attacking the customs of representative politics. The Spanish indignados and Greek aganaktismenoi entertained the possibility of direct, participatory democracy through people’s assemblies. In Italy, the Five Star Movement brought into play the non-political, anti-establishment outsiders. Even in the UK, neo-liberal political and economic logic has been attacked by the Occupy movement and anti-austerity campaign groups.
Although these protests have now left the streets, their motives are still alive in the minds of European peoples. Political organisations on the left are trying to channel the indignation at every level from the local to the supranational.
In southern Europe particularly, the left has had to rethink its definitions of a ‘party’ and engage with grassroots networks that extend beyond traditional limits. Where the left was previously divided, it is uniting to form coalition parties which embrace the whole spectrum of socialist ideals.
Syriza in Greece emphasised not only the importance of electoral politics but also the creation of solidarity networks cutting across ideologies and social groups. The Izquierda Unida party in Spain has set aside fetishized issues to declare itself as a vehicle for social change coming from below—in response to the biggest surprise of the Spanish elections, Podemos, a non-party arising from the indignados movement. In Italy new party-coalitions, such as Sinistra and Ecologia y Liberta are forming. In France, the Parti de Gauche is broadening to become the electoral coalition Front de Gauche.
Two forms of populism, two forms of intolerance: one right, one left. While the far right has embraced the populist label, the left is sceptical. The two cannot share the same kind of populism, but it would be dangerous to cede its language to the right.
Where they speak in the name of the people as the ethnic nation, the left must articulate a different collective idea. What do ‘the people’ mean for the left? Against what is ‘the people’ set?
Where the far right is intolerant of difference, the left must embrace it; where the far right is reactionary and regressive, the left must be progressive; and where the far right complains about politicians, the left must complain about the political system. Switching from Cameron to Miliband to Farage does not make the political system more inclusive and participatory. This is where the new alternative forms of left politics can make a real change.
The left must not cede the populist voice to the right, but embrace it. It must do so not in fear of the other or in fear of change, but in the name of the people and against the political and economic elites. The left should embrace progress—things ought to precisely not be what they used to be.
Like populism, tolerance is no univocal idea. As the ‘end of tolerance’ gains ground, left-wing populism has a twofold objective. First, to stand firmly against the far-right populism. Second, to dispel the myth that politics must continue as it always has. People demand to be heard and their anxieties and grievances have to be taken seriously. A new left is taking shape, one that has been with these people in the streets of Europe.
Dr Marina Prentoulis lectures in Media and Politics at the School of Political, Social and International Studies, University of East Anglia. Dr Lasse Thomassen is a Senior Lecturer in Politics & International Relations, Queen Mary, University of London.
Welcome to the Age of Resistance – Costas Douzinas 1. March 2014
On 17 June 2011, I was invited to address the Syntagma Square occupation in Athens. After the talks, following the usual procedure, members of the occupation who had their number drawn came to the front to speak to the 10,000 people present. One man in particular was shaking and trembling with evident symptoms of stagefright before his address. He then proceeded to give a beautiful talk in perfectly formed sentences and paragraphs, presenting a complete and persuasive plan for the future of the movement. ‘How did you do it?’ I asked him later, ‘I thought you were going to collapse.’ ‘When I started speaking’, he replied nonchalantly, ‘I was mouthing the words but someone else was speaking. A stranger inside me was dictating what to say.’ Many participants in the recent insurrections and revolts make similar statements. My recent work addresses this stranger in me (a usual description of the unconscious), this miraculous transubstantiation shared by people in different parts of the world.
The ‘new world order’ announced in 1989 was the shortest in history, coming to an abrupt end in 2008. Protests, riots and uprisings have erupted all over the world. Neither the mainstream nor the radicals had predicted the wave and this led to a frantic search for historical precedents. A former director of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service thought it, ‘a revolutionary wave, like 1848’. Paul Mason agrees: ‘There are strong parallels – above all with 1848, and with the wave of discontent that preceded 1914.’  Alain Badiou suspects a possible ‘rebirth of history’ in a new age of ‘riots and uprisings’after a long revolutionary ‘interval’. Eventually however history is miscarried or stillborn and Badiou strongly disagrees with my statement that we have entered an age or resistance.
Read whole article here
‘THE BIRTHPLACE OF DEMOCRACY NURTURES 21ST CENTURY FASCISM. LESSONS FROM THE PAST, CALL FOR SOLIDARITY’
Reviewing the revival of fascism in Europe. How history repeats itself?
by Eleni Katsouni
Fascism comes from the Latin word ‘fasces’ which refers to a bundle of sticks representing an absolute authority of the state. Based upon the ideas of militant nationalism, imperialism and racialism, fascism considers mankind as priori unequal. Nazism, an expansion of fascist ideology, supports the active promotion of the perfect race.
Fascism turns against minorities including immigrants, anarchists, homosexuals, communists and working class organizations. Fascist parties unify people using populist demagogy, reactionary ideas or stereotypes such as xenophobia and religious sectarianism which are lying around in a latent mode and which have the potential to guide public behaviour. Finally, fascism turns against democracy itself, which is already restricted by the free market policies.
The deceitful ideologies of fascism and Nazism prevailed in 1930s, in an era of economic recession in Italy and Germany respectively. In 1919 the Italian Fascist party took advantage of the post-war instability and the public fear that the communism might spread. It started with small military groups and increasingly prevailed. At the stage of fascism’s great rise it misled more than ever the masses promising them that they would be benefited by the re-distribution of the wealth. They took finally the power and incrementally moved towards dictatorship with the support of military leaders, businessmen and the ruling class who were those that initially benefited from the new status quo. The destructive consequences of fascism and Nazism were soon massively revealed with the Holocaust being the most tragic among them.
The totalitarian regimes have received a very negative connotation in European history. Fascism in the way it emerged the previous century cannot revive. However, the current financial crisis and the failure of the governments to deal with its political and social consequences are breeding the return of fascism.
The 21st century fascism is bred by the need to secure social control of masses from below which cannot be controlled anymore by hegemonic domination. The most striking example is the sudden rise of Golden Dawn in Greece, which has attracted international attention. Golden Dawn is the less camouflaged Fascist party in Europe, openly acting violently against immigrants even in front of the police. Ironically, Greece had lost a substantial part of its population due to Nazi’s outburst. In Italy too, the CasaPound movement is increasingly expanding making fascism more popular than ever in the post Second World War history. Tolerance to far-right is observed elsewhere in Europe, including Austria, France and Hungary as well as in USA. In Cyprus the Golden Dawn has ties with the very popular far-right Elam party. In this respect, lessons taken from the fascism in the previous century should not be ignored.
The past and the sudden rise of Golden Dawn in Greece
‘The new ruler must determine all the injuries that he will need to inflict. He must inflict them once and for all.’ Niccolό Machiavelli
According to Friedman’s theory periods of economic and political crisis provide fertile ground for the privatisation of the public property. In order this to be achieved the shock treatment should be adopted. The shock treatment entails imposition of multiple strains simultaneously so as to minimise the time that the masses have to realise them. Thus, the public becomes more receptive to solutions that would boost the free market economy. The dictatorships that were imposed in Latin America in ‘70s were a trial of Friedman’s economic strategy. Under the historical circumstances of the 21st century, financial rather than military dictatorships undermine democracy without directly attacking democratic institutions such as the parliaments. In this respect, Greek economic and political crisis could be viewed as second trial of Friedman’s strategy.
Golden Dawn’s popularity rapidly roused during the period of economic recession and particularly at the time that the technocratic government lead by Papadimos replaced the democratically elected PASOK government. It was imposed as a ‘marionette’ by the Troika in order to increase political surveillance and control. That period was characterised by severe social and political tension. The Greek society was used to a political system characterised by clientelism and cryonism which fell apart. Consequently, the public trust in democratic institutions declined significantly and the masses entered a psychological state of cognitive dissonance. People who enjoyed an illusion of wealth and luxury lifestyle before the crisis suddenly became neo-poor and found themselves in a vicious circle of debt. Under these circumstances, more and more fertile ground was provided for the far right to rise. The more the financial crisis becomes aggravated the more the Greek society seems willing to tolerate the rise of fascism. Golden Dawn reached its popularity peak when the austerity measures where imposed. In 2010’s local elections in Athens it received 5.3% of the vote. In 2012’s elections it received 6.9% of the votes gaining 18 MP positions in the parliament. Read the full article here Reviewing the revival of fascism in Europe-Eleni Katsouni
Can Greece’s SYRIZA change Europe’s economy?
The biggest threat to Greece’s left-wing coalition is itself. Yanis Varoufakis 3.12.2013, Boston Review
SYRIZA, a growing political party in Greece, is an acronym that stands for “Coalition of the Radical Left.” For Americans, the idea that a party on the radical left could gain power is unthinkable, and it was for Greeks, too—until very recently. But the harsh austerity measures that the European Union imposed on Greece after its economic collapse have created extreme conditions in Greece: six in ten young people are unemployed, wages and pensions have been cut, national income has fallen by one quarter.
Europe is currently caught in a negative feedback loop, from which the established political process is unable to escape. For three years now, an endless stream of spending cuts and tax hikes has dominated the Greek Parliament’s agenda. A SYRIZA win may be the jolt that Europe needs: a victory by a pro-European party committed to keeping the country both in the Eurozone and in the European Union, but a party that, importantly, because of its radical disposition, is prepared to open up the conversation at the level of the European Council so that, at long last, European leaders address the problems they have been ignoring over the past five years. Back in June, in a New York Times op-ed, James K. Galbraith and I alleged that “SYRIZA may be Europe’s best hope,” and six months later this still holds true.
Though SYRIZA has existed in some form since the early nineties, its popularity has exploded amidst the Euro Crisis, now polling somewhere between 20 and 30 percent. Since June, it has begun to take a lead in opinion polls, as the governing coalition’s promises of ‘Greek-covery’ are turning sour. Elections are not due until June 2016, but the present government has a wafer-thin majority that may dissolve after a likely electoral defeat in the May 2014 European Parliament elections. If a general election is called, SYRIZA could become the largest party in Greek Parliament.
The question then arises: what effect would such a victory have on SYRIZA itself? Can a radical party of the left maintain its cohesion in the face of neoliberal central bankers and their conservative counterparts in Germany, the Netherlands, Finland, France, and Spain? Under such circumstances, any government of the left would be short-lived. If European officials and political leaders anticipate the power SYRIZA might have, SYRIZA’s capacity to bargain, to forge new alliances, and to shatter the eerie silence in the European Union’s Brussels headquarters will be severely circumscribed.
A brief history of SYRIZA
SYRIZA’s history can be traced back to the Red Army’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, crushing the so-called Prague Spring. At the time, Greece was in its second year of a neo-fascist military dictatorship, and the Communist Party’s leaders were geographically divided: most were in the Eastern Bloc countries, but many languished in Greek prisons. Ideological division followed, as most of the imprisoned leaders opposed Soviet invasion of Prague, while those on the other side of the Iron Curtain toed Moscow’s hard line. By the time the Greek dictatorship collapsed in July 1974 and the Communist Party was legalized, the two groups had totally fallen out, and Greece acquired two communist parties: the anti-Soviet, pro-Europe Communist Party of the Interior, whose leaders were inside the country during the dictatorship, and the Communist Party, referred to by its counterpart as the Communist Party of the Exterior. SYRIZA is, roughly, the heir to the Communist Party of the Interior.
Of course, since the mid-seventies, the political landscape has changed completely. In 1981 the socialist party of Greece, PASOK, came to power, led by the charismatic Andreas Papandreou. Its platform was considerably to the left of any of Europe’s social democratic parties, advocating, among other things, Greece’s exit from the European Economic Community (EEC), from NATO, the removal of all U.S. military bases, a program of mass socialization of industry, and large increases in public spending. The two communist parties struggled to find ways of positioning themselves against PASOK, which threatened to usurp their monopoly on the Greek left.
By the late eighties, PASOK’s agenda became watered down. It abandoned the ideas of exiting NATO and the EEC, and only socialized companies that had already gone bankrupt in the wake of the global recession in the early 1980s. The Communist Party and the Communist Party of the Interior forged an alliance called Synaspismos (meaning ‘coalition’), hoping to benefit from PASOK’s fading popularity amongst left-wing Greeks. The general election in 1989 resulted in a hung Parliament, and the new Synaspismos party, which had risen to around 15 percent of the national vote, forged an opportunistic coalition with the right wing party, New Democracy, on the foundation of a shared antipathy toward PASOK and Andreas Papandreou.
This temporary alliance lasted only a few months, during which it set out to drag Papandreou through the courts on paper-thin evidence of embezzlement. Once acquitted, Papandreou made a comeback, and Synaspismos began to fade in the polls. Soon after that, the leaders of the Communist Party within Synaspismos decided to pull out of the coalition, causing yet another major split in the Communist Party, as many of its leading members chose to stay in Synaspismos.
One does not need to be left-wing to recognize the folly in the logic of forcing a bankrupt government to take out huge new loans.
The Communist Party, running separately, returned to an anti-European Union agenda. Secure in its dogmatic, Stalinist mantra, it fared better than Synaspismos, scoring an average of 5 percent of the national vote. In contrast, Synaspismos was engaged in perpetual introspection, attempting to broaden its appeal by becoming a loose confederation of groups spanning the whole gamut of the left, including disenchanted social democrats, and green, eco-activist, anti-racist groups. To pull such disparate, and often recalcitrant, groups together, Synaspismos became what I jokingly call ‘Synaspismos Squared’: although already a coalition of different factions (recall that synaspismos means coalition), Synaspismos entered into a coalition with groups that did not want to become part of Synaspismos, but sought a political alliance. Thus in 2004 Synaspismos turned into SYRIZA, ‘The Coalition of Radical Left.” The emphasis of the party is on the “radical,” providing the outsiders with a pretext for fusing themselves with Synaspismos. It is no great wonder that such introverted shenanigans appealed little to the electorate; from the mid-1990s until very, very recently, SYRIZA was barely staying afloat, polling between the minimum threshold (3 percent) for securing parliamentary representation and 5 percent. That is, until the Euro Crisis hit in 2010.
In the October 2009 elections SYRIZA won just over 5 percent of the popular vote, while the PASOK socialists of Mr. George Papandreou, Andreas’s son, won a crushing 44 percent of the vote, forming the government that was to oversee Greece’s implosion a few months later. A year after Greece’s bankruptcy, opinion polls reported that PASOK had tumbled to 10 percent, while SYRIZA was catapulted to almost 30 percent, vying for electoral victory. When the political system could no longer avert a general election, the May 2012 poll confirmed this popularity by propelling SYRIZA to second place, just behind the right-wing New Democracy. A second election followed a month later, in June 2012, with New Democracy securing 29.7 percent and SYRIZA 26.9 percent.
The economic crisis has continued unabated and likewise SYRIZA seems to have established a steady lead in the polls. What might a victory mean for Greece, for Europe, indeed for SYRIZA itself?
The threat to SYRIZA
SYRIZA supporters and activists are concerned that, like PASOK, an electoral victory may put them on the path of compromises that they are loath to make. Just as PASOK entered the government in 1981 with lofty left-wing pronouncements, which it quickly shed on its road to establishment-status, so SYRIZA’s leadership, under the extreme strains of negotiating Greece’s bankruptcy with Berlin, Frankfurt, and Brussels, may well discard SYRIZA’s radical agenda for social and economic change in Greece. It is a well-founded fear that SYRIZA’s leaders cannot afford to ignore.
Most Greek political parties, including the present ruling coalition between New Democracy and PASOK would agree that the terms and conditions of Greece’s so-called bailout programs are unfair and that the troika of lenders (the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund) are imposing conditions on Greece that are permanently damaging the country’s social fabric and are impossible to fulfill. One does not need to be radical, or even left-wing, to recognize the folly in the logic of forcing a bankrupt government to take out huge new loans on the condition of savagely reducing national income (since this is unavoidable result of harsh austerity during a deep recession). Yet, the governing coalition is acting like a model prisoner, obeying the troika’s instructions while, on the side, pleading for a rationalization of the imposed policies, terms, and conditions.
SYRIZA’s position differs from this in two important ways. First, SYRIZA believes, I think correctly, that the only way of getting the European Union to treat Greece reasonably and raise the punitive austerity measures is to spearhead an immediate re-think of the ‘Greek Program’ through, first, the unilateral suspension of policies demanded by the troika, and, second, via the use, or threat of using, its veto power in the European Council.
Secondly, SYRIZA wants to combine this tough bargaining line with a radical agenda for social change in Greece, including a major shift in the tax base, the re-introduction of a decent minimum wage, and more funding for social security and public health provisions. Above all else, SYRIZA activists want a government that breaks away from the cozy relationship between political operators, big business, and European ‘technocrats’, which, based on the bailout funds, is building a new kleptocracy in the country.
In this context, SYRIZA activists’ greatest fear is that an accommodation in Europe, following an initially tough SYRIZA line, may be won at the expense of abandoning its radical domestic agenda. Such fears naturally feed into tension between the various groups that make up the SYRIZA confederacy, some of which have not fully accepted the leadership’s commitment to keeping Greece in Europe’s monetary union. While last summer SYRIZA members voted overwhelmingly to convert their loose coalition into a unitary political party, nevertheless SYRIZA’s leadership faces two tasks that many think of as contradictory. On the one hand, it must avoid turning SYRIZA into the sort of party its current supporters do not want to belong to; and, on the other hand, it must attract undecided voters in numbers sufficient to render the party not just electable but powerful enough to bargain with the European leaders effectively.
How SYRIZA Could Change Europe
If SYRIZA had taken the advice of several economists from the United States and Britain and advocated for Greece to exit the Eurozone, its leaders would have been able to unite all its factions under the soothing banners of autonomy, unilateral default, and a heroic exit from the web of neoliberal institutions and constraints that constitute the Eurozone. However, such a platform would maximize SYRIZA’s internal cohesion at the expense of rendering it unelectable. After all, a majority of Greeks understand that a Greek exit would bring unbearable costs for most. So, SYRIZA has chosen the difficult position of keeping Greece within the Eurozone while struggling to change the Eurozone’s fundamental incongruities from within. Can a small, poverty-stricken, bankrupt country stay within the Eurozone while opposing some of its basic tenets? Can a SYRIZA government fund the basic humanitarian projects that the left is determined to enact?
A SYRIZA government would have the right to veto all decisions in the European Council.
Continued membership of the Eurozone means that the government will have no capacity to create liquidity, in the absence of a central bank to back it up. SYRIZA activists claim that they will find the money by taxing the rich, but the rich have taken their euros to Switzerland, Frankfurt, London, and New York, while the middle class has gone bankrupt, no longer receiving income from vacant properties yet having to pay ever rising property taxes on them.
Meanwhile, a SYRIZA victory would place the Greek state’s finances and the banking system under greater strain from the European Union: Brussels, Frankfurt and Berlin are likely to retaliate by cutting off the Greek government’s access to some of its revenue, like the monies that the European Central Bank returns to the Greek government for super-profits it has shamefully earned through previous purchases of Greek government bonds, EU structural funds, etc. In the meantime, a victory might also cause a moderate bank run among depositors fearing an ECB suspension of liquidity provisions to the Greek banks.
While a SYRIZA government might successfully negotiate these financial pressures during its first weeks in power, it certainly will not be able to fund the programs it has been promising at the same time. How can it, at that point, not disappoint its activists, confirming their fears that SYRIZA will sell out, above and beyond the pale compromises? The only way forward for a SYRIZA government is to succeed in changing Europe’s economy. This is a tall order, but, I think, not impossible. Indeed, there is no alternative for SYRIZA or, indeed, for any other political party in Europe’s periphery that aspires to a stable social economy.
Europe has been in denial for five years now. During this period, debts, banking losses, unemployment, and gross imbalances have been accumulating while Europe’s leaders whistle in the wind. If London could use its veto power at the European Council level to shield the City’s bankers from regulation, surely Athens can, and ought to, do likewise in defense of its citizens. Invoking national interest clauses, a SYRIZA government would have the right to veto all decisions until Europe’s approach to the Greek program is re-examined. Such a move may loosen tongues and kickstart a debate that will, hopefully, lead to much-needed, rational, modest policy changes throughout Europe (e.g. those that Stuart Holland, James Galbraith and I have been advocating). These measures can, indeed, allow parties like SYRIZA to combine a pro-European line with domestic policies that defeat the old and new kleptocracies, grant working people a chance to breathe, and, last but not least, restore faith in democracy.
The leaders of Italy, France, and Spain perhaps do not yet feel desperate enough to break the wall of silence at the level of the European Council. But Greece is now so wretched and distraught that its government has a moral imperative to speak, even to act, out. In the current political scene, only a SYRIZA-led government could do that. This would give Portuguese, Spanish, Italian and, more importantly, French officials the opportunity to change the discourse surrounding Europe’s economic climate. But even if no one follows SYRIZA’s lead in Europe, a SYRIZA government would still have sufficient bargaining power, courtesy of its veto, not only to bring about life-saving changes to the “Greek Program” but also to force the European Union to re-think its systemic crisis and thereby bring about a radically different, systematic treatment.
SYRIZA may have the opportunity to transform Greece and change the course of European history, but this is a task that makes Odysseus’s journey look like a walk in the park. It will not be easy to take power while remaining faithful to its radical agenda and maintaining its cohesion on the ground. It remains to be seen whether SYRIZA’s leaders can pull off this miracle. I think they can, as long as they do not issue silly promises before the next election, and maintain a truly radical agenda aimed at changing Europe by steadfastly standing their ground, proposing to German, Spanish, Dutch citizens a European agenda that restores the dream of a shared European prosperity.