In seeking an end to austerity Greece’s left government is fighting for all Europe says Marina Prentoulis
The victory of Syriza on 25 January was a victory for the whole of Europe. At last, we have a left government willing to challenge austerity and the neo-liberal policies presented to Greeks, British, Spanish and all other Europeans as the only alternative to the financial crisis. Already from the start of the very short electoral campaign in Greece, it became apparent that this election was not just a Greek matter. The conservative European governments rallied their forces in support of the conservative former Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras: the threats directed at Greek voters from the German government supported by the Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and Eurocrats were indicative of the growing panic in conservative European power centres. But fear and threats are rarely the best strategy to silence a nation into submission. The clear victory for Syriza with around 37% of the vote and just two seats short of 151 majority, signalled a desire for a different solution to the problems not only of Greece but also of the eurozone and the European Union as a whole.
The cost of the politics of austerity in terms of the human suffering and devastation they have caused is rarely mentioned in Brussels. For the champions of neo-liberal policies the debate is always framed in economic/technical terms in order to obscure the obvious. It is not about the debt. The economy is not a separate sphere of activity outside the reach of politics. So what are the political realities?
A write off
First, the Greek debt is not viable. No one needs a sophisticated knowledge of economics to figure out that if the debt was 120% in relation to GDP at the beginning of the crisis and has now increased to 177%, something is really not working. We know (Germany better than all of us) that in order for a country to rebuild its economy part of the debt has to be written off. This is what happened in 1953 when at the London conference 50% of the German debt was written off. Most importantly however, the repayments of any debt have to happen when the economy of a country has started to grow. Again, this is what happened in 1953 when the remaining amount of the German debt was only repaid after many years and as the German economy grew. It is only because of this agreement that Germany was able to repair its society and economy in order to become today the most powerful partner of the eurozone. The same courtesy has not been extended to Greece. We know that the money (€240 billion) received in bailouts had little to do with benefitting the Greek people and everything with the recapitalization of the banks, the architects of the financial crisis. If anyone has benefited from the European Union it is the German and French banking system, one of the reasons why it has become difficult to defend the EU to countries like Britain.
A separate issue but closely connected to the debt is the conditions associated with the bailouts (the memoranda). It is here that neo-liberalism cannot hide its intentions and failings. Rather than restructuring Greece, the imposed agreements have destroyed Greek society and have led to a humanitarian crisis unthinkable for a European country today: employment rights have been written off; the minimum wage has been reduced by over 25%; unemployment is at 27%; youth unemployment at 60%; one in four Greeks have no access to health care; privatizations have robbed Greece of national assets without bringing any benefit to the Greek state; pensions have been cut by 40%. The list of woes resulting from the austerity policies imposed on Greece is endless. The attempt to present this course of action as the only viable route for the restructuring of the Greek state is a cynical joke. It should send a clear message to all Europeans and in particular the British.
As the director of a German Bank said on BBC Newsnight just before the four month loan extension: ‘We want to continue the policies Margaret Thatcher started. The Greek trade unions cannot have power. The new government cannot increase the minimum wage’. This is their plan for Europe: to impose austerity on working people and to destroy hard-won democratic rights to benefit the rich establishment. For them, a Europe without ordinary Europeans would be a blessing, meanwhile they will compromise with impoverished Europeans living in misery.
None of us can escape the fierce battle over ideas and politics now raging in Europe. Every party in Europe advancing claims to democracy, socialism, social justice and equality has to leave aside half-baked, lukewarm declarations and stand firmly on the side of the democratic forces of Europe. The struggle of the Syriza government today embodies those ideals. With the British General Election coming in May, the Labour party has to realize that the middle ground it wants to occupy does not exist anymore. What we have learned from Syriza’s electoral victory is that the argument for the supposed benefits of austerity, any type of austerity, does not convince anyone anymore. Scotland shouted that loud and clear.
Second, we have to change the course of the European Union. Conservative, neo-liberal policies have divided the EU between North and South, effectively working against collective European interests. In order to reinstate democracy in the EU we have to advance proposals that will take into account the social, the political and the economic dimension together. The ECB has to change its role by enabling the surplus of the richer countries to be invested in the economically weaker countries of the EU. The European Parliament and other institutions that support deliberation, transparency and better representation of European people must be enhanced. If necessary we have to create new bodies that will act as a bridge between national representatives and the EU.
Finally, we must be warned by the rise of the extreme right in Europe. Neo-liberalism is fuelling nationalism and xenophobia and the need to stop that is urgent, especially in Britain where UKIP is gaining ground. We need to join the public discourse on immigration, highlighting the economic and cultural contribution of migrants. Let’s be firm in asserting that we need to create structures that welcome and enable immigrants since their contribution to an aging continent is going to benefit all of us. Measures like the Dublin agreement have reduced some European countries to detention centres and are working against our social, economic and political goals for a unified, democratic and just Europe.
Syriza is spearheading a movement of hope and a new left direction for Europe. As the outcome of the negotiations of February 20th showed, the battle is going to be fierce, bloody and it will continue for a long time. We hope that in the immediate future the Greek government will have a chance to ease some of previous austerity measures. But above all it is clear that in the next round of the negotiations Syriza will only be able to stand against neo-liberalism if all socialist and left European forces rally on its side.