this is the EU — so take it or leave it… #5. Greece and the tyranny of Brussels

“In the euro area, the countries in the periphery have nothing at all to offset austerity. They are simply being asked to cut total spending without any form of demand to compensate. I think that is a serious problem.

“I never imagined that we would ever again in an industrialised country have a depression deeper than the United States experienced in the 1930s and that’s what’s happened in Greece.

“It is appalling and it has happened almost as a deliberate act of policy which makes it even worse”. [Bold highlight added]

— Lord Mervyn King, former Governor of the Bank of England. 1

“The Greek people have been living through hell during the last six years, and unfortunately they trusted that Tsipras [PM] would put an end to the extreme austerity measures, which are combined with a total undemocratic regime. Unfortunately, instead of putting an end, he put his signature to a third memorandum, which is even worse than the previous two…

“People are back on the streets protesting for their rights and dignity because right now they’re being asked to pay taxes which amount to almost the totality of their revenue. They’re asked to give up their homes… They’re asked to surrender public property, which is privatized at very, very low prices. And, they’re also asked to give up democracy”

— Zoe Konstantopoulou, lawyer and former Speaker of Hellenic Parliament. 2

*

On 13th July [2015], the democratic elected Greek government of Alexis Tsipras was brought to its knees by the European Union. The “agreement” of 13th of July is in fact a coup d’état. It was obtained by having the European Central Bank close down the Greek banks and threaten never to allow them to open up again, until the Greek government accepted a new version of a failed program. Why? Because official Europe could not stand the idea that a people suffering from its self-defeating austerity program dared elect a government determined to say “No!”.

So begins the call for “A plan B in Europe” put together by a group of prominent European left-leaning politicians from Parti de Gauche (France), Die Linke (Germany), Red Green Alliance (Denmark), Socialist Party (SP) (Ireland), Bloco de Esquerda (Portugal), and Syriza (Greece). Top of the bill is Yanis Varoufakis (a principle author, I imagine, given some of the polemical flourishes within this signed but otherwise uncredited page-long call to action).

The piece continues:

We must learn from this financial coup. The euro has become the tool of economic and governmental dominance in Europe by a European oligarchy hiding behind the German government, delighted to see Mrs Merkel doing all the « dirty work » other governments are incapable of undertaking. This Europe only generates violence within nations and between them: mass unemployment, fierce social dumping and insults against the European Periphery that are attributed to Germany’s leadership while parroted by all the “elites”, the Periphery’s not excluded. The European Union has thus become an agent of an extreme right wing ethos and a vehicle for annulling democratic control over production and distribution throughout Europe. 3

Click here to read the full statement.

*

Now let us go back nine months – back to the eve of the Greek referendum during the dog days of last summer, and just before the extraordinary ‘oxi’ vote which momentarily reverberated across our western hemisphere.

Yanis Varoufakis [3:45 mins in]: Let me tell you something which is probably unknown. Ever since we declared the referendum and we incensed our European partners we had the most interesting proposals coming from Brussels. Perhaps this referendum and the impasse it represents concentrated several minds in Brussels and we’ve had some really good proposals – proposals we would sign on the dotted line for.

Paul Mason: You have a proposal you would sign on the dotted line for?

Varoufakis: Yes, we do.

Mason: Where is it?

Varoufakis: Well, I’m not going to tell you. It’s somewhere in this building. But the crucial part of the story is that before this proposal becomes a genuine negotiating document which we can sign off on Monday, the people have to empower us with a “no”.

From the Channel 4 news interview embedded above broadcast on July 3rd 2015 that is also available here.

You can find the same clip here on Varoufakis’ blog.

Shortly thereafter [July 5th] the people of Greece, perhaps in light of Varoufakis’ advice, went to the polls and voted overwhelming in favour of rejecting the Eurogroup deal with its demands for increasing doses of “austerity” and ‘Washington Consensus’-style ‘conditionalities’ — the enforced privatisation of public services and other forms of so-called ‘deregulation’. To which the response from Brussels was to immediately double down by issuing still harsher neoliberal demands. With this, the mask of European social democracy fell away completely.

Nobel laureate economist, Paul Krugman, was one who helped to promote the hashtag #ThisIsACoup when he wrote in the New York Times:

This Eurogroup list of demands is madness. The trending hashtag #ThisIsACoup is exactly right. This goes beyond harsh into pure vindictiveness, complete destruction of national sovereignty, and no hope of relief. It is, presumably, meant to be an offer Greece can’t accept; but even so, it’s a grotesque betrayal of everything the European project was supposed to stand for.

Left Unity (which has a loose alliance with political parties Syriza and Podemos) also sent a message of support to the Greeks:

The people of Greece have resisted every threat, every piece of establishment propaganda telling them a No vote would mean ruin, and asserted their democratic rights. This will be a No heard around the world.

Now is the time to celebrate – and to step up our solidarity ahead of the Troika’s next move. Come along to what will now be a victory rally at the TUC’s Congress House, organised by Greece Solidarity Campaign.

And the Greeks had indeed empowered their government with a resounding ‘no’, but instead of fighting on, Syriza under Tsipras’ leadership swiftly capitulated in what must be one of the fastest political U-turns of all time. In response, Varoufakis resigned, refusing to criticise his friend Tsipras, and also declining an invitation to join a small breakaway faction who hoped to restore the party’s anti-austerity ticket on which Tsipras and Syriza had stood little more than six months previously.

So there is a mystery here that remains. Varoufakis, who prides himself on openness, has simply never explained what actually happened during those most momentous days in early July. Specifically, what became of that proposal from Brussels he was so keen “to sign on the dotted line”. Surely he owes the Greek people a fuller explanation.

Moreover, while Varoufakis was quick to attribute blame for the Eurogroup failures on the inflexibility of Wolfgang Schäuble and fellow German Karl Lamers, he has to a large extent absolved other key players including, most notably, President of the ECB, Mario Draghi for their part in “the coup” (his words).

I have consistently defended Varoufakis and Tsipras and been scathing of others on the left for being too hurried in passing judgement and unduly hypercritical (as many earlier posts testify). Caught up in the drama, like others hoping Syriza’s election signified the beginning of truly revolutionary reforms, I confess that I became a cheerleader for both.

With the benefit of hindsight it is clear that Syriza and Varoufakis were both tremendously guilty of an over-reliance on the efficacy of “reasonableness” (more here), because ‘reasonableness’ only ever makes headway when it engages with opposition that is principled and reasoned. Against the irrational, it is blunt, and against the unscrupulous it becomes a danger to itself. Yet Syriza and Varoufakis seem incapable of learning this simple lesson. This is what Varoufakis wrote in the abstract to his “Confessions of an Erratic Marxist” [December 2013]:

Should we use this once-in-a-century capitalist crisis as an opportunity to campaign for the dismantling of the European Union, given the latter’s enthusiastic acquiescence to the neoliberal policies and creed? Or should we accept that the Left is not ready for radical change and campaign instead for stabilising European capitalism? This paper argues that, however unappetising the latter proposition may sound in the ears of the radical thinker, it is the Left’s historical duty, at this particular juncture, to stabilise capitalism; to save European capitalism from itself and from the inane handlers of the Eurozone’s inevitable crisis. 4

Throughout the crisis, he and the party he once represented at the Eurogroup meetings have been chewed up and spat out time and again and yet his response has been to remain unruffled and reasonable in his continued fight (hardly the right word) “to save European capitalism from itself”.

Today Varoufakis leads a parallel campaign Democracy In Europe 2025 made up of lecture tours and larger academic-style conferences making speculative calls for a Plan B in Europe. Beyond the well-meaning rhetoric, the movement is entirely bereft of strategy. And my immediate question to Varoufakis is actually this: why must we wait until 2025 to bring democracy (a gift of the ancient Greeks) back to Europe? After all he knows better than most that a week in politics is an exceedingly long time – so a decade might as well be an aeon.

Here then, to redress the balance of earlier posts (at the risk of angering readers and friends alike), I present the condemnatory appraisal courtesy of political commentator James Petras, who in March 2015 (a mere two months after Syriza were elected) wrote the following:

The vast majority of Greeks, who voted for Syriza, expected some immediate relief and reforms.  They are increasingly disenchanted.  They did not expect Tsipras to appoint Yanis Varoufakis, a former economic adviser to the corrupt neo-liberal PASOK leader George Papandreou, as Finance Minister. Nor did many voters abandon PASOK, en masse, over the past five years, only to find the same kleptocrats and unscrupulous opportunists occupying top positions in Syriza, thanks to Alexis Tsipras index finger.

Nor could the electorate expect any fight, resistance and willingness to break with the Troika from Tsipras’ appointments of ex-pat Anglo-Greek professors.  These armchair leftists (‘Marxist seminarians’) neither engaged in mass struggles nor suffered the consequences of the prolonged depression.

Syriza is a party led by affluent upwardly mobile professionals, academics and intellectuals.  They rule over (but in the name of) the impoverished working and salaried lower middle class, but in the interests of the Greek, and especially, German bankers.

They prioritize membership in the EU over an independent national economic policy.  They abide by NATO, by backing the Kiev junta in the Ukraine, EU sanctions on Russia, NATO intervention in Syria/Iraq and maintain a loud silence on US military threats to Venezuela! 5

[bold highlight added]

Click here to read the full article by James Petras.

*

By latest estimates total Greek debt is 384 billion euros, or US$440 billion. That’s approaching nearly twice the size of Greece’s annual GDP.  A decade ago, in 2007-08 before the global crash, Greek debt was roughly half of what it is today, in terms of both total debt and as a percent of GDP.  Greek debt was actually less than a number of Eurozone economies.  So Greece’s debt has been primarily caused by the 2008-09 crash, Greece’s six year long economic depression [that] followed, the extreme austerity measures imposed on it by the Troika during this period which has been the primary cause of its long depression, and the Troika’s piling of debt on Greece to repay previously owed debt.

Contrary to European media spin, it’s not been rising Greek wages or excessive government spending that has caused the US$440 billion in Greek debt. Since 2009 Greek annual wages have fallen from 23,580 to less than 18,000 euros. Government spending has fallen from 118 billion euros to 82 billion.

writes Jack Rasmus in an extremely detailed overview of the state of the Greek crisis in light of the recent parliamentary vote (passed by a narrow margin of 153 to 145) to implement the latest demands of “the Troika” in order to ensure another tranche of unpayable loans. “Bailouts” that, as Rasmus explains at length, are then returned directly to the creditors:

As a recent in depth study by the European School of Management and Technology, ‘Where Did the Greek Bailout Money Go?, revealed in impeccably researched detail, Greek debt payments  ultimately go to Euro bankers. For example, of the 216 billion euros, or US$248 billion, in loans provided to Greece by the Troika in just the first two debt deals of May 2010 and March 2012, 64 percent (139 billion euros) was interest paid to banks on existing debt; 17 percent (37 billion euros) to Greek banks (to replace money being taken out by wealthy Greeks and businesses and sent to northern Europe banks), and 14 percent (29 billion euros) to pay off hedge funds and private bankers in the 2012 deal. Per the study, less than 5 percent of the 216 billion euros went to Greece to spend on its own economy. As the study’s authors concluded, “ the vast majority (more than 95 percent) went to existing creditors in the form of debt repayments and interest payments”.  And that’s just the 2010 and 2012 Troika deals. Last August’s third deal is no doubt adding more to the totals. 6

[bold highlight added]

Click here to read Jack Rasmus’ full article published in Counterpunch.

The cycles of debt-repayment might literally be never-ending, because Greece will never be able to fully repay all of its (odious) debts. It is a situation compounded because Greece’s already floundering economy is completely suffocated by the Troika’s imposed “austerity” regime.

But this disastrous situation is no accident. The trap in which Greece finds itself satisfies two neo-liberal objectives. Firstly, Greece becomes so impoverished that it is forced to sell state assets at rock-bottom prices. Secondly, the sustained wealth transfer from the pockets of the ordinary Greeks into the hands of the bankers helps to prop up a failed financial system.

Setting the bizarre academic justifications aside, and overlooking the deeper reasons Greece became so indebted in the first place, what we see is how the Troika – two thirds of which is the EU – has put the sanctity of debt repayment far above the sanctity of human well-being. So whenever Greece comes up gasping for air, the IMF and the EU repeatedly pushes it back under again:

The media persists in calling the looting of Greece a “bailout.”

To call the looting of a country and its people a “bailout” is Orwellian. The brainwashing is so successful that even the media and politicians of looted Greece call the financial imperialism that Greece is suffering a “bailout.”

writes former Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Economic Policy and former Associate Editor of the Wall Street Journal, Paul Craig Roberts in a recent article entitled “We Have Entered The Looting Stage of Capitalism”. In the piece, Roberts explains the EU’s role and the IMF’s apparent policy shift as follows:

Having successfully used the EU to conquer the Greek people by turning the Greek “leftwing” government into a pawn of Germany’s banks, Germany now finds the IMF in the way of its plan to loot Greece into oblivion.

The IMF’s rules prevent the organization from lending to countries that cannot repay the loan. The IMF has concluded on the basis of facts and analysis that Greece cannot repay. Therefore, the IMF is unwilling to lend Greece the money with which to repay the private banks.

The IMF says that Greece’s creditors, many of whom are not creditors but simply bought up Greek debt at a cheap price in hopes of profiting, must write off some of the Greek debt in order to lower the debt to an amount that the Greek economy can service.

The banks don’t want Greece to be able to service its debt, because the banks intend to use Greece’s inability to service the debt in order to loot Greece of its assets and resources and in order to roll back the social safety net put in place during the 20th century. […]

The way Germany sees it, the IMF is supposed to lend Greece the money with which to repay the private German banks. Then the IMF is to be repaid by forcing Greece to reduce or abolish old age pensions, reduce public services and employment, and use the revenues saved to repay the IMF.

As these amounts will be insufficient, additional austerity measures are imposed that require Greece to sell its national assets, such as public water companies and ports and protected Greek islands to foreign investors, principally the banks themselves or their major clients. […]

In other words, Greece is being destroyed by the EU that it so foolishly joined and trusted. The same thing is happening to Portugal and is also underway in Spain and Italy. The looting has already devoured Ireland and Latvia (and a number of Latin American countries) and is underway in Ukraine.

The current newspaper headlines reporting an agreement being reached between the IMF and Germany about writing down the Greek debt to a level that could be serviced are false. No “creditor” has yet agreed to write off one cent of the debt. All that the IMF has been given by so-called “creditors” is unspecific “pledges” of an unspecified amount of debt writedown two years from now.

The newspaper headlines are nothing but fluff that provide cover for the IMF to succumb to pressure and violate its own rules. The cover lets the IMF say that a (future unspecified) debt writedown will enable Greece to service the remainder of its debt and, therefore, the IMF can lend Greece the money to pay the private banks. […]

We have entered the looting stage of capitalism. Desolation will be the result. 7

Click here to read Paul Craig Roberts’ full article.

The overarching agenda of the EU – a plan rarely mentioned above a murmur – is to fuse its member nations under unelected technocratic governance for the benefit of a few corporations and the oligarchs who own them. So the notion that sticking by the EU is some sense an act of European solidarity is extremely misguided. Having already sold many of its people down the river, however, we are rapidly approaching a critical and perilous moment.

The far-right is now on the rise in many parts of Europe – Greece being an example, although thankfully Golden Dawn remains very much a minority party. And this swing towards ring-wing extremism is a direct consequence of the EU’s savage economic policies combined with its abject failure to save refugees and resolve the so-called “migrant crisis” (more in a later piece). As this alarming political shift occurs, the EU does next to nothing to address it. No debt relief for Greece or the other struggling member states. No let up on enforced “austerity” or privatisation. Neo-liberalism to the bitter end. But then, after Greece was collectively punished for the insolence of its ‘oxi’ vote last summer, only the most dewy-eyed believers can remain in serious doubt of the EU’s callous indifference towards the plight of its poorest citizens.

*

1 Quote taken from “Euro depression is ‘deliberate’ EU choice, says former Bank of England chief” written by Mehreen Khan, published in The Telegraph on March 1, 2016. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2016/03/01/europes-depression-is-deliberate-eu-choice-says-former-bank-of-e/ 

2 Quote taken from an article entitled “The Ugly Truth Behind the Greek Bailout” written by Robert Hunziker, published by Counterpunch on May 10, 2016. http://www.counterpunch.org/2016/05/10/the-ugly-truth-behind-the-greek-bailout/ 

3 From a statement entitled “A plan B in Europe” from Plan B for Europe. https://www.euro-planb.eu/?page_id=96&lang=en. The statement continues:

It is a dangerous lie to assert that the euro and the EU serve Europeans and shield them from crisis. It is an illusion to believe that Europe’s interests can be protected within the iron cage of the Eurozone’s governance “rules” and within the current Treaties. President Hollande’s and Prime Minister Renzi’s method of behaving like a “model student”, or in fact a “model prisoner”, is a form of surrender that will not even result in clemency. The President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, said it clearly: « there can be no democratic choice against the European treaties ». This is the neoliberal adaptation of the « limited sovereignty » doctrine invented by the Soviet leader Brezhnev in 1968. Then, the Soviets crushed the Prague Spring with their tanks. This summer, the EU crushed the Athens Spring with its banks.

We are determined to break with this “Europe”. It is the basic condition needed to rebuild cooperation between our peoples and our countries on a new basis. How can we enact policies of redistribution of wealth and of creation of decent jobs, especially for the young, ecological transition and the rebuilding of democracy within the constraints of this EU? We have to escape the inanity and inhumanity of the current European Treaties and remould them in order to shed the straightjacket of neoliberalism, to repeal the Fiscal Compact, and to oppose the TTIP.

We live in extraordinary times. We are facing an emergency. Member-states need to have policy space that allows their democracies to breathe and to put forward sensible policies at the member-state’s level, free of fear of a clamp down from an authoritarian Eurogroup dominated by the interests of the strongest among them and of big business, or from an ECB that is used as a steamroller that threatens to flatten an “uncooperative country”, as it happened with Cyprus or Greece.

4 From “Confessions of an Erratic Marxist in the Midst of a Repugnant European Crisis” written by Yanis Varoufakis, published on December 10, 2013. http://yanisvaroufakis.eu/2013/12/10/confessions-of-an-erratic-marxist-in-the-midst-of-a-repugnant-european-crisis/ 

5 From an article entitled “Lies and Deceptions on the Left: The Politics of Self Destruction” written by James Petras, published by Global Research on March 22, 2015. http://www.globalresearch.ca/lies-and-deceptions-on-the-left-the-politics-of-self-destruction/5438105

6 From an article entitled “Greek Debt Negotiations: Will the IMF Exit the Troika?” written by Jack Rasmus, published in Counterpunch on May 26, 2016. http://www.counterpunch.org/2016/05/26/greek-debt-negotiations-will-the-imf-exit-the-troika/ 

7 From an article entitled “We Have Entered The Looting Stage Of Capitalism” written by Paul Craig Roberts, published on May 25, 2016. http://www.paulcraigroberts.org/2016/05/25/we-have-entered-the-looting-stage-of-capitalism-paul-craig-roberts/ 

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Filed under analysis & opinion, austerity measures, Germany, Greece, neo-liberalism

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