What should we choose as the soundtrack for the stunning outcome of the Greek referendum? Patti Smith’s ‘People Have the Power’, perhaps? Or David Bowie singing, ‘We can be heroes, just for one day’?

Greece No celebration

The landslide No to austerity vote is thrilling, but the future of Greece still hangs in the balance. What has been clear these past weeks is that there has been a huge cultural and political gulf between the eurozone leaders and those negotiating on behalf of the Syriza government, underlined most dramatically by the surprise resignation of Yanis Varoufakis, the Greek finance minister.

Yanis Varoufakis

It’s a gulf between those politicians of the European Union who now have no concept of the meaning of that solidarity which was supposed to be central to the European project, bound as they are to the shibboleths of neo-conservatism and international finance – and the majority of the Greek people who represent the growing tide of popular protest resisting austerity and the erosion of democracy across Europe.

Casting his vote in Crete
Casting his vote in Crete

Characteristically combative, Varoufakis expressed this concisely in a statement on his blog, in which he said, ‘I shall wear the creditors’ loathing with pride’, continuing:

We of the left know how to act collectively with no care for the privileges of office. I shall support fully Prime Minister Tsipras, the new minister of finance, and our government.

Or, as one woman in Helena Smith’s vox pop this morning from the streets of Athens insists: ‘This is not the Europe we dreamed of. This is not the Europe of enlightened thought, of solidarity, of egalite, fraternite, liberte. This is the Europe that in this country has seen people go mad, has seen thousands commit suicide, has destroyed so many with the loss of jobs.

Beyond the question of what will happen in the next hours or days, there is the deeper, haunting question of where the European Union is headed. I have felt my own loyalty to the vision of that ‘ever-closer union’ weakening over the past months, as Europe’s leaders have faced down the attempts by the Greek government to ameliorate the harsh effects of previous bailout deals with hostility and scorn for democratic expression. And as Europe’s leaders have turned their backs on those desperate peoples risking their lives in the Mediterranean.

In the 1974 referendum on EEC membership, influenced by leftist arguments that portrayed the Common Market as a club for big business, I voted for withdrawal. Then, in the 1990s, along with the greater part of the left and trade union movement in this country, I was inspired by the vision of a European Union that combined social solidarity with the Single Market’s removal of barriers to trade.

But how would I vote now? Yesterday’s Observer included an article by Irish columnist Fintan O’Toole which perfectly summed up my feelings at this time. ‘Europe’, he wrote,

Is a story that most of the central and western nations of the continent agreed to tell themselves and each other in order to deal with the legacies of the second world war and the cold war. And like all stories, it sustained itself, if not exactly with belief, then at least with a willing suspension of disbelief.

The question now, O’Toole wrote, is whether that ‘Europe’ still exists at all. All the evidence suggests, he argued, that it has lost its hold:

One by one, the elements of the Europe story have fallen away. Democracy? European leaders, especially the Germans, have been openly canvassing the idea of “regime change” in Athens. The free movement of people? Hungary is planning to build a fence along its border with Serbia and David Cameron is hoping to build a metaphorical fence around Britain. The welfare state? The recent elections in both Finland and Denmark suggest that even in its Nordic heartland, it is no longer seen as a European value but as a national, even an ethnic, possession, to be kept for “our people” alone.

Solidarity? Who now believes that the average person in Frankfurt or Helsinki sees the pensioner rummaging in a bin in Thessaloniki as a fellow citizen? Thresholds of decency? Formulaic expressions of sympathy aside, there is little sense that the European Union as a whole finds it intolerable that hundreds of thousands of Greeks are living without electricity or that millions have no access to public health care.

Now, O’Toole wrote, ‘the stories Europeans are telling themselves about what’s going on around them are not just different but mutually exclusive and mutually antagonistic’. This collapse of the collective imagination just a product of the eurozone crisis, he argued. It has deeper roots:

The idea of “Europe” that animated the EU depended on the conflicts that gave it birth. The Second World War, fascism and the Holocaust created a deep appreciation of the fragility of peace, democracy and human rights. The Cold War made it imperative for western democracies to compete with communism on its own terms by showing that market economies could deliver, not just prosperity, but social justice, equality and security.

O’Toole concluded:

It is not entirely true, of course, that no one at all believes the old story of Europe. The last true believers are on rickety boats in the Mediterranean, trying to make their way to an imagined continent of compassion, solidarity and security. If they ever get to shore, they will find at best a grudging welcome. But those who purport to share their belief in what Europe means badly need some of their desperate optimism.

Unfuck Greece

And this is Owen Jones, writing in today’s Guardian:

But this revolt was about something much bigger, and that is why Greece remains in great danger. This is about the very nature of the European Union itself. The European project was founded in the rubble of a war of annihilation, genocide and totalitarianism. It was intended to secure peace, prosperity and democracy for the people of Europe. This dream has become something of a nightmare for a growing number of Europeans. A democratic deficit is unaddressed. The Transatlantic Treaty Investment Partnership is negotiated in secret with large corporations, conspiring to give them the power to sue elected governments in secret courts to try to stop policies they believe hit their profits. The EU treaty negotiated in 2011 effectively forbade any future eurozone government from pursuing an expansionary fiscal policy. Other treaties and directives enshrine free-market dogma in law. Austerity is mindlessly implemented across the eurozone with terrible human consequences: in Spain, too, around half of young people are out of work.

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8 thoughts on “Greece: People power or heroes just for one day?

  1. Greece cannot hang onto the Euro and progress. Adherence to the Euro means a nation must follow crippling financial restrictions on debt management. If they left they could start to earn more from exports and tourism but Germany would not like this.

  2. Hi Gerry,
    Interesting that you seem to think the rest of Europe should continue to encourage Greece to live beyond its means.
    I am pretty clueless when it comes to understanding the politics and machinations behind the fix that Greece now finds itself in. However Greek citizens do need to take responsibility for at least some of it.
    In 1984 we (NZ) had our own taste of austerity although we didn’t call it that, it was more bluntly phrased as unavoidable pain and ‘tightening our belts by a notch or two or three’. David Lange’s Labour Govt. had swept into power on the strength of Nuclear Free legislation which they followed through on. Not only was NZ cast out into the cold but when the new govt. got the keys to the pantry they found it was completely bare. The preceding series of National Govts (think Tory) had borrowed to the max sustaining a standard of living near the top of the OECD but it was all smoke and mirrors.
    For decades farmers had been guaranteed high prices, given access to cheap loans and had farm development subsidised, farm subsidies ended almost overnight; the NZ$ was floated and predictably crashed; govt. departments were restructured with massive lay-offs; government departments and agencies that had saleable services were sold off; govt. upgrades and maintenance were deferred indefinitely. Interests rates soared and many companies and farms went bankrupt unable to meet the repayments.
    Inefficient farmers were replaced by educated and energetic farmers producing more, with higher quality and a wider range of produce, private industries became more efficient, research became targeted to meeting the needs of markets and our living standard dropped to be nearer what we could afford. Diversification, adaptation and innovation became the guiding principles for everyone from farmers to industry to govt. sector.
    What the govt. did do was maintain spending on education, health, vital infrastructure and social welfare (no one went without what we might call basic human rights). No other nation was going to give us a hand-out and our once guaranteed market in the UK was being simultaneously pinched off by the EEC.
    However if this hadn’t happened we might still be relying on butter, cheese, frozen lamb carcases and forestry to provide the base to our economy, exporting to less than 6 main markets.

  3. Thanks for your extended comment, Graeme. I would make two points in response: Firstly, it is not the people of Greece who have benefited from bailout loans from the IMF, EU and European Central Bank, but the European and Greek banks which recklessly lent money to the Greek State in the first place. Only a small fraction of the €240bn (£170bn) total bailout money Greece received in 2010 and 2012 found its way into the government’s coffers to soften the blow of the 2008 financial crash and fund reform programmes. Most of the money went to the banks that lent Greece funds before the crash – and most of those banks are located in Germany and other parts of northern Europe. In other words, most of the bailout money was immediately recycled out of Greece back to northern banks. As the Jubilee Debt Campaign says: “The bailouts have been for the European financial sector, while passing the debt from being owed to the private sector to the public sector.” (See: http://jubileedebt.org.uk/reports-briefings/briefing/six-key-points-greek-debt-weeks-election)

    My second thought is in response to your description of New Zealand’s recovery after 1984. Though Tsipras and most of the Greek people would at present insist that they wish to remain inside the eurozone, should they be forced out by the refusal of the ECB and the EU to write-off any of the Greek debt then at least in the hard times that would undoubtedly follow a return to the drachma at least Greece would be in control of its own destiny, able to diversify, adapt and innovate whilst maintaining spending on education, health and social welfare.

    It’s worth reading this, about how Germany (as well as Greece and the UK) benefited from US aid under the Marshall Plan after WW2 in comparable circumstances. The key point is that Marshall Aid wasn’t just charity – it was mutually beneficial to the US and Europe. http://www.theguardian.com/business/2015/jul/06/germany-1953-greece-2015-economic-marshall-plan-debt-relief

  4. Thanks for the links Gerry, perhaps I am being too simplistic however to my mind in a democracy the government ‘is the people’, if the govt. or the people borrow ‘recklessly’ from reckless banks is it the banks fault or the govt’s (peoples)? The way it has been reported here is that Greece has continued on a ‘business as normal’ path after each bailout, it’s as if there is an expectation that the money tree will continue to drop notes every time it is shaken. This is quite different to the Marshall Plan, where the money was invested in rebuilding infrastructure, industry and innovation. The Marshall Plan was also applied in Japan with great success.
    Agreed the world banking system is seriously flawed: most banks seem to be only too willing to let borrowers increase their debt beyond their means to repay, and it has always seemed unfair that depositors are well down on the list of creditors if things go pear shaped. I never did see how the Euro could work in the long run without going to a Federal Govt. system.

    1. Just one more comeback, Graeme, because a friend posted a link to this excellent article today which is from a far-from-leftist source. You asked, ‘if the govt. or the people borrow ‘recklessly’ from reckless banks is it the banks fault or the govt’s (peoples)?’ But this article makes clear that ’90 percent of the “loans to Greece” bypassed Greece entirely’ and ‘the whole shebang “was about protecting German banks, but especially the French banks, from debt write-offs.”’

      https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/greece/2015-07-07/pain-athens

  5. OK, so from that article over 30% of Europes bad debtors were Greek banks/govt., therefore bailing out Greek banks/govt. was seen as the prudent thing because “… if Greece defaulted, … would trigger a bank run … that could wipe out core European banks.”
    I am not at all surprised that the bulk of bail out funds went straight to the banks where the debt was owed, that seems totally logical, I am surprised that Greece failed to capitalise on the breathing space that gave them, especially if as the article says they started achieving surpluses.
    I’m not a banker and I don’t have a commerce degree so the ins and outs of bonds and bailout loans are somewhat beyond the time I have available to understand it all, so perhaps I’m missing something. However it doesn’t change the fact that nations and governments have to live within their means and not borrow beyond their ability to repay.
    If I was in England I’d suggest meeting somewhere for a long walk and an amicable if at times animated discussion lubricated with the odd home grown white fleshed cherry, as I don’t think we’re necessarily that different in our views.

  6. A glimmer of light got in: during a radio interview on the weekend the interviewee stated that the ANZ Bank, last year was trying to get our govt. to spend more to stimulate the economy. Of course to do that they would have had to borrow…., oh and all the big banks are owned by off-shore interests.

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