I have recently returned to England following a two-week stay on the Greek Cycladic Island of Paros and several days in Athens. From Greek territory, I witnessed the massive acceleration of the EU/Greek Crisis, press coverage and daily life on a somewhat insulated island and an ordinary neighbourhood in Athens. I’ve assembled my thoughts in three parts; Austerity, Regime Change and The Referendum. – Elizabeth Alexander
“The catastrophe brought on by systemic abuse of power should raise more serious questions about what actually constitutes a crime against humanity.” (1) – Brad Evans
PART I: AUSTERITY
Greece’s newly-minted left-of-centre government has challenged the humanity and viability of five years of scorched-earth austerity policies imposed on the country a ‘bail-out agreement mandated by Germany and what is referred to as the ‘Troika'(2). Syriza’s electoral platform was based upon an optimistic belief that is would be possible to remain in the Eurozone and successfully negotiate an end to the austerity-driven terms that have plunged Greece into a desperate economic condition.
Our political mandate is to find an honourable, workable compromise. Is it so difficult to do so? We do not think so.” – Yanis Varofoukis, Finance Minister Greece (resigned July 6)
Though the European Union may have set out with a political project to prevent a third catastrophic war in Europe, it is now faced with finance-centric existential crisis of the union and the future of the nation-state. An economic war is being executed against Greece and by proxy every other debtor nation within the putative European ‘community.’
German Hawks, lead by Germany’s Finance Minister WOLFGANG SCHÄUBL openly advance ‘the amputated leg theory‘ – ‘Greece should be cut off like a gangrenous limb to spare the rest of the eurozone.’ That language is revealing – it both invokes the imagery of war and the dismissive disposability of millions of Greek citizens.
The Greek rebellion and the response of the creditor powers is surfacing the dysfunctional economic and power hegemony within Europe. This is, as Brad Evans explains, “…the expression of the logic of capitalism whereby production is placed in the service of capital accumulation, and an ethos of privatisation, commodification, and competition holds sway…the policy of austerity is tantamount to a re-distributive tax that has benefitted the rich, whilst felt more acutely by the global poor.” At its core, this crisis exposes the:
…“trilemma” of the mutual incompatibility of Hyper-globalization, democracy, and national self-determination. – John Agnew (3)
In economic terms ‘austerity’ has been discredited and undeniably ruinous both for debtor countries such as Greece, but also for the idea of Europe. In policy and political terms, it remains the dominant discourse – blaming ordinary citizens for ‘irresponsible borrowing’ and exacting ‘collective atonement” if not ‘reprisals.’ This fantasy is employed to render objections and objectors disposable and obscure the underlying logic, systemic weakness and exploitative behaviours of the global financial sector. And it renders ordinary Greeks disposable not only to the German and EU elites driving the policy, but to fellow Europeans as well. As one Danish friend commented on one of my face-book posts:
“As a European Elizabeth I have to ask you – do you honestly think that the rest of Europe should pay the Greek bill? I mean – we have all been saving money, faced cut downs in public budgets and have to work until we are close to 70. I do feel and recognize the difficulties the Greek people are facing in 10 days when they run out of money which is why it is a bit difficult for us to understand why they see themselves in a situation to negotiate a better deal.” – Tina
There is an echo here of populist objections to humanitarian assistance to the vast numbers of migrants intent on finding safety in Europe. Indeed, they reach Greece in numbers greater than those who manage to reach Italian or Maltese shores.
The conditions imposed on Greece have failed on every economic and human dimension (as they have to varying degrees elsewhere). The economy has shrunk by 25%, unemployment has breached the 30% mark, youth unemployment varies at a staggering 50-60%, 300,000 young professionals have left Greece to find employment elsewhere, suicides are up 35% which translates to 11,000 human beings who have so lost hope that they ended their own lives. Tens of thousands of households have had electricity cut off. The costs to public health are catastrophic, as a result of mandated cutbacks to health spending, capped by the Troika at 6% of (a shrinking) GDP.
Over 1 million Greeks have lost access to health care (which is tied to employment) leading to soaring infant mortality (up 43% between 2008 and 2010), rising HIV infections from drug use (needle exchange programs cut), and the return of malaria (reduced mosquito spraying program) (4). Whole families subsist on income from one pension which has been cut an average of 44%. UNICEF reported that Greece has suffered ‘a great leap backwards’ in child poverty since 2008, affecting 2 out of every 5 children (40.5% of Greek children living in poverty) in 2012, and those numbers have only worsened in the last three years. Thanatopolitics, that is, the politics deciding who should live and who should die in a population, is imposed by certain powers within the EU upon a presumably sovereign nation and organised around servicing debt to the financial sector.
Those ‘investments’ were made in the full knowledge that Greece was already bankrupt at the time and unable to pay its existing debts. It was hubris in action that banks used tax-payer funded bailout funds to invest in Greek bonds, knowing full well that Greece was already bankrupt and unable to pay its debts. Greece has implemented many reforms in the last five years, though exhortations that wealthy Greeks should also pay taxes are frustrated by the tax avoidance havens in Luxembourg and Switzerland where they secret their funds while school teachers and nurses pay ever increasing amounts of tax, and the tax base is decimated through unemployment and underemployment and the missing wages of workers who have not been paid for months and even years.
“We Europeans, poorly organised as we are, have used our impenetrable political instruments to turn the financial crisis, which began in the United States, into a debt crisis. -Thomas Pickety, Economist
Prominent economists back up the economic, moral and humanitarian argument for debt reduction in ‘a plea for economic sanity and humanity’. They include Thomas Pikkety, Joseph Stiglitz, Jeffrey Sachs, Heiner Flassbeck, Dani Rodrik, Simon Wren-Lewis, Richard Woolf, and Paul Krugman. The International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) draft Debt Sustainability Analysis is unambiguous in its conclusion that the current ‘programme’ is unworkable and that debt relief and a twenty-year grace period will be necessary for Greece’s economy to grow into health. (the IMF withheld that information during the negotiations under pressure from the EU).
So why, then, if these are the facts, has the Greek PM Alex Tsipras, its (former) Finance Minister Yanis Varofaukis and their negotiating team run into not so much a brick wall as a firing squad? To date, they have found negotiating an ‘honourable, working compromise’ not difficult, but impossible. Instead, Germany, the head of the Eurogroup Finance Ministers, the ECB and the European Commission have employed multiple tactics designed to topple the Syriza government. They have only been restrained by the very recent intervention of France and Italy, which have insisted that a deal be made. The balance of power in Europe, the future of the EU and their own economic challenges from the German model likely provided sufficient motivation for these two to insist on an agreement (of sorts).
This ‘deal’ between Greece and the German/Troika alliance wrought in Brussels on July 13 doubles down on the chokehold of punitive and unproductive austerity measures, which as of today, the IMF declares cannot restore the Greek economy. The Greek PM is forced to push through major legislation within three days, face down opposition from within his coalition and ‘perhaps’ there can be a discussion about debt restructuring.
To extend a reprehensible analogy, Germany may yet be successful in ‘amputating’ Greece from the EU, but the poison which originated in the global economic crisis (not from Greece) may have spread into the very bloodstream of the body politic of the EU.
(2)The Eurozone powers that dominate the ‘discussions.’ are led by Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaible and three creditor/technocratic organizations often referred to as the ‘Troika’ (The European Central Bank (Mario Draghi), the IMF (Christine Legarde) and the European Commission (Jean-Claude Juncker).
(3) Agnew, J. Comment on Who Needs the Nation-State? Economic Geography 89(1):21–26.
(4) To see the full report, Kranikolos, M, Mladovsky, P. Cylus, J. Thomsen, S., Basu, S., Stuckler, S, J.P, Mackenbach, J.P. & McKee, M. The Lancet 381 (9874) PP1323-1331.
(5) Mody, A., and Sandri, D. 2011. The Eurozone crisis: How banks and sovereigns came to be joined at the hip . International Monetary Fund. Working Paper 11/269/ Washington, D.C
Elizabeth Alexander is a PhD Researcher who focuses on the nation, identity, nationalism and political material culture.