European Union

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Greece; Deathplace of Democracy

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The word Referendum comes from the Latin referre (to bring back) anddemos is Greek for the people as a political unit; demos is the root of the word Democracy; so a referendum brings a decision back to the people. As representative democracies European States hold elections to choose their governments giving elected representatives a mandate to represent their political choices. The Greek people chose Syriza to represent them in the broken institutions of a European Union in crisis; the Greeks chose to end Austerity. If representatives can’t make a political decision, because it is contrary to their mandate, the decision can be brought back to the demos in a referendum; or at least that is how things used to work.

Welcome to post-crisis EU democracy.

Since 2009 and the financial crisis in the EU, decision-making has been deferred to a financial triumvirate, the Troika, and to the Eurogroup. In latin triuviratus means unofficial coalition of power. Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassus were the first triumvirate. When the Senate told Julius Caesar to step down as military leader of Rome, he crossed the Rubicon. He proclaimed himself “dictator in perpetuity”. Triumvirates are not known for love of democracy.

The Eurogroup works with the Troika’s mandates (called Memoranda of understanding). The group is democracy light, or rather, it used to be. This flexible ad-hoc ‘group’ has one representative (a finance minister) for each nation in the Euro currency. Neither Denmark nor the UK are members because they don’t use the Euro. As and from Monday the 29th of June, neither is Greece.

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Irish Living Standards Fall Further Behind Europe

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In 2014, GDP increased by 4.8 percent – as often said, the fastest growing economy in Europe.  In 2014, employment increased by 40,000.  In 2014, the recovery started.

In 2014, living standards fell even further behind the EU-15 average.

Eurostat measures living standards through actual individual consumption.  Unlike private consumption, or consumer spending, actual individual consumption

‘ . . . encompasses consumer goods and services purchased directly by households, as well as services provided by non-profit institutions and the government for individual consumption (e.g., health and education services).’

It, therefore, measures consumption not only of goods and services, but public services provided by the government.  As Eurostat states:

‘Although GDP per capita is an important and widely used indicator of countries’ level of economic welfare, (actual individual) consumption per capita may be more useful for comparing the relative welfare of consumers across various countries.’

In short, actual individual consumption can be treated a proxy for living standards.  So what is the relative welfare of consumers (i.e. everyone) across Europe?  The following captures the relationship of real (after inflation) living standards in purchasing power parities between EU-15 countries and the EU-15 average.

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Syriza’s Moment of Truth

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Syriza came to power on the back of an impossible pledge – namely, to end austerity whilst keeping Greece within monetary union. The party’s pre-election Thessaloniki Programme promised to write-off most of the country’s €330 billion public debt through a European Conference. They also promised €4 billion in public investment, the creation of 300,000 new jobs and a rebuilding of the welfare state.[1] Politically, Syriza is committed to remaining within European Monetary Union (EMU) in an effort to democratise it. As a heterogeneous organisation with roots in Euro-communism, Syriza wants to move towards socialism through the existing institutions of the European Union. Instead of setting out to smash the capitalist state and exit the euro, they are trying to prise them open from the inside out. This is not an insurrectionary strategy based on mass struggle and workers councils. Rather it is one that emphasises the building of a dominant (hegemonic) block with parliamentarians in the vanguard of the struggle. One of their leading thinkers, Stathis Kouvelakis, recently defined it as “seizing the state from outside and inside, above and below”.[2] Economically, their policies are best described as left-wing Keynesianism. Here the idea is to use the state to engage in public investment projects whilst redistributing resources through progressive taxation. If successful, the results of this process should be twofold. Firstly, the great humanitarian crisis should start to be relieved. Secondly, the economy should be freed from the current spiral of debt and deflation through higher levels of ‘economic demand’. This strategy basically amounts to saving capitalism by ending neoliberalism. In the words of Greek Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, we must remember “capitalism’s inherent failures while trying to save it, for strategic purposes, from itself”.[3]

The problem for Syriza is that none of this is remotely compatible with the intentions of European capitalism. Since the early 1980’s, the European project has been hardwired with neoliberalism to ensure that profits and political power are accumulated by capitalist elites. Syriza may have costed their proposals in line with EU rules, but they are not taking cognisance of the ‘real politik’ of the European project. Even if they wanted to, the European elites could not allow Keynesian expansionary policies. European capital has worked hard to institutionalise neoliberal policy making, with the likelihood of them suddenly changing tack negligible at best. Be-that-as-it-may, the EU elites are actually out to smash their opponents. Syriza’s election represented genuine hope for millions of people across the continent. If they are seen to be successful, the effects on worker’s organisations in other parts of the Eurozone would be transformative. For this reason, the Troika are determined to crush Syriza regardless of the wider effects on Greek society. Focusing on changing the EU from the inside out therefore becomes an extremely dangerous strategy, particularly if Syriza are not mobilising the Greek working classes in sufficient numbers to support them.

What has happened since the election?

From the outset Syriza presupposed that they would be able to negotiate. Specifically, they assumed that support for expansionary policies would be forthcoming in other depressed regions of the Eurozone (France and Italy in particular). Failing this, they believed that the capitalist elite could never afford to let them leave (a so-called Grexit). Unfortunately, the Troika have so far had other ideas. During the first weeks of their tenure, Syriza immediately found themselves on the back foot. First off, the European Central Bank blocked liquidity for the Greek financial system. Thereafter, the Troika strategically withheld €7.2 billion from a previous bailout to force Syriza into another memorandum. Greek capital has also played its part, evacuating billions from the country’s banks, whilst steadfastly refusing to pay their taxes. Safe in the knowledge that the Greek government would soon run out of cash, the Troika have been incredibly aggressive. Meanwhile, Syriza have crossed many of their previously stated ‘red lines’. On February 20 they signed a four month extension of the hated memorandum, effectively relinquishing debt write-down as a policy position. Debt reduction remains an aspiration, but has quietly been dropped as a red line issue. The problem with this is that Greek debt currently stands at a whopping 180% of GDP. Without some way to write this down, Syriza will be forced to implement the austerity they were elected to reverse. Piraeus Port has already been earmarked for privatisation, despite assurances that this would never happen. Syriza have also accepted neoliberal labour market reforms, delayed payments to struggling pensioners and cancelled payments to low paid workers.[4]

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The EU Fiscal Rules: Not Fit for Purpose

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What would you say about a system for your car that was sold on the basis that it would alert you to an upcoming crash?  A good idea, no?  Except that the system only warns you after the crash.  There you are, in a massive, multi-car pile-up, bleeding all over the M50 – and only then does the system kick in:

‘Warning, warning, you are an imminent danger of having been in a crash – warning, warning.’

You’d be right to sue.

That’s how the EU fiscal rules operate:  it purports to provide an early warning system against economic crash but, in fact, it does no such thing.  We should return it to the manufacturer, unopened, postage due.

Remember the Fiscal Treaty campaign?  It was claimed by the proponents that we needed these rules because it would prevent things like the Great Recession and, in particular, the Irish crash of 2008.  We needed these rules because we Irish are irresponsible – along with the other PIGS states.  If only we had these rules we could have escaped the crash, the debt crisis and the recession – which was, of course, brought on by our fiscal irresponsibility.  That was the narrative. 

But the cold reality is that were these EU fiscal rules in active operation they would not have seen, predicted, never mind warned of the impending crisis.  It would have been as useful as a diviners’ rod.  How can we know this?  Because the EU Commission, the fairground purveyor of these miracle rules, tells us so.

The rules focus on the structural deficit.  This measures the deficit when all the cyclical components are stripped out – that is, all the boom and the bust parts of the economy.  It purports to tell us what the deficit would look like if the economy were on an even keel. 

If so, then the EU rules should have been blaring warning sounds with red lights and sirens in Ireland in the years before the crash.  Everyone knew (if only in private) that during the period of 2000 – 2006 Irish public finances were dangerously over-reliant on revenue from the speculative boom.  Everyone – except the EU Commission and their rules.

 Let’s look at the estimate from the EU Commission itself.  Remember:  if the figure is in plus, that means we were fiscally responsible, our public finances were robust, and we were almost German-like when it came to prudent budgeting. 

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Oh, my:  according the EU rules and methodology we had extremely sound public finances.

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Greek Myths Retold

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This article originally appeared on Socialist Economic Bulletin on Friday the 24th of April. 

The world economy is not strong and the President of the United States is sufficiently concerned about new shocks to it that he recently met the Greek Finance Minister to urge ‘flexibility on all sides’ in the negotiations between the Syriza-led government and its creditors. US concern is fully justified. 

In any attempt to reach agreement it is important both to have an objective assessment of the situation and to understand the perspective of those on the opposite side of the table. In Mythology that blocks progress in Greece Martin Wolf, the chief economics commentator for the Financial Times argues that negotiations to date are dominated by myths. He demolishes some of these key myths in turn: that a Greek exit would make the Eurozone stronger, that it would make Greece stronger, that Greece caused the crisis driven by private sector lending, that there has been no effort by Greeks to repay these debts, that Greece has the capacity to repay them, and that defaulting on the debts necessarily entails leaving the Eurozone. 

Together, these provide a useful corrective to the propaganda emanating from the Eurogroup of Finance Ministers and ECB Board members. Some of this is slanderous, in repeating myths about ‘lazy Greeks’ (who have among the longest working hours in Europe). Much of it is delusional, based on the notion that Greece can be forced to pay up, or forced out of the Euro without any negative consequences for the meandering European or the world economy. 

Austerity ideology
 

A genuine belief in a false idea, or a demonstrably false system of ideas constitutes an ideology in the strict meaning of that word. Inconvenient facts are relegated in importance or distorted, and secondary or inconsequential matters are magnified. Logical contortions become the norm. 

All these are prevalent in the dominant ideology in economics, which is supplemented by another key weapon, the helpful forecast. In Britain for example, supporters of austerity argued it would not hurt growth and the deficit would fall. Now there is finally a recovery of sorts, they argue austerity worked, ignoring all the preceding five years and the unsustainable nature of the current recovery (and the limited progress in reducing the deficit). 

For Greece the much more severe austerity and its consequences means that supporters are still obliged to rely on the helpful forecast to support their case. The Martin Wolf piece includes a chart of IMF data on Greek government debt as a percentage of GDP, which is reproduced in Fig.1 below. 

The IMF includes not only data recorded in previous years but its own projections for future years. From a government debt level of 176% of GDP in 2014, the IMF forecasts a fall to 174% this year and 171% in 2016 and much sharper declines in future years. The IMF has also forecast an imminent decline in Greek government debt ever since austerity was first imposed in 2010, which has not materialised. 

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What would Europe Win from a Grexit? ‘Peace and quiet. (Pause…) For a period’

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Two recent interviews with Marxist economist, and now Greek MP Costas Lapavitsas are worth have a look at, particularly as they outline his view of the strategies that Syriza need to follow during the engineered ‘breathing space’ created by recent negotiations with the European institutions. He also outlines how a strategy he has long advocated, a Greek exit from the Euro, should be managed.

The first, published on the 12th of March in Jacobin magazine. The interviewer was Sebastian Budgen, an editor at Historical Materialism.

And Varoufakis himself explicitly located his position within a kind of Keynesian framework, and is allied with people like James Galbraith who are openly Keynesians.

Let me come clean on this. Keynes and Keynesianism, unfortunately, remain the most powerful tools we’ve got, even as Marxists, for dealing with issues of policy in the here and now. The Marxist tradition is very powerful in dealing with the medium-term and longer-term questions and understanding the class dimensions and social dimensions of economics and society in general, of course. There’s no comparison in these realms.

But, for dealing with policy in the here and now, unfortunately, Keynes and Keynesianism remain a very important set of ideas, concepts, and tools even for Marxists. That’s the reality. Whether some people like to use the ideas and not acknowledge them as Keynesian is something I don’t want to comment upon, but it happens.

So I cannot blame Varoufakis for that, for associating himself with Keynesians, because I’ve also associated myself with Keynesians, openly and explicitly so. If you showed me another way of doing things, I’d be delighted. But I can assure you, after many decades of working on Marxist economic theory, that there isn’t at the moment. So yes, Varoufakis has worked with Keynesians. But that isn’t really, in and of itself, a damning thing.

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Syriza’s Only Choice: A Radical Step Forward

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An article by Spyros Lapatsioras,[1] John Milios[2] and Dimitris P. Sotiropoulos[3]

 “One must know how to employ the kairos of one’s forces at the right moment. It is easy to only lose a little, if one always keeps foremost in the mind the idea that unity is never the trick, but the game.” [4]

1. Introduction

The transitional “bridge Agreement” of the 20th of February is a truce intended by the Greek government and welcomed by the other side (the European “institutions”). Within the truce period (the next four months), the conditions for negotiating the next agreement will be shaped. This could mean that everything is still open. However, that is not true for two reasons. First, the very transitional agreement changes the balance of power. Second, the “hostilities” will continue in the course of the next four months (i.e. the review of the commitments and the re-interpretation of the terms by each party).

2. The agreement of the 20th February: A first step on slippery ground… 

2.1 Negotiation targets

In the first substantive phase of negotiations at the Eurogroup of the 12th February, the Greek government sought an agreement on a new “bridge program” stating that it would be impossible to extend the existing program on the grounds that it has been rejected by the Greek people:

  1. The “bridge program” would not involve conditions, reviews and so on, but should be an official manifestation of the willingness of all parties to negotiate without pressure and blackmail and without any unilateral action.
  2. In the above context, Greece would forgo the remaining installments of the previous program, with the exception of the return of the 1.9 billion euros that the ECB and the rest of Eurozone’s national central banks gained from the holding Greek bonds (programs SMP and ANFA). Greek authorities could issue treasury bills beyond the limit of 15 billion euros to cover any liquidity emergencies.
  3. At the end of this transitional period: (a) Greece would submit its final proposals, which according to the program of the government would include a new fiscal framework for the next 3-4 years and a new national plan for reforms; (b) the issue of a sovereign debt restructuring-reduction would come to the negotiating table.

The German government and the “institutions” (EU, ECB, IMF) came to the negotiations with the position that Greece had to request a six-month “technical extension” of the existing program – renamed as the “existing arrangement” – to enable its successful completion. 

2.2 The outcome of the negotiation

The agreement of the 20th of February includes a four-month extension of the “Master Financial Assistance Facility Agreement (MFFA), which is underpinned by a set of commitments.” The extension of the Agreement (“which is underpinned by a set of commitments”) means: (a) evaluations by the three “institutions,” (b) commitments and conditions, (c) scheduled installments as they appear in the previous Program, subject to a positive evaluation, (d) return of the profits from holding Greek bonds by the ECB and national CBs, but subject to a positive evaluation by the “institutions” (even given the “independence” of the ECB).

In short there is a rejection-withdrawal of the Greek government’s negotiation targets (1) and (2). In addition, there is no explicit reference to how the government will cover its short term financing needs (e.g. issuing treasury bills to cover bond redemptions, interest payments and other possible emergencies) until the completion of the assessment. In this regard, the reference to the independence of the ECB may imply its “discretion” in assessing the extent to which the Greek government responds positively to the “commitments” that accompany the extension of the agreement (something which undoubtedly will complicate any “interpretative” attempts in relation to the agreement on the part of Greek government).

At the same time, the February 20 Agreement includes the statement: “The Greek authorities have also committed to ensure the appropriate primary fiscal surpluses or financing proceeds required to guarantee debt sustainability in line with the November 2012 Eurogroup statement.” This means that the Greek government refrains from the target of debt restructuring-reduction and adopts the sustainability plan based on debt repayment mostly through primary surpluses. This implies the rollback from point (3b) of its initial negotiating package.

What the Greek government has won (aside from the mere change in terminology, about which there was intense debate) is:

  • A. Part (a) of section (3) of its initial suggestions, namely the right to propose reforms to the “institutions” for approval with regard to fiscal consolidation and growth. The policy measures agreed by the previous government (reduction of pensions and increase of VAT in the islands) were thus taken out. Both sides agreed to give particular emphasis to the “overdue” fight against corruption and tax evasion, public sector efficiency, improving the tax system, etc.[5]
  • B. Further negotiations on the size of the primary surplus for 2015. Instead of the previously agreed 3% of GDP, the new agreement leaves open the issue of a lower primary surplus for 2015: “The institutions will, for the 2015 primary surplus target, take the economic circumstances in 2015 into account.”

It is clear that the new agreement is a truce, but truce is by no means a tie. The agreement is a first step on slippery ground. The Greek government may have gained time, but the political landscape seems quite tough, having minor similarities with the initial minimum negotiation targets set by the Greek side on the 12th February.

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Greece – The Rocky Road Ahead

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It’s been a week now since the guns fell silent between Greece and its creditors and a 4 month armistice was agreed – so what are we to make of the outcome? Yes it’s true that Tsipiris, Varoufakis and Co. were not able to deliver on one of their two main election pillars – debt forgiveness – but does that necessarily make it the complete capitulation that some have said? Would an honourable defeat be a more accurate appraisal? Or could it be that the agreement was simply a crucial exercise in buying time and space?

These are certainly valid questions but unfortunately valid questions don’t always elicit easy answers. For the position we take on this temporary agreement is in many ways determined by how we viewed the bargaining power of Syriza relative to the European establishment from the outset. In other words; hows we perceived that power differential helps determine what range of outcomes we would have considered possible.

So for example if you thought that in the negotiations Syriza held the trump card and all that was required was calling the Eurogroup’s bluff and threatening the nuclear option (Grexit) then you would see the agreement as a relative failure largely attributable to a leadership that lost its nerve. Thus all that was required was different players made of tougher stuff.

If on the other hand you believed that Syriza was negotiating from a much weaker position given that they were seemingly less prepared (and more scared) of Grexit than their interlocutors, then you could rationalise the agreement as best that could have been bargained for whilst providing the necessary breathing room to prepare a potential Grexit strategy.

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The Money Exists for Investment in Greece

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This article originally appeared in Socialist Economic Bulletin on Friday, the 27th of February

The fraught negotiations between the new Greek government and representatives of the EU institutions are likely to be prolonged. They have centred to date on Syriza’s efforts to find room to alleviate some of the worst effects of austerity and address what is called the ‘humanitarian crisis’.

This is entirely justifiable given the depth of the fall in living standards with widespread malnutrition in Greece, a health crisis, hundreds of thousands of homes cut off from electricity supply and other ills.

Policies aimed at income redistribution can help in this key area, so it is entirely correct to attempt to increase tax revenue from the rich in order to ameliorate the effects of poverty on the poor. But any sustainable improvement in living standards must be based on increasing the productive capacity of the economy which requires investment. Any transfer of income will be a one-off effect if income does not grow. Yet the austerity measures imposed by the Troika (EU Commission, European Central Bank and IMF) and the existing burden of debt interest payments prevent the government from investing and provide a further disincentive for the private sector to invest of its own volition.

Domestic sources of investment

There are two key sources of funds that could be tapped for investment; domestic and international.

Domestically the Greek business class claims the highest share of national income in the whole of the OECD. In 2013 (in nominal terms) the Gross Operating Surplus of Greek firms was €102.2bn from a GDP total of €182.4bn. This profit share in GDP of 56% is way in excess of the customary levels in the OECD. By comparison the German profit share in the same year was 39.3%.

A high profit share is not itself directly harmful to growth and prosperity. If firms were investing profits the productive capacity would be rising rapidly and new high-quality and high-paid jobs could easily be created. But the opposite is the case in Greece, which also has the lowest rate of investment as a proportion of GDP in the whole of the OECD. Again in nominal terms investment (Gross Fixed Capital Formation) in Greece in 2013 was just €20.5bn or 11.3% of GDP. By comparison the German proportion of investment was 19.8%.

This is not to hold up the German economic model to be emulated. Like all the Western economies (including Britain) the rate of investment in the German economy has slowed dramatically over several decades, which is the cause of the ‘secular stagnation’ of the Western economies over the same period.

Even so, the disparity in the profit rate and the investment rate is exceptional in Greece. The proportion of uninvested profits in Germany is equivalent to 19.5% of GDP (profits equal to 39.3% of GDP minus an investment level equivalent to 19.8%). This level of uninvested profits is very high by historical standards. But the proportion of uninvested profits in Greece is 44.7% (profits of 56% of GDP minus investment of 11.3%). The nominal level of profits and investment is shown in Fig. 1 below.

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Grexit or Compromise: Which Way for the Greek Left?

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The last 10 days, from February 11th to February 20th, saw some critical developments in Greece. After a number of clashes in the Eurogroups of 11th, 16th and 20th February, an agreement was reached extending the “current arrangement” with the Troika for 4 months. This agreement, as is generally agreed, was a heavy compromise on the part of the Greek SYRIZA-ANEL government, putting into doubt the possibility to carry out its program, i.e. SYRIZA’s Thessaloniki program. There was another serious compromise too, when, on February 18th, Prokopis Pavlopoulos, a representative of the conservative camp and leading figure of the ND party, was elected President of the Republic.

The same period witnessed, on the other hand, some big demonstrations in Greece and other European countries too, centered round the task of cancelling debt. Although not as massive as those in the 2011-2012 period, they show some real hope of a new rise of the movements and their possible intervention in the scene. Significantly, these demonstrations, which begun as acts of spontaneous support to the Greek government, seem likely to continue after the compromise made – a new one was announced for February 26th in various facebook pages.

Taken together these developments pose some serious questions. Does SYRIZA relinquish its promises of a substantial change with regard to the previous austerity ND-PASOK regime? Is such a change feasible within the EU through an acceptable compromise reached after a negotiation? Or is it impossible and Greece should head instead for a payment default and exit the EU – the prospect broadly known as “Grexit?”

In this article we will discuss these questions, with an eye to the coming solution of the Greek drama when the four month prolongation of the Memorandum ends.

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The Politics of Breathing Space – or Why the Irish Government Can’t Let Syriza ‘Win’

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It is difficult to make sense of the EU governments’ attitude towards Greece – not if we’re using rational measurements.  There was a deal on the table – as reported by Paul Mason of Channel 4 news.  The Greek government was happy enough with it, the EU Commission was happy enough with it, it didn’t cross all the t’s but it provided the necessary breathing space to allow a more sustainable and beneficial deal for both creditors and debtors to emerge.  So what went wrong?

One of the problems with writing about the current crisis is that by the time this gets posted, events have moved on – such is the speed at which events, and rumours of events, are moving.  So let’s just hit some highlights.

You’d think Greece has been lethargic in applying its austerity programme, resulting in comments like – ‘Why can’t Greece be more like the virtuous Irish?’  But as Kevin O’Rourke states, pointing to the comparative fall in the structural deficit between Ireland and Greece:

‘So, to summarise: the Greeks have done more “reform” than we have, have endured a lot more austerity, and live in a country where the costs of austerity are likely to be higher than here. Perhaps the Irish government might want to tone down its assertions of relative virtue, and display a bit of solidarity with Greece. Is a less deflationary and less creditor-friendly Eurozone  not in Ireland’s long term interests, assuming that we remain a member of the single currency?’

What the new Greek Government wants is very reasonable:  a few weeks to draw up an agreed programme.  Claims that ‘we don’t know what they want’ (made consistently by our Finance Minister) are misleading and insulting. They are not asking for extra money, they are not seeking transfers from, or additional liabilities to, other members states.  From the outset, Greek Ministers has been asking for what can be called a ‘bridging loan’ which would only last a relative few weeks – in order to negotiate a new programme.  In other words, they are asking for time – a reasonable request for any new government.

And that is exactly what was almost agreed – or at least was on the table.  Paul Mason quotes from a draft agreement was drawn up by EU Commissioner Pierre Moscovici

‘The above (the proposed agreement) forms a basis for an extension of the current loan agreement, which could take the form of a (four-month) intermediate programme, as a transitional stage to a new contract for growth for Greece, that will be deliberated and concluded during this period.’

This coming from the EU Commission which is not known for its debtor sympathies.  Nonetheless, it was a constructive intervention – even if some officials from the EU Finance Ministers’ meetings tried to insist it didn’t exist.

This got nowhere even though Greece was willing to sign.  So why the opposition to what could be seen as a face-saving compromise for all involved?

Quite simple – the Syriza government cannot be seen to ‘win’.  Never mind debt write-downs (which Syriza is not looking for – Alexis Tsipras has made it clear they will honour all contracts, all obligations); the ‘win’ here refers to breathing space and the political momentum that such space might encourage throughout Europe.

The breathing space would give time to construct an alternative to austerity.  The breathing space would provide momentum, not only in Greece, but in other countries (and not just the periphery) to those forces who have been arguing for an alternative to the current deflationary regime.  The breathing space would create the danger that the initiative could be wrested away from the controlled-rooms of Minister meetings and taken up by popular forces.  The breathing space could be a very dangerous space – dangerous to the current elite.

What might happen if the new Greek Government constructed a programme whereby relaxation of arbitrary budget surplus rules (which would cost nothing to anyone but would allow for a humanitarian and investment programme), coupled with an authentic reform that tackled the corruption and tax evasion imposed on Greek society by the oligarchs?  A programme that met all EU fiscal targets but did so in a different way than what is being demanded by EU member-states?  This wouldn’t put some folk and some ideologies in a good light.

This helps explain why only a matter of hours after they were elected, the new Greek government was subjected to a torrent of demands to continue the Troika, extend the current bailout deal, maintain the current course – no deviation, no relaxation.  Even now, the bottom line from the Eurogroup is that Greece must apply for a bail-out extension – even though this is unnecessary and gratuitous given the EU Commission’s intervention.

Syriza raised hopes and expectations throughout Europe in the aftermath of their historic victory.  They continued those with the new Prime Ministers’ first address to the Greek parliament.  They swept through Europe in the person of the Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis and his support team.

That had to be shut down – and shutdown quickly.  If Europeans got similar ideas, all manner of problems could arise for domestic governments who have a more grim agenda in mind.  The last thing the Syriza government should be allowed is to carry on all this hope and expectation-raising.  Normal business must be resumed and seen to be resumed.  Immediately.

This explains the Irish Government’s attitude of ‘no breathing space’.  This might give time for progressive voices here – in concert with other European groupings – to critique and propose alternatives to a deflationary programme of squeezing public spending, cutting taxes and obsessing over a balanced budget while labouring under incredible debt levels.  Give the Greeks breathing space and we might get ideas about getting one of our own– and that can’t be allowed.

The Irish Government’s position is unconscionable and unreasonable.  Their opposition to the Greek Government’s reasonable request should be highlighted at every opportunity, opposed at every turn; and not only for the sake of the Greek people.

For, like the Syriza Government, the next Irish Government – hopefully the first progressive government elected in this state – will be demanding the same thing:  breathing space.  Let’s hope it is not too late – for Ireland, for Greece and for Europe

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The French Elephant in the Room

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How do EU countries manage to provide better public services and income supports than us?  And are the Irish willing to pay for European-style public services (the implication being we are not).  These were the two questions posed by the Claire Byrne Live show which compared life in France with our lives here.  It was both provocative and frustrating; frustrating because it did not answer the first question.  Had it done so, we would have realised the second question is irrelevant.  

Provocatively, we learned that in France:

  • Children receive full-time education from the age of three, totally free
  • A visit to the GP costs €7 and the waiting times for medical procedures can be measured in days – not months or years
  • If you become unemployed, you get 80 percent of your last wage in unemployment benefit for up to two years.

In other words, the French social model is far, far advanced compared to ours. 

How do they do they achieve this?  Do they tax their citizens more?  The programme provided a couple of statistics in a video introduction that should have alerted the discussion.  They compared a French two-earner household with an Irish one – both on €80,000.  The Irish household paid higher personal taxes (income tax, USC, PRSI). 

The second stat showed French government spending at 57 percent of GDP; Irish government spending is well below that at 40 percent.   So, if Irish personal taxes are higher, but spending is much lower – well, somewhere in there is the answer.  Let’s see if we can find it with the help of Eurostat and the EU’s Ameco database.

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When it comes to personal taxation on employees and household consumption tax (VAT and Excise), Ireland and France are pretty close with both trailing the EU average.  So the reason can’t be found here.

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Solidarity with Syriza: Challenging Austerity at Home

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An article by Brendan Young and Eddie Conlon

The election of Syriza has sparked a rash of speculation on the possibility of a left government in Ireland at the next election. Contributing to this were the recent inferences from SF sources that they would not go into a coalition with the Troika parties – in particular FF or FG. Such a commitment would be welcome.

This note addresses three issues:

  • there is little prospect of a left government coming out of the next election, so what should the anti-austerity movement do to build a political alternative in the light of the Syriza victory;

  • the movement against the water charge is the source of a new political alternative and new, anti-austerity candidates in the coming election; any slate of anti-austerity candidates must therefore champion the non-payment demands of the movement because otherwise it will remain isolated from it;

  • should any new political formation accept the rules laid down by the defenders of wealth and privilege – or be prepared to lead a challenge to those rules?

No to Coalition with the Right

Explicit rejection of coalition with the Right – FF and FG – is a pre-requisite for discussion of a left alternative in Ireland. We cannot develop an alternative to the ravages of capitalism by forming a government with parties committed to the preservation of the wealth and privilege of the capitalist minority. But as yet, no clear statement has come from SF on this matter. Nor is it clear that SF would not do something analogous to what Syriza has unfortunately done: formed a coalition with a party of the Right, in this case ANEL – a populist right wing, anti-immigrant party – rather than form a minority government and demand the support of the KKE on concrete issues. The fault in this lies with the refusal of the KKE (Greek Communist Party) to support a Syriza government.

Hopefully this coalition deal will not derail the pre-election promises by the Syriza leadership – or become an excuse for not implementing anti-austerity or socially progressive measures. Socialists across Europe should support the actions of the Syriza government against the continued imposition of debt and austerity in Greece and build active solidarity with Syriza. The best way to do that is to actively challenge the austerity regime at home.

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Celebrating the election of Syriza

Syriza’s Historic Victory and the Prospects of the Left

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The Greek elections of January 25th have given a decisive victory to SYRIZA. It is a victory not only of the Greek but also of the European Left, which can prove of historical consequences for the further course of Europe.

SYRIZA gained 149 seats in the Greek parliament, just falling short of the required majority of 151 to form a government of its own. However, it achieved a clear preponderance, with an 8.5% margin, against the hitherto ruling conservative party of ND, and was able to form a government with the support of ANEL, a small Right party.

The result of the elections was hailed by the Greek laboring people with relief as opening a prospect of escape from their sufferings, the austerity measures, unemployment and poverty, deriving from the Memoranda imposed by the Troika after 2010. It was these laboring people who gave victory to SYRIZA against the ruling parties of the establishment. These parties, PASOK and ND, had followed faithfully all directions of the Troika, resulting in an unprecedented fall of wages by almost 30% (and even more in some categories of workers) and record unemployment of about 25-30% (more than 50% in the youth). There is now broad expectation within the people that at least some of the burdens and misfortunes they suffered during the last years will be raised and that they will achieve a betterment of their condition. At the same time, besides a willingness to fight for their interests, there is also some anxiety and uncertainty about the next day. SYRIZA’s result has given hope to the people but has not completely eliminated fear, as everyone here in Greece knows that, in view of strong pressures and blackmail from the EU, it will not be easy for the new government to effect the promised changes.

SYRIZA’s victory and the formation of the new government have aroused great interest in the rest of Europe as well, provoking reactions from all sides. Conservative forces have hastened to “remind” that Greece must implement the obligations ensuing form the Memoranda – German chancellor Merkel, minister of Finance Schaeuble and French president Francois Hollande have already made such statements. On the other hand, Left parties, activists and intellectuals all over the world hailed the result as a great opportunity and spur to the fight to end austerity policies.

The elections have shown some other significant, even if secondary, trends too with regard to all other parties and the rest of the Greek Left. They witnessed the smashing up of intermediate “center-Left” parties, the formerly mighty PASOK and DIMAR, being replaced by the colorless Potami (the Greek word for “The River”), the firmness of the Golden Dawn Nazis coming out as the third party, a mediocre rise of the Anti-capitalist Left formation ANTARSYA and the relative stability of the neo-Stalinist KKE[1].

All these aspects have received extensive commentary in Greece from analysts on the Left and the broader political spectrum. In the present article we will commend on the result and the course taken, hoping to throw some light on the issues involved – issues that are crucial not only for the Greek but for the European Left as well.

 1. The result of the elections

Seven months ago, commenting on the result of the Greek EU elections in an article in this site, the present writer had called it “a clear, historical, but still not decisive SYRIZA victory”. The same thing may be said in an even stronger sense about the result of the present parliamentary elections. It was a still more imposing and great victory for SYRIZA but yet still not decisive.

Throughout the election campaign, SYRIZA’s leadership persistently called the electorate to give SYRIZA a parliamentary majority (i.e., at least 151 seats) in order to be able to fulfill unhindered its program. During the last days before the vote, polls showed this to be a realistic possibility. Yet, after a thriller lasting almost all the elections night, SYRIZA failed to acquire the majority needed by the narrowest margin.

The fact that there was something lacking in SIRIZA’s result in both contests cannot be considered purely an accident and some explanations have been offered.

SYRIZA’s momentous rise in the 2012 elections was due chiefly to the big social movements of “Aganaktismenoi” that developed in Greece during 2011-12. However, after ND won the 2012 elections and was able to form a coalition government with PASOK (and, initially, with DIMAR too) the movements subsided. Despite occasional outbursts, there was a general mood of weariness within the people, who saw their previous big struggles being defeated and, in an immediate sense, remain ineffective.

To this natural reaction may be added the fact that SYRIZA adopted, to a bigger or lesser extent, a tactic of waiting, expecting power to fall in its hands like a ripe fruit after the inevitable decline of the ND-PASOK rule. This does not mean, as a number of Leftists imply in their criticisms, that SYRIZA should be regarded directly responsible for the decline of the movements, or that it acted as a barrier to their revival. The retreat of the movements was to a certain extent inevitable and SYRIZA could not have reversed it at will. The point is however that during the last two years its stance was somewhat passive and inactive, consisting of excessive “realist” adjustments and failing to strengthen its ties with the people in the new situation.

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