Greece

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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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Greek Reforms Submission as Presented to the President of the Eurogroup Today

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The following are the package of Greek reforms sent to the President of the Eurogroup, Jeroen Dijsselbloem at midnight Greek time, last night. 

Dear President of the Eurogroup,

In the Eurogroup of 20 February 2015 the Greek government was invited to present to the institutions, by Monday 23rd February 2015, a first comprehensive list of reform measures it is envisaging, to be further specified and agreed by the end of April 2015.

In addition to codifying its reform agenda, in accordance with PM Tsipras’ programmatic statement to Greece’s Parliament, the Greek government also committed to working in close agreement with European partners and institutions, as well as with the International Monetary Fund, and take actions that strengthen fiscal sustainability, guarantee financial stability and promote economic recovery.

The first comprehensive list of reform measures follows below, as envisaged by the Greek government. It is our intention to implement them while drawing upon available technical assistance and financing from the European Structural and Investment Funds.

Truly

Yanis Varoufakis Minister of Finance Hellenic Republic

I. Fiscal structural policies

Tax policies – Greece commits to:

  • Reform VAT policy, administration and enforcement. Robust efforts will be made to improve collection and fight evasion making full use of electronic means and other technological innovations. VAT policy will be rationalised in relation to rates that will be streamlined in a manner that maximises actual revenues without a negative impact on social justice, and with a view to limiting exemptions while eliminating unreasonable discounts.
  • Modify the taxation of collective investment and income tax expenditures which will be integrated in the income tax code.
  • Broaden definition of tax fraud and evasion while disbanding tax immunity.
  • Modernising the income tax code and eliminating from it tax code exemptions and replacing them, when necessary, with social justice enhancing measures.
  • Resolutely enforce and improve legislation on transfer pricing.
  • Work toward creating a new culture of tax compliance to ensure that all sections of society, and especially the well-off, contribute fairly to the financing of public policies. In this context, establish with the assistance of European and international partners, a wealth database that assists the tax authorities in gauging the veracity of previous income tax returns.

Public Finance Management – Greece will:

  • Adopt amendments to the Organic Budget Law and take steps to improve public finance management. Budget implementation will be improved and clarified as will control and reporting responsibilities. Payment procedures will be modernised and accelerated while providing a higher degree of financial and budgetary flexibility and accountability for independent and/or regulatory entities.
  • Devise and implement a strategy on the clearance of arrears, tax refunds and pension claims.
  • Turn the already established (though hitherto dormant) Fiscal Council into a fully operational entity.

Revenue administration – Greece will modernise the tax and custom administrations benefiting from available technical assistance. To this end Greece will:

  • Enhance the openness, transparency and international reach of the process by which the General Secretary of the General Secretariat of Public Revenues is appointed, monitored in terms of performance, and replaced.
  • Strengthen the independence of the General Secretariat of Public Revenues (GSPR), if necessary through further legislation, from all sorts of interference (political or otherwise) while guaranteeing full accountability and transparency of its operations. To this end, the government and the GSPR will make full use of available technical assistance.
  • Staff adequately, both quantitatively and qualitatively, the GSPR and in particular the high wealth and large debtors units of the revenue administration and ensure that it has strong investigative/prosecution powers, and resources building on SDOE’s capacities, so as to target effectively tax fraud by, and tax arrears of, high income social groups. Consider the merits of integrating SDOE into GSPR.
  • Augment inspections, risk-based audits, and collection capacities while seeking to integrate the functions of revenue and social security collection across the general government.

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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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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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Tsipras versus Cameron: people versus bankers

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This article originally appeared on Socialist Economic Bulletin on the 1st of Feb 2015. 

David Cameron became the first elected politician in Europe to criticise the election of the Syriza government in Greece and was quickly followed by George Osborne. This might seem odd as Britain is outside the Eurozone and has limited direct influence over its policies. But the urgent and unrestrained nature of the criticism is very revealing about what is at stake in the anti-austerity struggle and specifically the very different roles being played by the British and Greek governments.

The Syriza government represents the popular will to end austerity. Only the parties of the left increased their vote in the recent election, and that was overwhelmingly to Syriza’s benefit with a rise of 9.4%. But entirely new parties and even parties of the traditional right adopted similar anti-austerity rhetoric in an effort to shore up their vote. The election showed the Greek popular majority wants to end austerity.

In Britain the banks have an extraordinarily large weight in the economy. Consequently, this dominance is felt through all areas of political and social life. A recent Global Financial Stability Reportfrom the IMF (pdf) demonstrated the dangerously lop-sided nature of the British economy by focusing on ‘shadow banking’, the artificially created networks of companies and vehicles to disguise the real liabilities of the banks. In Britain shadow banking accounts for over 350% of GDP. The next highest exposure of all the industrialised areas or economies is the Eurozone at less than 200% of GDP. The phrase ‘too big to fail’ is insufficiently grave to convey the threat posed by the outsized level of British bank liabilities.

This explains the sudden and intemperate Tory interventions against the newly-elected Greek government. The British government represents the interests of British big businesses and the most important of these is the banks. The banks have sharply reduced their loans outstanding to Greek borrowers. As Martin Wolf the Financial Times’ chief economics commentator explained recently, the banks in general were the key beneficiaries of the bailout, not the Greek economy or its population. Since the €254bn bailout organised by the Troika just €27bn was to support the Greek economy. The rest went to creditors with British, German and Dutch banks at the head of the queue for the taxpayer-funded bailout. But the huge debt is incurred by Greek taxpayers, and so the debt burden is unbearable.

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Syriza’s Victory: Turning Hope into Reality

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This article by Michael Burke and John Ross was originally posted on Socialist Economic Bulletin on Monday the 26th of January

The Greek people have inspired every progressive force in Europe, and beyond, by electing the first anti-austerity government in Europe. Syriza has similarly inspired every progressive person with the great political skill with which it outmanoeuvred the forces in Greece and Europe who attempted to scare the Greek people into not voting for it. As Alexis Tsipras said immediately after its victory Syriza has opened up hope for the Greek people – and many others as well.

The key question now is how to turn hope into reality.

Syriza has outlined clearly its orientation – which should be supported by every progressive force. Syriza has said it is not seeking to exit from the Euro. It wants Greece’s unpayable and unjust debt renegotiated. The immediate priority of the left throughout Europe must be to organise support for this demand of Syriza during the coming negotiations. It is to be welcomed that not only the political left but also far wider groups arguing for a rational economic policy support this course – including eminent figures in their profession such as Nobel Prize winners in economics Joseph Stiglitz and Chris Pissarides. All efforts must be redoubled across Europe to gain support for the renegotiation of Greece’s debt – a course which corresponds not only to the interests of the Greek people but to the interests of rational economic policy across Europe, and therefore to the interests of the people of Europe.

Whether or not these negotiations succeed, however, the new Greek government is faced with key choices in economic policy. This is even more the case as, if the economic policies of the new government do not succeed, sinister forces that failed to win this election will seek to turn Greece backwards.

The first and immediate priority, of course, is to reduce and eliminate the appalling humanitarian suffering imposed on the Greek people by the austerity policies. Creating jobs, raising wages, restoring pensions, recreating the best possible social security are the top priorities. As always politics must take precedence over economics.

But to sustain the improvement in the living standards of the Greek people it is necessary to relaunch economic growth. And the key to economic growth is necessarily investment. Without rising investment an economy cannot grow.

Under the conditions of Greece it is even more unrealistic than normal to rely on the private sector for investment. It is the collapse in private investment which has driven economic collapse in Greece and economic recession across Europe. Since 2007 Greece’s GDP has fallen by €57bn of which the bulk is the fall in investment at €36bn. The only way to secure economic growth is therefore to embark on a programme of state investment. Those countries which have used state investment as their key instrument to promote growth have enjoyed outstanding success – for example Ecuador, Bolivia and China.

In a country such as Ecuador, which has enjoyed 5% GDP annual average growth over 10 years, real incomes per capita have risen by over 2% a year, and 10% of the population has been lifted out of poverty. This has been driven by state investment which has now reached 15% of GDP.
Economic growth, led by state investment, will in turn create the conditions under which the private sector will begin to invest again.

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Syriza Comes to Ireland’s (and the Eurozone’s) Rescue

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Everyone in Ireland, regardless of their political orientation or party-political affiliation, should be hoping Syriza wins the upcoming Greek election and forms the next government. Why?  Because their proposals on public debt would be a major boost to Ireland and the Eurozone as a whole.   The headline to Denis Staunton’s excellent article said it best:

‘Why Ireland should support Greek plan to write down euro-zone public debt’

Leave aside your ideological predispositions.  Even Wolfgang Munchau of the Financial Times believes Syriza and Spain’s Podemos are the only parties talking sense about European debt.

Syriza is proposing a European Debt Conference – similar to the one held for Germany after World War II.  And the broad proposals they will bring to the Conference are based on this this paper written by Dimitris P. Sotiropoulos, Yiannis Milios and Spyros Lapatsiora.  In short:

  • The European Central Bank (ECB) acquires a significant part of the outstanding sovereign debt of the Eurozone countries – reducing national debt levels to 50 percent of GDP.
  • These bonds would be converted to zero coupon bonds with a 1 percent discount
  • The countries will buy back the debt when the ratio of those bonds falls to 20 percent of GDP

The impact for Ireland would be dramatic.  In one fell swoop our public debt would be more than halved – reduced from 108 percent of GDP to 50 percent.  This would cut interest payments by approximately half, saving €3.7 billion.  Imagine what we could do with that €3.7 billion every year – increase investment, improve public services, and boost social protection income (even cut taxes if that is your political perspective).  Whatever, this money would constitute a major stimulus programme for Ireland.

It would have a similar effect throughout the Eurozone.  All countries would benefit (with the exception of Estonia, Latvia and Luxembourg; their debt is already below 50 percent).  Over €4 trillion of Eurozone debt would be removed.  With the massive interest payment reductions, the Eurozone would receive a similar stimulus boost.  This would be the best way to escape the looming deflationary crisis.

The authors also hold out the prospect of a further boost, by presenting a slightly different alternative scenario to the one above:  interest payments would be suspended over the first five years and rolled up into the zero coupon bonds. Giving Ireland and the Eurozone a free pass on interest payments over the next five years would have an even more stimulatory and economically-galvanising effect.

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Greek EU Elections: A Clear, Historical, But Still Not Decisive SYRIZA Victory

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The Greek EU elections have produced what is clearly a historical result, not only for Greece but for the European Union as well. SYRIZA won by a clear margin of almost 4% (3.8% to be more precise), scoring 26.5% against 22.7% of ND, the governing right party. Moreover, in the municipal and regional elections SYRIZA gained an impressive victory in Attica district with Rena Dourou, though it failed to elect Sakellaridis in Athens, who lost by a small margin to Kaminis.

SYRIZA’s victory is widely discussed by the European mass media, together with Marine Le Pen’s impressive first place in France, as the two most striking and weighty EU elections results. But while important on a general level, SYRIZA’s success is even more important for the European Left. It is the first time in recent history of Western Europe that a party of the Left gains first place since 1984, when the Italian Communist Party had achieved the same, just after Enrico Berlinguer’s death. However, SYRIZA’s victory comes at a much graver occasion, when the specter of fascism, racism and reaction hangs heavily over the continent. In this connection, it is crucial in showing that there is another road for Europe apart from the turn to the ultra Right, observed not only in France but in several other EU countries (Austria, Denmark, Sweden, Hungary, etc.) as well.

Yet, precisely because it is historical, SYRIZA’s victory must be analyzed in a serious way and not be idealized or overestimated. This is not only because it was accompanied by a new rise of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, but also because, if closely viewed, it points to some weaknesses of SYRIZA, without which it could have been even larger. Moreover, the Greek EU election results show some interesting tendencies with regard to the other parties as well, reflecting underground social trends which may be relevant for other EU countries too.

We will proceed therefore to a commentary of the Greek EU elections, hoping to highlight some of these aspects. But first of all let us give the results themselves (we also cite the May and June 2012 parliamentary elections results for the sake of comparison).

Party

%

Seats

May 2012

June 2012

SYRIZA

26.5

6

16.8

26.9

ND

22.7

5

18.9

29.7

Golden Dawn

9.4

3

7.0

6.9

Elia

8.0

2

13.2

12.3

Potami

6.6

2

KKE

6.0

2

8.5

4.5

ANEL

3.5

1

10.6

7.5

LAOS

2.7

2.9

1.6

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Greek Elections Update: A Small Step for SYRIZA, a Medium Step for Golden Dawn

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The first round of the Greek municipal and regional elections is over. The results, while indecisive, present a number interesting aspects, which give some idea about what may be expected in the second round as well in the European Parliament elections next Sunday. We shall summarize and comment them here.

First of all, abstention was quite high, though not higher than that in the previous, 2010 municipal and regional elections. It ranged between 53% in the city of Athens (it was 57% in 2010) to 35% in smaller provincial cities. This fact shows that the crisis of the political system still continues, without however SYRIZA or any other party clearly benefiting from it.

There was an interesting incident with the exit polls at 7 p.m. Sunday afternoon showing that SYRIZA was heading for a spectacular win in the biggest municipality and district, respectively Athens and Attica. They forecasted a win for Dourou, SYRIZA’s candidate for the Attica district, with a margin of 6-7% against the center-left “independent” Sgouros, and also a small precedence of Sakellaridis, SYRIZA’s candidate in Athens, against the equally “independent” center-left Kaminis. This created euphoria in SYRIZA with its leader, Alexis Tsipras, making some enthusiastic comments. However, these forecasts, which would indeed mean not only an overturn of all polls, but also a triumph for SYRIZA in the decisive battles, failed to materialize. As results began to roll in, it became clear that Dourou’s margin was much lower, of the order of 2%, while Sakellaridis was second after Kaminis, even if marginally. Still, the final result was a very descent one for Dourou and Sakellaridis. Meanwhile, it turned out the neonazi Golden Dawn scored better than in forecasts, achieving two quite positive results: 16,12% of the well known Kasidiaris in Athens and 11,11% of Panagiotaros in Attica district. Both in Athens and Attica the ruling party’s ND candidates failed to make it to the second round.

Had the picture in the rest of Greece been the same, with regard to SYRIZA and ND, than even that result would be a clear victory for SYRIZA. However, this was not the case. In most districts and in the other big municipalities (Thessaloniki, Piraeus, Patra) SYRIZA’s candidates scored well below that, roughly at 15%. The governmental district candidates, on the other hand, apart from the disastrous Attica result (where the ND candidate, Koumoutsakos, took just 14.13%) averaged somewhere between 25-30% (or even more in some cases).

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