Editorial note: If you have not yet read our mission statement above, please do so in order that you can put our blogs in context.
Special editorial note: Apologies to readers for a rather long post. This is because it concerns what we consider to be a key moment in the political development of Europe. The dramatis personae include King Leonidas at Thermopylae, a disciplinarian German headmistress, and Manolis Glezos, a World War II hero who tore down the swastika flag that the troops of the Third Reich had hoisted over the Acropolis in Athens. After analysing the content and causes of the present discontents, we consider the reactions of the various parties involved, the likely repercussions in Greece and elsewhere and, finally, what we believe ought to have happened.
23 February 2015
NEOLIBERAL JUGGERNAUT CRUSHES GREENHORN GREEK REBELS
The little dogs barked but the European caravan moved on regardless.
“Η ελπίδα έρχεται”
Soon you will be able to hope again.
It was in line with this ubiquitous campaign slogan that Syriza, the winning party in the recent Greek parliamentary elections on 25 January 2015, pledged to put an end to the savage austerity that had plunged vast numbers of Greeks into homelessness, joblessness and poverty.
A new slogan is now required in view of Syriza’s abject capitulation last Friday to tight-fisted money lenders from Frankfurt, Brussels and Washington as it humbly acquiesced in yet another turn of the thumscrew of austerity in exchange for a few more miserable crumbs from the tables of the new masters of the universe, the international bankster mafia:
“Η ελπίδα δέν έρχεται”
Hope? You must be joking.
U-turns are par for the course in politics, but the cave-in by the new Greek government to the diktats from flint-hearted Germany and its tightwad accomplices less than a month after it came to power in parliamentary elections on 25 January has taken place at warp speed. It is arguably the fastest and most comprehensive volte-face in by a political party in recent history. Syriza has fallen in with a request from its creditors to throw overboard its entire electoral programme and to ditch systematically all pre-election pledges to the Greek electorate.
Throughout the election campaign and during the four weeks since the ballot brought the “radical” Syriza party to power that party’s leaders repeatedly pledged an immediate end to externally-imposed austerity and swore to the people of Greece that “Greeks will no longer be humiliated” by its dunning creditors.
On Friday 20 February 2015 at a meeting of the 19-state eurozone (a single-currency bloc within the 28-nation European Union) the Greek representatives tore up, one by one, every loud-mouth promise they had made to their electors in a humiliating climb-down that represented an unconditional surrender to their intransigent paymasters led by Germany.
On Friday Syriza agreed to make an all-consuming bonfire of its myriad white-knight pledges to ride to to the help of the country’s poor, homeless, hungry, cold and jobless. Simultaneously, it dashed the hopes of millions of decent people around the world that Greece might provide the model for a brave new world of justice and humanity by taking a determined and principled stand against the uncaring savagery of global neoliberal orthodoxy. Alas, it was not to be.
Syriza is now a busted flush and Greece is stuffed.
U-TURN AFTER U-TURN
In particular, Syriza had vowed during the election campaign that:
- it would no longer negotiate with the hated triad (officially “troika”) of creditors (the European Central Bank in Frankfurt, the European Commission in Brussels and the International Monetary Fund in Washington) that had imposed draconian cuts in Greek public spending – “fiscal waterboarding” – in exchange for a loan bail-0ut. On Friday it agreed to do just that, the only change being a cosmetic one, namely that “the “troika” will now be referred to as “the institutions”;
- the bail-out with its austericidal conditions (the hated “memorandum of understanding”), which is due to expire on 28 February, would be replaced by a six-month bridging loan without strings attached. On Friday “the institutions” (ie the former “troika”) refused to provide a bridging loan without strings attached and Greece, on its knees and short of cash, was forced to agree to accept an extension for only four months of the existing bail-out together with its austerity-based conditions ;
- it would negotiate the cancellation of part of Greece’s public sector debt and seek a longer term in which to repay the remaining capital and interest. Neither of these requests have been granted.
However, that is not all.
The extension of the bail-out agreed in broad outline on Friday 20 February will not take place unless two further conditions are met:
(1) The Greek government has been ordered to present “the institutions” by this evening 23 February with an acceptable list of the reforms (proposals for cutting public spending and raising public revenues) it intends to implement over the four months in question;
(2) If these reforms are acceptable to “the institutions”, extension of the loan will then be subject to a final hurdle. It must be approved by the parliaments of Germany, Finland, the Netherlands and Estonia.
In the event that all these conditions are fulfilled and the bail-out extension is granted, during the four months of its existence Greek compliance with the bail-out conditions will continue to be policed, as hitherto, by “the institutions” (the new name for the hated “troika”). However, as a concession to Athens, the Greek government will have the flexibility to make some changes to the conditions, subject to approval by “the institutions”, provided that these changes do not lead to budgetary imbalances, i.e. public spending over and above the limits set under the bail-out;
Over the four months of the extension a further bail-out is to be negotiated with “the institutions” in the context of a continued programme of “reforms” (i.e. public spending cutbacks, a slimming down of the civil service and the privatization of state assets).
So after three weeks of “negotiations” with “the institutions” the Greeks have ended up with….diddly-squat.
Apart, that is, from a name change for “the troika”.
Well done, chaps!
After a lot of huffing, puffing and hollering by the Greeks, the naughty school children of Syriza who had been threatening to break the school rules have been whipped into line by the German headmistress, Angela Merkel, and her fellow martinets.
Why has this happened?
FOUR REASONS WHY SYRIZA COCKED IT UP
Well, in the first place, Syriza threw away its bargaining chips before it went into the negotiations. This was the most glaring of mistakes and it is hard to imagine how they could have done it.
Syriza had one thing and one thing only that its creditors wanted. They wanted it to stay in the European Union and the eurozone. Even if one country alone, e.g. Greece, were to leave the eurozone, this would mean that membership of the bloc was not irreversible. The standing of the euro in the financial markets would be seriously impaired as a result. And other eurozone members might be tempted to pull out if the going got tough for their economies.
So what did Syriza do?
Even before it entered into the current negotations with its creditors – indeed throughout the election campaign and in fact as long ago as the last parliamentary election in June 2012 – Syriza repeatedly committed itself to staying within both the European Union and the eurozone. In an interview with Helena Smith in the London Guardian on 14 February, Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis said: “I cannot possibly separate the fate of this country from the fate of Europe”, adding that Athens was never going to ask to leave the euro, which would be tantamount to “falling off a cliff”.
So “the institutions” knew that they had nothing to lose by taking a tough line on Syriza’s pleas for debt forgiveness. Syriza had already given up in advance the one bargaining chip that would have given its adversaries pause for thought.
The Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis is an academic economist supposedly specializing in game theory (the study of negotiating tactics). However, he turns out, when tested in the fire, to be all mouth and no trousers. Or, as the Texans say, he’s all hat and no cattle.
Given that Varoufakis is the lead negotiator for the Greeks and hence the person mainly responsible, on the Greek side, for the current debacle, one can hardly refrain from feeling sorry for his students. They’re not going to learn much.
Secondly, the greenhorn negotiators of Syriza – the party has only existed since 2004 – were too callow to be a match for the wily and experienced bureaucrats of “the institutions”.
Antigone1984 predicted as much in our post Soon you’ll be able to hope again(“Η ελπίδα έρχεται”) published on 24 January 2015:
“If Syriza were a genuinely party of the far left, would it not leap at the chance to throw down the gauntlet once and for all to the privateering European establishment and, in doing so, set an example for other similar parties the length and breadth of the continent?
But no. They are going to remain within the EU, they are going to remain within the eurozone, and they are going to negotiate “firmly but politely” with whoever will talk to them in the Eurocrat establishment – but not with the hated triad (euphemistically called the “troika) of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund that imposed the hated austerity “memorandum” on Greece. They do not seem to realize that the European Commission and the European Central Bank are part of the European establishment and even the managing director of the Washington-based International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, is a French politician.
Negotiations with the Eurocrats? They will smother you with open arms. These guys are the past masters of negotiations. They could negotiate the hind legs off a donkey. It will be like wading through treacle. As members of new party from a peripheral country with no experience of government, Syriza’s negotiators will be like minnows in a pond of piranhas. At best they will dance circles round you, at worst they will tear you to pieces. Good luck!”
And so, alas, it came to pass.
Thirdly, the Syriza government seemed to believe that it would be welcomed with open arms at the negotiating table. They had only to talk to the eurocrats, demonstrate what good Europeans they were (by not wanting to leave the EU or abandon the euro), explain that, like any orthodox EU state, they were enthusiastic supporters of market-based economic growth – and the eurocrats would be bowled over with admiration and would give them whatever they wanted. Which was a loan without strings attached.
This was naïve in the extreme.
The principle aim of the dominant rightwing current in today’s EU is to achieve a balance or surplus in the public accounts and to achieve this, where necessary, by slashing public spending, privatising state assets and “reforming” labour relations by outsourcing public services, cutting benefits, making it easier for employers to sack workers, reducing pensions and raising the pension age.
Syriza swept to power in Greece as a result of promises to the electorate that, in many respects, it would do the direct opposite: give free electricity to the poor, re-employ sacked workers, halt privatizations, and increase pensions and the minimum wage.
It is an indisputable fact that such humanitarian proposals are anathema to the penny-pinching capitalist politicians that are running the EU on behalf of international big business.
So why did Syriza expect the red carpet to be rolled out for it when its representatives rocked up in Brussels or other European capitals?
It was truly loathsome to see pictures of Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras being glad-handed by European Commissioner Jean-Claude Juncker at his Brussels bunker only a week or so before Juncker and his cronies knifed Syriza in the jugular.
Even more shocking was the photograph of Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis being greeted shortly after the Greek election by a supercilious George Osborne, the British finance minister, outside the Treasury in London. Varoufakis was on a whistle-stop tour of European finance ministries to drum up support for Syriza’s stance against austerity. He got little change out of “socialist” French President François Hollande or “socialist” Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, but at least it was reasonable to expect they might have helped, but what benefit did he expect to get from lobbying George Osborne, the protagonist of the rightwing British government’s vicious five-year crackdown on anyone who is poor, workless, homeless or disabled?
Syriza did not seem to be aware of the antagonism that their proposals for helping the poor in Greece would stir up inside governments which were themselves trampling their own poor in the gutter.
Nor, fourthly, did Syriza appear fully to register the determination of Europe’s rightwing governments to prevent the anti-austerity rot spreading to other European countries with similar levels of poverty to that of Greece, such as Portugal and Spain. In fact, there is no shortage of European funding to prop up the public finances of a country such as Greece where output represents a mere 2% of the EU’s GDP. However, if they gave in to Greece, they fear that this would encourage profligate populist demands elsewhere. So Greece had to be put firmly in its place at the outset so as to prevent the contagion spreading. Now that this has been done, the ground has been cut from under the feet of populist left-leaning parties elsewhere, such as the new “Podemos” in Spain, now polling as the party with the highest percentage of support among the Spanish electorate. Podemos is campaigning on a platform that is as contradictory as that on the basis of which Syriza has come to grief: it wants to end austerity while remaining, like Syriza, inside the apparently comforting bulwark of the European Union and the eurozone. It is not by accident that the rightwing Partido Popular party in government in Spain fully endorsed Germany’s determination to knock the stuffing out of Syriza.
A PYRRHIC VICTORY
Back in Athens, how has the Syriza government represented its defeat to the Greek people?
Instead of admitting defeat and his political impotence, the Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras indulged in an orgy of spin-doctoring.
“We won a battle, not the war,” he told television viewers on Saturday 21 February 2015. “Yesterday we took a decisive step forward by abandoning austerity, plans for restructuring [the Greek economy] and the troika.”
The truth is that he lost the war as well as the battle. Instead of taking a step forward, he took a major step backward by agreeing to continue virtually unchanged the savage austerity and restructuring programme forced on the preceding government by its external creditors.
It has to be conceded that he did achieve the astonishing feat of getting the moniker of Greece’s creditors changed from “troika” to “institutions”. Bravo! Or “wunderbar!” as his German adversaries will doubtless have told him.
Despite this apparently sensational success, the Prime Minister curiously felt the need to warn his fellow citizens that “we have a long and difficult time ahead”.
The deal is widely regarded as a major climb down for the PM, who won power vowing to reverse budget cuts.
In a report in the London Guardian on Friday night 20 February 2015 after the deal was sealed German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble, who has refused to concede an iota to Greek demands, said that Syriza would have to back austerity measures that it had vowed to repeal. “The Greeks certainly will have a difficult time explaining the deal to their voters,” he said.
Just over a week earlier, according to a BBC report earlier, on 12 February 2015, German Chancellor Angela Merkel had adopted a more emollient tone, saying that a compromise was possible in the stand-off with Greece over its bail-out terms.
But Mrs Merkel also told reporters as she arrived for a conference with the other 28 leaders of the EU that “Europe’s credibility depends on us sticking to rules”.
Mrs Merkel suggested there was negotiating room:
“Europe always aims to find a compromise and this is the cornerstone of Europe’s success,” she declared.
Here Antigone1984 must confess to a making an assumption that turns out to have been wildly off-beam. On the basis of around two decades of experience within the European institutions, we assumed that the end result of the talks between Germany and Syriza would be a messy compromise whereby both sides would come away feeling that they had been short-changed but that enough had been gained to justify sealing the deal. At least this is what has happened on every such occasion that we can recollect in the past.
Not this time.
This time there was no compromise. Merkel was lying. This was a massacre. The Germans wiped the floor with their opponents and made them sweep the mess up afterwards. Tsipras and Varoufakis got nothing, Merkel and Schäuble took everything – hook, line and sinker. It was an unmitigated defeat for the Greeks.
This was Thermopylae all over again.
This time, however, instead of fighting the aggressors to the last man like the Spartan king Leonidas and his valiant 300 hoplites in the pass under Mount Oeta in 480 BC, king Tsipras and his epigoni caved in immediately at the first whiff of gunpowder, abandoning their weapons and taking to the hills.
Not for them the glorious epitaph that the poet Simonides penned for the heroes of Thermopylae:
Ὦ ξεῖν’, ἀγγέλλειν Λακεδαιμονίοις ὅτι τῇδε
κείμεθα, τοῖς κείνων ῥήμασι πειθόμενοι.
Traveller, let the Spartans know that
Here we lie, having done what they told us to do.
SO WHAT NOW?
Syriza is now finished as a progressive political force. Its leaders have shown themselves to be a bunch of amateurs who failed to get out of the starting blocks.
There are various possibilities:
Alexis Tsipras, the Syriza Prime Minister, could take personal responsibility for the tragedy and resign. Dream on. We think this unlikely. A man who is happy to jettison his election pledges at the first hint of trouble is unlikely to act on principle. Having now had a taste of power, he is likely to want to keep it. Power goes to the heads of the powerful, leading in particular to the self-deluding egocentric conviction that “the country will go to the dogs without me”. This despite the fact that the country has already gone to the dogs and it is Tsipras who bears a large share of the responsibility for it.
While we are on the subject of failed politicians falling on their swords, what about Tsipras’s finance minister Yanis Varoufakis buying a one-way ticket back to Texas where he has just given up a post as an economist at the state university in Austin? According to an interview with him by Helena Smith in the London Guardian on 14 February 2015, Varoufakis “can marvel at the wondrousness of capitalism”. In an essay of his own published in the same organ on 18 Febuary, Varoufakis maintains that an implosion of European capitalism “should be avoided at all costs” and that the task of the left is “to embark upon a campaign for stabilising European capitalism”. Thus, he has chosen “not to propose radical political programs that seek to exploit the crisis as an opportunity to overthrow European capitalism, to dismantle the awful eurozone, and to undermine the European Union of the cartels and the corrupt bankers.” No, on the contrary, the left must “forge alliances with reactionary forces ” in order to “stabilise Europe today”. Within views like these – oh so reminiscent of the calls from the sell-out social democrat parties for “responsible capitalism” – it is hardly suprising that Varoufakis is persona grata at a university in one of the most conservative states in the land of our great leader across the pond.
NEW ELECTIONS BEFORE THE SUMMER
New parliamentary elections before the summer, possibly once the conditions for the next (third) bail-out are read out to Athens during the forthcoming “negotiations”. This is what Antonis Samaras, the defeated New Democracy party Prime Minister, is said to have predicted in the event that he lost the recent elections. At which point New Democracy is likely to be voted back into power.
NEW ELECTIONS SOON
New parliamentary elections in the immediate future. This would be triggered if Syriza lost its majority in parliament. This could result from one of three developments:
MUTINY FROM WITHIN THE RANKS
Firstly, the Left Platform (the left-wing of Syriza) abandons the party because of the betrayal of the party’s election promises by the Syriza leadership. Depending on how this happens, it could deprive Syriza of a majority in parliament. It is the only logical step for the Left Platform to take. If it now gives carte blanche to the Syriza leaders to continue in government after its abject surrender to the Europeans, then it too should pack up and go home. Syriza, full of sound and fury, a model for naïve wishful-thinkers throughout the European left, will have turned out to be a toothless tiger, signifying nothing.
Rumbings have already started within Syriza and indeed from the beating heart of the party.
In a report published this afternoon in the 24 February edition of the French newspaper Le Monde, Manolis Glezos, a Syriza Member of the European Parliament, shot down his Prime Minister’s tendentious boasts.
Mr Glezos, aged 92, is famous throughout Greece for his resistance to the Nazis in World War II. In 1941, with a colleague, he tore down the swastika flag that the occupiers had planted on the Acropolis of Athens. Mr Glezos is not particularly well-disposed towards the current financial invaders of his country either.
“To change the word ‘troika’ to ‘institutions’, the word ‘memorandum’ to ‘agreement’ and the world ‘creditors’ to ‘partners’ does not change the status quo ante in any way,” said Mr Glezos.
“More than a month has gone by and the promise [Syriza made to the Greek people] has still not been carried out. It gets worse and worse. As far as I am concerned, I beg the people of Greece to forgive me for having contributed to this illusion [that Syriza would do what it had pledged to do].”
Mr Glezos called for a debate within the party lickety-split on the direction being taken by Syriza and the developments now taking place.
Mr Glezos was immediately rubbished by Tsipras’s entourage as an old dodderer. “Mr Glezos is perhaps not well informed as regards the reality of the difficult negotiations in which we are involved,” they said.
Another party loyalist, Dimitris Papadimoulis, invited Mr Glezos, effectively, to shut his mouth and toe the party line. This is, of course, the classic response of party apparatchiks when individual members of a party call into question controversial decisions by the party hierarchy. An affront to democracy, it should be ignored in all circumstances.
Secondly, the 13 patriotic rightwing “Independent Greeks” with whom Syriza, two seats short of an absolute parliamentary majority, has formed a coalition government, may also leave the government. They have been strongly opposed to the humiliation of Greece by the Europeans and in particular the Germans. It remains to be seen whether the blandishments of a place in the cabinet will override their principled antipathy to Syriza’s capitulation to the country’s bean-counting external pay-masters.
UNREST IN THE STREETS
Thirdly, neither can one discount the possibility of unrest in the streets once the population wises up to the extent to which Syriza has betrayed them. Serious street violence could topple the government. The rightwing parties, such as New Democracy, PASOK (the discredited self-styled “socialist” party) and the neo-fascist Golden Dawn party, will seek to exploit such unrest. It is virtually certain that Athens will row back on its commitment to halt the hated sell-out of state assets to the private sector – resulting in lay-offs, reduced wages and impaired working conditions – that had been started by the previous rightwing government at the instigation of the triad. Once this filters through to the rank-and-file in Greece’s still militant trade unions, union bosses can be expected to call their members out on to the streets. A voter interviewed by Le Monde for its 24 February edition told the paper: “As far as I am concerned, the volte-face by Varoufakis and Tsipras has been a disappointment. I voted for them so that they could put an end to austerity – not for them to prolong it for four months or even longer!”
WHAT SHOULD HAVE HAPPENED?
We make no apologies for reproducing below an argument we recently made in our post Gary Cooper and the Sheriff of Athens published on 9 February 2015.
“…readers of this blog will…be aware that Antigone1984 is very much opposed to the realization of a scenario that would lead to the creation of a United States of Europe. Quite the contrary. We have consistently argued in favour of the disintegration of the European Union as well as of the eurozone within it and for the reversion to a group of fully sovereign European nation states free to trade with one another as the whim takes them but with the power to direct their own economies as they see fit and to take their own political decisions in the interest of their own citizens without fear of interference from a power-crazed empire-building Eurocratic elite holed up out of touch in its Belgian ivory tower.
It is for this reason that (Hélas Hellas!) we regard Syriza, the political party which now dominates the new coalition government in Greece, as simply a progressive social democratic party and not, despite its partly Marxist origins and its naive cheerleaders among leftwing groups elsewhere in Europe, a radical leftwing anti-capitalist anti-market party. Instead of “negotiating” to remain organically within the supposed comfort zone of the European Union and the euro currency bloc, both fundamentally capitalist constructions, a radical leftwing party could not have failed to seize this historic opportunity to break free and reclaim full national sovereignty in an economy based on cooperation, deprivatization, the egalitarian distribution of wealth and income, patriotic industrial protectionism and participative democratic decision-making.
You might perhaps care to view some of our earlier posts. For instance:
- Why? or How? That is the question (3 Jan 2012)
- Partitocracy v. Democracy (20 July 2012)
- The shoddiest possible goods at the highest possible prices (2 Feb 2012)
- Capitalism in practice (4 July 2012)
- Ladder (21 June 2012)
- A tale of two cities (1) (6 June 2012)
- A tale of two cities (2) (7 June 2012)
- Where’s the beef? Ontology and tinned meat (31 Jan 2012)
Every so often we shall change this sample of previously published posts.