Baiting The Bear: NATO and Russia

Bear Baiting: Russia & NATO

Dispatches From The Edge

April 28

 

Aggressive,” “revanchist,” “swaggering”: These are just some of the adjectives the mainstream press and leading U.S. and European political figures are routinely inserting before the words “Russia,” or “Vladimir Putin.” It is a vocabulary most Americans have not seen or heard since the height of the Cold War.

 

The question is, why?

 

Is Russia really a military threat to the United States and its neighbors? Is it seriously trying to “revenge” itself for the 1989 collapse of the Soviet Union? Is it actively trying to rebuild the old Soviet empire? The answers to these questions are critical, because, for the first time since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, several nuclear-armed powers are on the edge of a military conflict with fewer safeguards than existed 50 years ago.

 

Consider the following events:

  • NATO member Turkey shoots down a Russian warplane.
  • Russian fighter-bombers come within 30 feet of a U.S. guided missile destroyer, and a Russian fighter does a barrel roll over a U.S. surveillance plane. Several U.S. Senators call for a military response to such encounters in the future.
  • NATO and the U.S. begin deploying three combat brigades—about 14,000 troops and their equipment—in several countries that border Russia, and Washington has more than quadrupled its military spending in the region.
  • S. State Department officials accuse Russia of “dismantling” arms control agreements, while Moscow charges that Washington is pursuing several destabilizing weapons programs.
  • Both NATO and the Russians have carried out large war games on one another’s borders and plan more in the future, in spite of the fact that the highly respected European Leadership Network (ELN) warns that the maneuvers are creating “mistrust.”

 

In the scary aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis, the major nuclear powers established some ground rules to avoid the possibility of nuclear war, including the so-called “hot line” between Washington and Moscow. But, as the threat of a nuclear holocaust faded, many of those safeguards have been allowed to lapse, creating what the ELN calls a “dangerous situation.”

 

According to a recent report by the ELN, since March of last year there have been over 60 incidents that had “the potential to trigger a major crisis between a nuclear armed state and a nuclear armed alliance.” The report warns that, “There is today no agreement between NATO and Russia on how to manage close military encounters.”

 

Such agreements do exist, but they are bilateral and don’t include most alliance members. Out of 28 NATO members, 11 have memorandums on how to avoid military escalation at sea, but only the U.S., Canada and Greece have what is called “Preventing Dangerous Military Activities” (DMA) agreements that cover land and air as well. In any case, there are no such agreements with the NATO alliance as a whole.

 

The lack of such agreements was starkly demonstrated in the encounter between Russian aircraft and the U.S. The incident took place less than 70 miles off Baltiysk, home of Russia’s Baltic Sea Fleet, and led to an alarming exchange in the Senate Armed Services Committee among Republican John McCain, Democrat Joe Donnelly, and U.S. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, soon to assume command of U.S. forces in Europe.

 

McCain: ”This may sound a little tough, but should we make an announcement to the Russians that if they place the men and women on board Navy ships in danger, that we will take appropriate action?”

 

Scaparrotti: “That should be known, yes.”

 

Donnelly: “Is there a point…where we tell them in advance enough, the next time it doesn’t end well for you?”

 

Scaparrotti: “We should engage them and make clear what is acceptable. Once we make that known we have to enforce it.”

 

For the Americans, the Russian flyby was “aggressive.” For the Russians, U.S. military forces getting within spitting range of their Baltic Fleet is the very definition of “aggressive.” What if someone on the destroyer panicked and shot down the plane? Would the Russians have responded with an anti-ship missile? Would the U.S. have retaliated and invoked Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, bringing the other 27 members into the fray? Faced by the combined power of NATO, would the Russians—feeling their survival at stake—consider using a short-range nuclear weapon? Would the U.S. then attempt to take out Moscow’s nuclear missiles with its new hypersonic glide vehicle? Would that, in turn, kick in the chilling logic of thermonuclear war: use your nukes or lose them?

 

Far-fetched? Unfortunately, not at all. The world came within minutes of a nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis and, as researcher Eric Schlosser demonstrated in his book “Command and Control,” the U.S. came distressingly close at least twice more by accident.

 

One of the problems about nuclear war is that it is almost impossible to envision. The destructive powers of today’s weapons have nothing in common with the tiny bombs that incinerated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so experience is not much of a guide. Suffice it to say that just a small portion of world’s nukes would end civilization as we know it, and a general exchange could possibly extinguish human life.

 

With such an outcome at least in the realm of possibility, it becomes essential to step back and try to see the world through another’s eyes.

 

Is Russia really a danger to the U.S. and its neighbors? NATO points to Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia and its 2014 intervention in eastern Ukraine as examples of “Russian aggression.”

 

But from Moscow, the view is very different.

 

In 1990, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and German Chancellor Helmet Kohl pledged to then Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not move eastward, nor recruit former members of the East bloc military alliance, the Warsaw Pact. By 1995 NATO had enlisted Pact members Romania, Hungry, Poland, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Bulgaria, Slovakia, and signed on Montenegro this year. Georgia is currently being considered, and there is a push to bring Ukraine aboard. From Moscow’s perspective NATO is not only moving east, but encircling Russia.

 

“I don’t think many people understand the visceral way Russia views NATO and the European Union as an existential threat,” says U.S. Admiral Mark Ferguson, commander of U.S. naval forces in Europe.

 

Most NATO members have no interest in starting a fight with Russia, but others sound like they think it wouldn’t be a bad idea. On April 15, Witold Waszczykowski, the foreign minister of Poland’s rightwing government, told reporters that Russia is “more dangerous than the Islamic State,” because Moscow is an “existential threat to Europe.” The minister made his comments at a NATO conference discussing the deployment of a U.S. armored brigade on Poland’s eastern border.

 

Is Russia reneging on arms control agreements? The charge springs from the fact that Moscow has refused to consider cutting more of its nuclear weapons, is boycotting nuclear talks, deploying intermediate range nuclear missiles, and backing off a conventional weapons agreement. But again, Moscow sees all that very differently.

 

From Moscow’s point of view, the U.S. is continuing to spread its network of anti-missile systems in Europe and Asia, which the Russians see as a threat to their nuclear force (as does China). And as far as “reneging” goes, it was the U.S. that dumped the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, not Russia,

 

The U.S. is also pouring billions of dollars into “modernizing” its nuclear weapons. It also proposes using ICBMs to carry conventional warheads (if you see one coming, how do you know it’s not a nuke?), and is planning to deploy high velocity glide vehicles that will allow the U.S. to strike targets worldwide with devastating accuracy. And since NATO is beefing up its forces and marching east, why should the Russians tie themselves to a conventional weapons treaty?

 

What about Russia’s seizure of the Crimea? According to the U.S. State Department, redrawing European boundaries is not acceptable in the 21st century—unless you are Kosovo breaking away from Serbia under an umbrella of NATO air power, in which case it’s fine. Residents of both regions voted overwhelmingly to secede.

 

Georgia? The Georgians stupidly started it.

 

But if Russia is not a threat, then why the campaign of vilification, the damaging economic sanctions, and the provocative military actions?

 

First, it is the silly season—American elections—and bear baiting is an easy way to look “tough.” It is also a tried and true tactic of the U.S. armaments industry to keep their production lines humming and their bottom lines rising. The Islamic State is scary but you don’t need big-ticket weapons systems to fight it. The $1.5 trillion F-35s are for the Russkies, not terrorists.

 

There are also those who still dream of regime change in Russia. Certainly that was in the minds of the neo-cons when they used The National Endowment for Democracy and Freedom House to engineer—at the cost of $5 billion—the coup that toppled Ukraine into NATO’s camp. The New American Century gang and their think tanks—who brought you Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria—would love to leverage Russia out of Central Asia.

 

The most frightening aspect of current East-West tension is that there is virtually no discussion of the subject, and when there is it consists largely of distorted history and gratuitous insults. Vladimir Putin might not be a nice guy, but the evidence he is trying to re-establish some Russian empire, and is a threat to his neighbors or the U.S., is thin to non-existent. His 2014 speech at the Valdai International Discussion Club is more common sense than bombast.

 

Expansionist? Russia has two bases in the Middle East and a handful in Central Asia. The U.S. has 662 bases around the world and Special Forces (SOF) deployed in between 70 and 90 countries at any moment. Last year SOFs were active in 147 countries. The U.S. is actively engaged in five wars and is considering a sixth in Libya. Russian military spending will fall next year, and the U.S. will out-spend Moscow by a factor of 10. Who in this comparison looks threatening?

 

There are a number of areas where cooperation with Russia could pay dividends. Without Moscow there would be no nuclear agreement with Iran, and the Russians can play a valuable role in resolving the Syrian civil war. That, in turn, would have a dramatic effect on the numbers of migrants trying to crowd into Europe.

 

Instead, an April 20 meeting between NATO ministers and Russia ended in “profound disagreements” according to alliance head Jens Stoltenberg. Russian ambassador to NATO, Alexander Grushko said that the continued deployment of armed forces on its borders makes it impossible to have a “meaningful dialogue.”

 

We are baiting the bear, not a sport that ever ends well.

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Terrorism: Then and Now

Terrorism: Then & Now

Dispatches From The Edge

March 28, 2016

 

The year 2016 is the 100th anniversary of the Irish Easter Rebellion. Throughout the year I will try to revisit some of the lessons of Ireland’s struggle for freedom.

 

Bombs explode in a subway. The victims are everyday people who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. What follows is outrage: track down the perpetuators. The people who set off the bombs are monsters and inhuman fanatics, thunder the authorities.

 

But the year is not 2016, it is 1883 during the “Dynamite War” waged by mainly Irish-American members of the Fenians against the English occupation of Ireland. The Fenian Brotherhood was founded in 1848. The “War” targeted the underground, train stations, city halls, public plazas, and factories in London, Manchester, and Liverpool. The war spanned four years, and in the light of the current terrorist attacks in the Middle East and Europe, it is an instructive comparison.

 

On one level there is no similarity. The “Dynamite War” killed and injured very few people, while terrorist attacks and bombs in Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, France and Belgium have murdered hundreds and wounded thousands. It is also hard to compare John Devoy and Patrick Tynan of the Fenians to the likes of the Islamic State’s Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi and Abu Muslim al-Turkmani.

 

Yet there is an historical lesson here, and we ignore it at our peril. Terrorism is a difficult subject to talk about because anything other than outrage seems like one is making an excuse for unspeakably heinous acts. And yet if we are to seriously look for solutions, that requires asking “why,” even if the answers are uncomfortable.

 

There are certainly easy “solutions” out there: occupy Muslim communities and torture suspects we arrest. Unleash yet more drones, carpet bomb the bastards, and, if necessary, send in the Marines. But that is exactly what we have doing for the past three decades, and is there anyone who would seriously argue that things are better now than they were in 1981?

 

Did the invasion of Afghanistan muzzle terrorism? A decade and a half later, we are still at war in that poor benighted country, and the terrorism that we experienced on 9/11 has spread to Madrid, Paris, Beirut, Ankara, Cairo, Brussels, Damascus, Baghdad, and other cities. We sowed the wind in Somalia, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Syria. Did we expect to reap less than a whirlwind?

 

In his book “Blowback,” the late Chalmers Johnson chronicled the ricochets from American foreign policy. We raised up the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan to defeat the Russians and helped create Osama bin Laden. We ally ourselves with Saudi Arabia, the country that supplied most of the people who flew those airplanes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, whose reactionary brand of Islam has helped create an army of jihadists worldwide.

 

The flood of refugees headed toward Europe is a roadmap of U.S. interventions in Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Libya. In the case of the latter, we created a failed state, whose massive arms caches has succeeded in destabilizing significant parts of Central Africa.

 

The nature of American foreign policy—as well as those of some of its allies—is where the conversation of what to do about terrorism has to begin. This is not to excuse terrorism, but to try to understand what it emerges from, instead of playing an endless—and eventually futile—game of whack-a-mole.

 

For people like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz the answer is simple: terrorists are evil Muslims (although sometimes just being a Muslim is enough). But how many of our leaders ask, “Why are they doing this” and are really interested in an answer? Hillary Clinton says she doesn’t think we should torture people, but she is all for bombing the bejesus out of them and overthrowing their governments. Bernie Sanders is much more sensible, but even he voted for the Yugoslav War, which set off NATO’s eastward march and led to the current crisis over the Ukraine.

 

Terrorism is not a thing you can wage war against, it is a tactic employed by the less powerful against the more powerful. If you can’t defeat someone’s armies you can always blow up their citizens. Simply using military power in response to terrorism is the most efficient way to recruit new terrorists. Drone strikes are supposed to be “surgical” weapons that only kill bad guys. But as the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has found, drones have killed thousands of civilians. Each of those civilians has a family, and each of those family (clan, tribe, etc.) members is now a potential recruit. The drone war is a perfect example of Johnson’s “blowback.”

 

Of course, terrorism generates its own “blowbacks.” The “Dynamite War” didn’t do much damage to the British, but it was a political catastrophe for the Irish. The English used it—along with the infamous 1882 Phoenix Park murders of the colonial authority’s chief secretaries—to pass the “Perpetual Coercion Act” and imprison hundreds of Irish activists. The loss of those leaders seriously damaged efforts by the Land League to stop a wave of tenant farmer evictions that followed in the wake of the 1878-79 crop failures.

 

Those evictions produced a “blowback” of their own. Tens of thousands of Irish were forced to emigrate to America, bringing with them a deep rage at English landlords and the colonial authorities. That fury fed the anger that many Irish-Americans still held against the British, and that led to a revival of the Fenians and the launching of the “Dynamite War.” It was good old American know how that built the bombs that blew up targets in England.

 

The “War” was actually similar to the current wave of terrorism, at least in conception. Rather than going after the English armed forces and police, most the bombs were set in public places with the explicit idea of terrorizing everyday life. The plan was to transplant the violence of the colonial occupation to the home country. It did, indeed, scare people, including many English who formerly favored the Irish cause, and turned those who were indifferent anti-Irish. It derailed the Home Rule movement for several decades.

 

The Colonial authorities responded with yet greater repression, much as many of the current candidates for the White House would if given a chance. But while the “Dynamite War” was ill conceived and counter productive, it was a reflection of the basic injustice of colonialism. The Islamic State is a genuine monstrosity, but it reflects a hundred years of European and American manipulation of the Middle East’s resources and politics. When Britain and France divided up the Middle East to their liking in 1916—deliberately building in ethnic, tribal and religious instability—did they really think there would never be a day of reckoning?

 

There are monsters in the Middle East, but we have helped create them. The question is, can we stop them?

 

We should know by now that more bombs and troops do exactly the opposite. To seriously tackle terrorism will take a fundamental re-examination of U.S. foreign policy. It must start with challenging the idea that everything about this country is the “best,” the ideology of “American exceptionalism” that underlies so much of our strategic policies. That idea of “exceptionalism” gives us the right to intervene in other countries’ internal affairs, to subvert their political structures, and, if necessary, seek regime change.

 

We preach “democracy” to Cuba, China and Russia, while being perfectly comfortable with Saudi Arabia and the other autocratic monarchies that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council. People take note of that contradiction and quite logically assume that it is hypocrisy and has more to do with our “interests” than any commitment to the right of people to choose how to run their own lives.

 

In any case our own political system increasingly looks like some grotesque caricature of democracy, where presidential candidates blithely propose ignoring the Constitution and violating international law, and where a handful of billionaires can dominate the public space.

 

We are the most powerful economic and military force on the planet, so overthrowing a government or strangling its economy is not all that hard to do. At least in the short run. But the world is simply far too complex to fit into one model of government or worldview and, sooner or later, people will dig in their heels.

 

How we respond to that resistance is what we need to examine. If the response is force, we can hardly complain when we find ourselves the target of “asymmetrical violence”—terrorism.

 

The people who set the bombs have to be caught and punished, but that will not end the problem. The Irish who murdered the colonial secretaries in Phoenix Park were caught and punished, but it did not make Ireland a calm place or end Irish resistance to the English occupation. That was resolved when the British finally realized that they could no longer determine the history of another country. We must do the same. And that will take a conversation that we have not yet had. It’s time to start.

 

—30—

 

Conn Hallinan can be read at dispatchesfromtheedgeblog.wordpress.com and middleempireseries.wordpress.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Terrible Beauty: Ireland’s Easter Rebellion

A Terrible Beauty: The 1916 Easter Rebellion

Dispatches From The Edge

March 22, 2016

 

“Poblacht na hEireann”: The speaker of these words, standing on the front steps of Dublin’s General Post Office and reading from a proclamation, the ink was barely dry, of the “provisional government of the Irish Republic” was the poet Padraig Pearse. It was just after noon on April 24, 1916, the opening scene in a drama that would mix tragedy and triumph, the twin heralds of Irish history.

 

It is a hundred years since some 750 men and women threw up barricades and seized strong points in downtown Dublin. They would be joined by maybe a 1,000 more. In six days it would be over, the post office in flames, the streets blackened by shell fire, and the rebellion’s leaders on their way to face firing squads against the walls of Kilmainham Jail.

 

And yet the failure of the Easter Rebellion would eventually become one of the most important events in Irish history, a “failure” that would reverberate worldwide and be mirrored by colonial uprisings almost a half-century later.

 

Anniversaries—particularly centennials—are equal parts myth and memory, and drawing lessons from them is always a tricky business. And, while 1916 is not 2016, there are parallels, pieces of the story that overlap and dovetail in the Europe of then with the Europe of today.

 

Europe in 1916 was a world at war. The “lamps,” as the expression goes, had gone out in August 1914, and the continent was wrapped in barbed wire and steeped in almost inconceivable death. Shortly after the last Irish rebel was shot, the British launched the battle of the Somme. More than 20,000 would die in the first hour of that battle, and, by the end, there would be more than a million casualties on both sides.

 

Europe is still at war, in some ways influenced by the footsteps of a colonial world supposedly long gone. Britain is fighting its fourth war in Afghanistan. Italian Special Forces are stalking Islamists in Libya. French warplanes are bombing their old stomping grounds in Syria and chasing down Tuaregs in Mali.

 

And Europe is also at war with itself. Barbed wire is once again being unrolled, not to make killing zones out of the no man’s land between trenches, but to block the floods of refugees generated by European—and American—armies and proxies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and Syria.

 

In many ways, the colonial chickens are coming home to roost. The British and French between them secretly sliced up the Middle East in 1916, using religion and ethnicity to divide and conquer the region. Instability was built in. Indeed, that was the whole idea. There would never be enough Frenchmen or Englishmen to rule the Levant, but with Shiites, Sunnis and Christians busily trying to tear out one another’s throats, they wouldn’t notice the well dressed bankers on the sidelines—“tut tutting” the lack of civilized behavior and counting their money.

 

The Irish of 1916 understood that gambit, after all, they were its first victims.

 

Ireland was a colony long before the great powers divided up the world in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the strategies that kept the island poor, backward and profitable were transplanted elsewhere. Religious divisions kept India largely docile. Tribal and religious divisions made it possible to rule Nigeria. Ethnic conflict short-circuited resistance in Kenya and South Africa. Division by sect worked well in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.

 

For Ireland was the great laboratory of colonialism where the English experimented with ways to keep a grip over the population. Culture, religion, language and kinship were all grist for the mill. And when all else failed, Ireland was a short sail across the Irish Sea: kill all the lab rats and start anew.

 

The fact that the English had been in Ireland for 747 years by 1916 was relevant. The Irish call the occupation “the long sorrow,” and it had made them a bit bonkers. Picking a fight in the middle of a war with one of the most powerful empires in human history doesn’t seem like a terribly rational thing to do (and, in truth, there were many Irish who agreed that it was a doomed endeavor.).

 

The European left denounced the Easter rising, mostly because they couldn’t make much sense of it. What was a disciplined Marxist intellectual and trade union leader like James Connolly doing taking up arms with mystic nationalists like Padraig Pearse and Joseph Mary Plunkett? One of the few radicals to get it was V.I. Lenin, who called criticism of the rebellion “monstrously pedantic.”

 

What both Connolly and Lenin understood was that the uprising reflected a society profoundly distorted by colonialism. Unlike in the rest of Europe, in Ireland different classes and viewpoints could find common ground precisely because they had one similar experience: no matter what their education, no matter what their resources, in the end they were Irish, and treated in everyway as inferior by their overlords.

 

Most of the European left was suspicious of nationalism in general because it blurred the lines between oppressed and oppressors and undermined the analysis that class was the great fault line. But as the world would discover a half-century later, nationalism was an ideology that united the many against the few. In the end, it would create its own problems and raise up its own monsters, but for the vast majority of the colonial world it was an essential ingredient of national liberation.

 

The Easter rebellion was not the first anti-colonial uprising. The American threw off the English in 1783; the Greeks drove out the Turks in 1832. India’s great Sepoy rebellion almost succeeded in driving the British out of the sub-continent in 1857. There were others as well.

 

But there was a special drama to the idea of a revolution in the heart of an empire, and it was the drama more than the act that drew the world’s attention. The Times of London blamed the Easter rising for the 1919 unrest in India, where the British Army massacred 380 Sikh civilians at Amristsan. How the Irish were responsible for this, the Times never bothered to explain.

 

But the Irish saw the connection, if somewhat differently than did the Times. Roger Casement, a leader of the 1916 rebellion who was executed for treason in August of that year, said that the cause of Ireland was also the cause of India, because the Easter rebels were fighting “to join again the free civilizations of the earth.”

 

As a rising it was a failure, in part because the entire affair was carried out in secret. Probably no more than a dozen or so people knew that it was going to happen. When the Irish Volunteer Force and the Irish Citizens Army marched up to the Post Office, most of the passersby—including the English ones—thought it was just the “boys” out having a little fun by provoking the authorities again.

 

But secrets don’t make for successful revolutions. The plotters imagined that their example would fire the whole of Ireland, but by the time most the Irish had found out about it, it was over. It was not even an overly bloody affair. There were about 3,000 casualties and 485 deaths, many of them civilians. Of the combatants, the British lost 151, the rebels 83, including the 16 executed in the coming weeks. It devastated a square mile of downtown Dublin, and, when the British troops marched the rebels through the streets after their surrender, crowds spit on the rebels.

 

But as the firing squads did their work day after day, the sentiment began to shift. Connolly was so badly wounded he could not stand, so they tied him to a chair and shot him. The authorities also refused to release the executed leaders to their families, burying them in quicklime instead. Some 3,439 men and 79 women were arrested and imprisoned. Almost 2,000 were sent to internment camps, and 98 were given death sentences. Another 100 received long prison sentences.

 

All of this did not go down well with the public, and the authorities were forced to call off more executions. Plus, the idea of an “Irish Republic” was not going to go away, no matter how many people were shot, hanged or imprisoned.

 

The Easter rising was certainly an awkward affair. Pearse called it a “blood sacrifice,” which makes the rebellion sound uncomfortably close to the Catholic Church’s motto that “The blood of the martyrs is the seat of the church.” And, yet, that is the nature of things like the Easter rising. 1916 churned up all of the ideologies, divisions, and prejudices that colonialism had crafted over hundreds of years, making for some very odd bedfellows. Those who dreamed of re-constituting the ancient kingdom of Meath manned barricades with students of Karl Marx. Illiterate tenant farmers took up arms with Countess Markievicz, who counseled women to “leave your jewels in the bank and buy a revolver.”

 

Some of those divisions have not gone away. There will be at least two celebrations of the Easter rising. The establishment parties—Fine Gael, Fianna Fail, and the Labour Party—have organized events leading up to the main commemoration March 27. Sinn Fein, representing the bulk of the Irish left, will have its own celebration. There are several small splinter groups that will present their own particular story of the Easter rising.

 

And if you want to be part of it, you can go on the Internet and buy a “genuine” Easter Rebellion T-shirt from “Eire Apparent.”

Everything is for sale, even revolution.

 

In some ways, 1916 was about Ireland and its long, strange history. But 1916 is also about the willingness of human beings to resist, sometimes against almost hopeless odds. There is nothing special or uniquely Irish about that.

 

In the short run, the Easter rebellion executed the people who might have prevented the 1922-23 civil war between republicans and nationalists that followed the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1921. The Free State was independent and self-governing, but still part of the empire, while the British had lopped off Northern Ireland to keep as its own. Ireland did not become truly independent until 1937.

 

In the long run, however, the Easter rising made continued British rule in Ireland impossible. In that sense, Pearse was right: the blood sacrifice had worked.

 

Does the centennial mean anything for today’s Europe? It may. Like the Europe of 1916, the Europe of 2016 is dominated by a few at the expense of the many. The colonialism of empires has been replaced by the colonialism of banks and finance. The British occupation impoverished the Irish, but they were not so very different than today’s Greeks, Spanish and Portuguese—and yes, Irish—who have seen their living standards degraded and their young exported, all to “repay” banks from which they never borrowed anything. Do most Europeans really control their lives today any more than the Irish did in 1916?

 

How different is today’s “Troika”—the European Central Bank, the European Commission, and the International Monetary Fund—from Whitehall in 1916? The latter came unasked into Ireland, the former dominates the economic and political life of the European Union.

 

In his poem, “Easter Week 1916,” the poet William Butler Yeats called the rising the birth of “a terrible beauty.” And so it was. But Pearse’s oration at the graveside of the old Fenian warrior Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa may be more relevant: “I say to the masters of my people, beware. Beware of the thing that is coming. Beware of the risen people who shall take what yea would not give.”

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Socialists Rain On Spain

Socialists Rain On Spain

Dispatches From the Edge

March 5, 2016

 

The effort by Pedro Sanchez, leader of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party, to form a government on March 2 brings to mind the story of the hunter who goes into the forest with one bullet in his rifle. Seeing a deer on his right and a boar on his left, he shoots in the middle.

 

Sanchez’s search for a viable coalition partner began when the ruling right-wing Popular Party (PP) took a pounding in Spain’s Dec. 20 election, dropping 63 seats and losing its majority. Voters, angered by years of savage austerity that drove poverty and unemployment rates to among the highest in Europe, voted PP Prime Minster Mariano Rajoy out and anti-austerity parties in, although leaving the PP as the largest single party in the parliament.

 

The only real winner in election was the left-wing Podemos Party, which took 20.6 percent of the vote. The Socialist Party actually lost 20 seats, its worst showing ever, and at 22 percent, barely edged out Podemos. And if the Spanish political system were not rigged to give rural voters more power than urban ones, Podemos would have done much better. The Socialists and the PP are particularly strong in rural areas, while Podemos is strong in the cities.

 

While a candidate in Madrid needs 128,000 votes to be elected, in rural areas as few as 38,000 votes will get you into the parliament. Podemos and the Socialists both won over five million votes, with the difference only 341,000. But the Socialists took 89 seats to Podemos’s 65.

 

Spaniards voted for change, but the Socialists, who ran an anti-austerity campaign, chose to form an alliance with the conservative Ciudadanos or Citizens Party, which refuses to have anything to do with Podemos—and the feeling is mutual. Ciudadanos also underperformed at the polls. Ciudadanos was predicted to get as much as 25 percent of the vote and surpass Podemos, but instead came in under 14 percent with only 40 seats.

 

On the surface the only thing the Socialists and Ciudadanos have in common is their adamant opposition to Catalonia’s push for a referendum on independence. Podemos is also opposed to a Catalan breakaway, but supports the right of the region to vote on the matter.

 

Catalonia’s drive for independence is certainly controversial and would have a major impact on Spain’s economy, but exactly how the Spanish government thinks it can block a referendum is not clear. And if Catalans did vote for independence, how would Madrid stop it? One doubts that the government would send in the army or that such an intervention would be successful.

 

Indeed, the fierceness with which the PP, Socialist Party and Ciudadanos oppose the right of Catalans to vote is more likely to drive the province toward independence, rather than discourage it. At this point Catalonia’s voters are split slightly in favor of remaining in Spain, although young voters favor independence, a demographic factor that will loom larger in the future. In provincial elections last September, candidates who supported independence took 47.7 percent of the vote.

 

The Socialists had a path to form a government, but one that would have required the party to modify its position on a Catalan referendum. If it had done so, it could have formed a government using Podemos, the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), the Basque Nationalist Party, (EJA-PNV), Canary Islanders, and a mix of independents. Had the Socialists compromised on Catalonia, they might even have picked up the votes from the center-right Democracy and Freedom Party (DIL).

Left parties in the Parliament can put together 162 votes on their own, which is short of the 176 needed to form a government. But it would not have been impossible to pick up 13 more votes from the mix of 14 independents and eight seats controlled by the Catalan DIL.

 

Choosing Ciudadanos as a partner makes little sense. Podemos immediately dropped cooperation talks with the Socialists and sharply criticized Sanchez for not building a genuine left government. Ciudadanos’ economic policies are not much different than the PP’s, plus it opposes abortion, and is hawkish on immigration. In any case the party did poorly in the national elections. The merger “prevents the possibility of forming a pluralistic government of change,” according to the parliamentary deputy and Podemos spokesperson, Inigo Errejon.

 

“Negotiate with us,” Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias told Sanchez, “stop obeying the oligarchs.” The Socialist Party leader pleaded with Podemos to vote for him so that the Socialist-Ciudadanos alliance could pass “progressive” legislation like raising the minimum wage and addressing the gender wage gap. The Socialists also presented a plan to tax the wealthy, improve health care, and try to stop the growth of “temporary” worker contracts that have reduced benefits and job security.

 

But those issues do not really address the underlying humanitarian crisis most Spaniards are experiencing, like poverty and growing homelessness, and the damage austerity has inflicted on education and social services. And Ciudadanos’ views on abortion, immigration and privatizing public services are repugnant to Podemos.

 

Spain’s unemployment rate is still over 20 percent—far more among the youth in the country’s south—and many of the jobless will soon run out of government aid. While the economy grew 3.1 percent in 2015 and is projected to grow 2.7 percent in 2016, it is not nearly where it was before the great 2008 financial crisis and the implosion of Spain’s enormous real estate bubble. On top of which, that growth rate had nothing to do with the austerity policies, but instead was the result declining value of the euro, low interest rates, and cheap oil.

 

If the Socialists have no success in forming a government, there will be new elections, probably in late June. Polls show the outcome of such a vote would be similar to the last election, but Spanish polls are notoriously inaccurate. In the last election they predicted Ciudadanos would eclipse Podemos. The opposite was the case.

 

The right-wing Popular Party is likely to do worse, because it is mired in a series of corruption scandals over bid-rigging and illegal commissions. In Valencia, nine out of the 10 PP councilors are considered formal suspects in the case. Indeed, the Party’s reputation for corruption makes it difficult for any other grouping in the parliament to make common cause with it. And even if Ciudadanos dumped its anti-corruption plank and broke its promise never to cooperate with the PP, such a government would still fall short of the 176 votes needed. The PP controls 119 seats.

 

In part, the Socialists are frightened by the growth of Podemos and the fact that it might replace them as the number two party in the parliament. In part, the Socialists also tend to run from the left and govern from the center, even the center-right. That is a formula that will simply not work anymore in Spain. The domination of the Spanish government by the two major parties since 1977 is a thing of the past, having been replaced by regional and anti-austerity parties like Podemos.

 

Before the recent election, the two major parties controlled between 75 percent and 85 percent of the voters. In the December election, they fell to just over 50 percent.

 

A more successful model is being built next door in Portugal, where the Socialists united with two left-wing parties to form a government. All the parties involved had to compromise to make it work, and the alliance might come apart in the long run. But for now it is working, and the government is dismantling the more egregious austerity measures and has put a halt to the privatization of public services like transportation.

 

Spain’s Socialist Party is riven with factions, some more conservative than others. Sanchez—whose nickname is “ El Guapo” (handsome)—has so far out-maneuvered his party opponents, but this latest debacle will do him little good. He did receive support from the party’s rank and file for the Ciudadanos move, but that led nowhere in the end. Sanchez got 130 votes in the first round and only picked up one more vote in the second round.

 

Another election will probably not produce a sea change in terms of party support, but voters may punish the Socialists for their unwillingness to compromise. Those votes are unlikely to go to Ciudadanos, and the PP is so mired in corruption that it will struggle to keep its current status as the largest party in the parliament. A recent poll taken after Prime Minster Rajoy passed on trying to form a government found that 71 percent of the voters felt that the PP did not have the best interests of Spain in mind. That refusal may come to haunt the PP in June.

 

Podemos will undoubtedly pick up some Socialist Party voters, but probably not enough to form a government. That will only happen if Socialists put aside their stubborn opposition to a Catalan referendum and help build what Podemos calls a “genuine” leftist government.

 

—30—

 

Conn Hallinan can be read at dispatchesfromtheedgeblog.wordpress.com and middleempireseries.wordpress.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Irish Shillelagh Austerity

Irish Shillelagh Austerity *

Dispatches From The Edge

Conn Hallinan

Mar. 1, 2016

 

If there is one thing clear after Ireland’s recent election, it is that people no longer buy the myth that austerity is the path to economic salvation. It is the same message that Greeks, Portuguese and Spaniards delivered to their elites over the past year: the prophets of tough love, regressive taxes, and massive social services cutbacks should update their resumes and consider a different profession than politics.

 

Ireland is a small country but the Feb. 26 election drove a big spike into the policies of the “troika”—the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund—that have blitzed economies across the continent and made chronic unemployment and growing economic inequality a continuing source of malaise.

 

The governing center-right Fine Gael lost 16 seats, and its partner, the center-left Labour Party, was virtually wiped out, dropping from 37 seats it controlled after the 2011 election only to six. The two parties had overseen an economic program that almost doubled child poverty rates, drove some 500,000 young people to emigrate, reduced wages by 15 percent, and sharply raised the jobless rate.

 

Ireland’s economic difficulties had nothing to do with public spending, but were the fallout from private speculators and banks caught in the great 2008 financial meltdown. Rather than making the speculators pay, the then government of Fianna Fail shifted the bank debts to taxpayers. The troika agreed to a $67 billion bailout of the banks, but only if major bondholders were exempted and the government would institute a draconian austerity program. Most Irish voters were unaware of this “trade off” until just before the election.

 

The Fine Gael/Labour government has long claimed that it had no choice but to apply the austerity formulas and that, in any case, the policies worked, because the economy was recovering. Voters didn’t buy it. The “recovery” has largely been restricted to Dublin—where homelessness in January reached a record high—and the growth was largely a product of falling oil prices and a decline in the value of the euro, rather than the result of austerity.

 

As Fintan O’Toole of the Irish Times put it, “What voters said on Friday is in some ways highly complex, but in relation to the dominant narrative” that austerity is the path to recovery, the Irish said, ‘We don’t believe you.’” The Fine Gael-Labour campaign slogans of “stability” and “all is well” fell flat. The government, O’Toole said, “imagined that it would ride back to power on a feel-good factor, as if people who had been repeatedly beaten should feel good that the beating has stopped.”

 

At first glance, the Irish election looked like a shootout between the two center-right parties—Fine Gael and Fianna Fail—that have taken turns governing Ireland for more than eight decades. But this time around Fianna Fail ran from the left—mild left, as it were—promising greater fairness and more public services. Fianna Fail, which was crushed in the 2011 election, bounced back from 21 seats to 44 and is now the second largest party in the Dail after Fine Gael.

 

The Dail has 158 seats.

 

Another winner was the unabashedly leftist Sinn Fein Party, which picked up nine seats for a total of 23 and is now the third largest force in the Dail. The People Before Profits/Anti-Austerity Party gained two seats, and the independent bloc picked up a seat. In contrast, the rightwing Renua Party lost its three seats.

 

Irish elections are complex affairs, employing a proportional representation system that provides a path for small parties to gain a foothold in the Dail, but makes campaigning complicated.

 

What emerged from the Feb. 26 vote was a hung parliament: Fine Gael/Labour did not win enough seats for a majority, but neither did anyone else. There is talk of a “grand coalition” between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, but both parties would have to renege on pre-election promises that they wouldn’t consider such a move, and it would automatically make Sinn Fein the leader of the opposition. The latter possibility scares both center-right parties.

 

Fine Gael, Fianna Fail, and Labour refuse to consider a coalition with Sinn Fein because of the Party’s links to the Irish Republican Army and violence. It is an odd rationale, considering that all three parties have roots in the sometimes quite violent struggle for Irish independence and the bloody 1922-23 civil war over the Anglo-Irish Treaty that freed the Republic from Great Britain.

 

In any case, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams made it clear that his party has no interest in being a minority member of any combination that Fine Gael or Fianna Fail put together. And there is no way that Sinn Fein can construct a majority coalition. At most, the left and center-left parties could muster 60 votes, and that would include the Labour Party, a dubious possibility. Indeed, one Labour Party leader, Alan Kelly, has already called for a Fine Gael-Fianna Fail unity government.

 

It is possible that Fine Gael will try to rule as a minority government, but that would require Fianna Fail to abstain when it comes time to elect a Prime Minister, or Taoiseach. And it would also mean that Fianna Fail might have to choose between swallowing some of Fine Gael’s austerity policies that it ran against in the election, or bringing down the government. Since any minority government will be extremely fragile, another round of elections is a real possibility. During the campaign, Fianna Fail leader Michael Martin said he would not go into a coalition with Fine Gael, and Irish voters in a re-match might punish any party that broke its promises.

 

Irish voters essentially gave two messages in the last election, one directed at Europe and the other at its own political structure.

 

About Europe, the voters firmly rejected the increasingly discredited policies of the troika, joining Greek, Spanish and Portuguese voters in saying “enough.” Austerity as a cure for economic crisis, as O’Toole points out, “was not just an Irish story—it was a European narrative.” That narrative is under siege.

 

About Ireland, voters turned their own political structure upside down. The two parties that have dominated Ireland since the end of the 1922-23 civil war can now claim the allegiance of slightly less than 50 percent of the electorate. This election, as Sinn Fein’s Adams argues, represents “a fundamental realignment of Irish politics.”

 

*A shillelagh is a blackthorn walking stick that the Irish use for whacking things they don’t like.

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Irish Elections and Austerity

Irish Voters to Grade Austerity

Dispatches From The Edge

Conn Hallinan

Feb. 17, 2016

 

What looked like a smooth path to electoral victory for the Irish government has suddenly turned rocky, and the Fine Gael-Labour coalition is scrambling to keep its majority in the 166-seat Dail. A series of missteps by Fine Gael’s Taoiseach [prime minister] Enda Kenney, and a sharply critical report of the 2008 Irish “bailout,” has introduced an element of volatility into the Feb. 26 vote that may end in a victory by an interesting, if fragile, coalition of leftists and independents.

 

The center-right Fine Gael and center-left Labour Party currently hold 99 seats, but few observers see them maintaining their majority. Fine Gael has dropped from 30 percent several months ago to 26 percent today, and Labour is only polling at 9 percent. That will not translate into enough seats to control the Dail, and putting together a ruling coalition will be tricky, particularly when polls indicate that the independent bloc that has picked up 3 percent and is now the number one vote getter. In general, the independents are left or left-leaning.

 

The country is in the middle of an economic “boom,” but that is a relative term. Ireland is still reeling from years of European Central Bank (ECB) and International Monetary Fund (IMF) imposed austerity that doubled the rate of childhood poverty and saddled working people with onerous taxes, painful rate hikes and high unemployment. Wages have fallen 15 percent. Since 2008, almost 500,000 Irish—the majority of them young and educated—have emigrated from the country in search of jobs.

 

The government’s trouble began in December, when torrential rains swamped parts of the country and Kenny slow response to the disaster angered rural voters. Flood victims blamed the government for failing to invest in flood control, an infrastructure improvement that fell victim to the austerity regime.

 

Then the Fine Gael-Labour coalition was hit with a double whammy: a report by in-house auditors for the European Union and an Irish parliamentary study of the collapse of Irish banks from 2008 to 2010. The EU study found that the European Central Bank (ECB) had pressured the Irish government not to impose losses on “senior bondholders” and, instead, put the burden on taxpayers. According to the parliamentary study, the ECB threatened to withdraw emergency support for Irish banks—thus crashing the economy—if wealthy bondholders were forced to take losses. All of this came as news to most of the Irish.

 

The center-right Fianna Fail Party was in power when the great crash came in 2008, a crash that had nothing to do with government spending or debt, but was instead, the result of real estate speculation by banks and financial institutions. Irish land values jumped 800 percent, which should have warned the banks that a bubble was inflating. But the bondholders, speculators and banks did nothing because they were making enormous amounts of money. When the bubble popped, Irish taxpayers were forced to pick up the $67 billion tab.

 

Fianna Fail was crushed in the 2011 election, losing two-thirds of their deputies, and Fine Gael-Labour took over.

 

Part of the government’s problem is that for the past five years it has been saying that it had no choice but to enforce the savage austerity regime of the ECB, but it is now trying to take credit for the recent improvement of the economy.

 

The coalition’s mantra has been “stay the course”, good times are ahead. The term the government is using is “fiscal space,” or the estimated amount of money that will be available for investment if Ireland continued its economic recovery. According to Fine Gael that figure would be $12 billion between 2017 and 2021.

 

First, no one understood “fiscal space,” a term used by the IMF. Even Deputy Prime Minister Joan Burton, a Labour Party leader, called it “a new kind of ‘F’ word” and said voters hadn’t a clue what it meant. Asked to define it, Kenny said the Irish voters wouldn’t understand it, a statement that managed to insult everyone. The government subsequently knocked the figure down to $10 billion, and the opposition said it was more like $8 billion.

 

And while Fine Gael is taking credit for the economy, critics are pointing out that it wasn’t austerity, but a fall in world oil prices and a decline in the value of the euro that favors Ireland’s export industry, that got the economy going.

 

Finally Kenny muffed a question about whether Fine Gael might consider a coalition with Fianna Fail because the Labour Party was dropping in the polls and might not hold its 33 seats. This enraged Labour, and Kenny had to mend fences and pledge that Fine Gael would never go into a government with Fianna Fail.

 

In short, the government is looking inept, and it is taking fire for its shift from “we had no choice in applying the austerity” to “we take all the credit for the current situation.” Fintan O’Toole, the sharp-tongued columnist for the Irish Times and author of “Ship Of Fools,” chronicling the financial greed that led to the 2008 meltdown, wrote of the government, “If you had no power, you can claim no credit; if you did have power, you have to account for how unjustly you used it.”

 

Behind the cover of “It’s not our fault,” the government cut funds for caregivers, threw people off of National Health, cut support for the disabled, support for education, and did nothing about rising homelessness. As O’Toole points out, the improvements in the economy were because of oil prices, low interest rates and the falling euro, all “entirely outside the control of the Irish government.”

 

In any case, the country is still deeply in debt and, while the jobless rate is no longer 15 percent, it is still just below 10 percent.

 

The Dail is a motley affair, with a host of small parties and a bloc of independents. Currently Fine Gael has 66 seats and Labour 33. The center-right Fianna Fail (that inched up slightly in recent polls) has 21, and the leftist Sinn Fein has 14. The latter dropped three points in the poll from 20 percent to 17 percent. Other left parties include the Social Democrats, the Anti-Austerity Party, and there is a mix of mainly leftists in the independent bloc. The centrist Greens are showing some growth, as is the small rightist Renva Party.

 

Right now various stripes of the left hold 41 seats, a figure that is likely to go up in the coming elections. To control the Dail requires 80 seats, but if the independents do well, Sinn Fein holds its own, and Labour jumps ship, an anti-austerity coalition is possible.

 

In the end it may be a hung parliament, with no bloc of parties able to cobble together an effective government. Kenny may double cross Labour and join with Fianna Fail. But whoever takes over, the policies of austerity have been deeply discredited during this election and anyone who tries to “stay the course” is in for stormy weather.

 

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Europe’s Left: Triumph or Trap?

 

Foreign Policy In Focus

Conn Hallinan

Feb. 12, 2016

 

 

Over the past year, left and center-left parties have taken control of two European countries and hold the balance of power in a third. Elections in Greece, Portugal and Spain saw rightwing parties take a beating and tens of millions of voters reject the economic austerity policies of the European Union (EU).

 

But what can these left parties accomplish? Can they really roll back regressive taxes and restore funding for education, health and social services? Can they bypass austerity programs to jump start economies weighted down by staggering jobless numbers? Or are they trapped in a game with loaded dice and marked cards?

 

And, for that matter, who is the left? Socialist and social democratic parties in France and Germany have not lifted a finger to support left led anti-austerity campaigns in Greece, Spain, Ireland, or Portugal, and many of them helped institute—or went along with—neoliberal policies they now say they oppose. Established socialist parties all over Europe tend to campaign from the left, but govern from the center.

 

Last year’s electoral earthquakes were triggered not by the traditional socialist parties—those parties did poorly in Greece, Spain and Portugal—but by activist left parties, like Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, and the Left Bloc in Portugal.

 

With the exception of Ireland’s Sinn Fein, all of these parties were either birthed by, or became prominent during, the financial meltdown of 2008 that plunged Europe into economic crisis. Podemos came directly out of the massive plaza demonstrations by the “Indignados” [the “Indignant Ones”] in Spain’s major cities in 2011.

 

Syriza and the Left Bloc predated the 2011 uprising, but they were politically marginal until the EU instituted a draconian austerity program that generated massive unemployment, homelessness, poverty, and economic inequality.

 

Resistance to the austerity policies of the “Troika”—the European Commission, the European Central bank, and the International Monetary Fund—vaulted these left parties from the periphery to the center. Syriza became the largest party in Greece and assumed power in 2015. Podemos was the only left party that gained votes in the recent Spanish election, and it holds the balance of power in the formation of a new government. And the Left Bloc, along with the Communist/Green Alliance, has formed a coalition government with Portugal’s Socialist Workers Party.

 

But with success has come headaches.

 

Syriza won the Greek elections on a platform of resisting the Troika’s austerity policies, only to have to swallow more of them. In Portugal the Left Bloc and Communist/Green Alliance are unhappy with the Socialist Party’s commitment to re-pay Portugal’s quite unpayable debt. Podemos proposed a united front with the Socialist Party, only to find there are some in that organization who would rather bed down with Spain’s rightwing Popular Party than break bread with Podemos.

 

Lessons learned?

 

It is still too early to draw any firm conclusions about what the 2015 earthquake accomplished—and Ireland’s election has yet to happen—but there are some obvious lessons.

 

First, austerity is unpopular. As Italy’s prime minister, Matteo Renzi, put it after the Spanish election, “Governments which apply rigid austerity measures are destined to lose their majorities.”

 

Second, if you are a small economy taking the power of capital head on is likely to get you trampled. The Troika did not just force Syriza to institute more austerity, it made it more onerous, a not very subtle message to voters in Portugal and Spain. But people in both countries didn’t buy it, in large part because after four years of misery their economies are still not back to where they were in 2008.

 

The Troika can crush Greece—Portugal as well—but Spain is another matter. It is the 14th largest economy in the world and the fifth largest in the EU. And now Italy—the fourth largest economy in the EU—is growing increasingly restive with the tight budget policies of the EU that have kept the jobless rate high.

 

But can these anti-austerity coalitions force the Troika to back off?

 

A major part of the problem is the EU itself, and in particular, the eurozone, the 19 countries that use the euro as a common currency. The euro is controlled by the European Central Bank, which, in practice, means Germany. In an economic crisis most countries manipulate their currencies—the U.S., Britain, and China come to mind—as part of a strategy to pay down debt and re-start their economies. The members of the eurozone do not have that power.

 

Germany pursues policies that favor its industrial, export-driven economy, but that model is nothing like the economies of Greece, Portugal, Spain, or even Italy. Nor are any of those countries likely to reproduce the German model, because they do not have the resources (or history) to do so.

 

Complicating matters are political divisions among the Troika’s left opponents. For instance, Syriza is under attack from its left flank for not exiting the eurozone. Former Syriza chief economic advisor Jannis Milios charges that Syriza has abandoned its activist roots and become simply a political party more interested in power than principles. There are similar tensions in Spain and Portugal.

 

But the choices of what to do are not obvious,

 

Withdrawing from the eurozone can be perilous. In Greece’s case, the European Central Bank threatened to shut off the country’s money supply, making it almost impossible for Athens to pay for food, medical and energy imports, or finance its own exports. In short, economic collapse and possible social chaos.

 

But following the policies of the Troika sentences countries to permanent debt, rising poverty rates, and a growing wealth gap. Portugal has one of the highest inequality rates in Europe, and Spain’s national unemployment rate is 21 percent, and double that among the young. Greece’s figures are far higher.

 

The left coalitions are far from powerless, however. Portugal’s coalition government just introduced a budget that will lift the minimum wage, reverse public sector wage cuts, rollback many tax increases, halt privatization of education and transport, and put more money into schools and medical care. Which doesn’t mean everything is smooth sailing. The coalition has already fallen out over a bank bailout, and it disagrees on the debt, but so far the parties are still working together. Jeremy Corbyn, the newly elected left leader of the British Labour Party, hails the Portugal alliance as the beginning of an “anti-austerity coalition” across the continent.

 

There are also interesting developments going on in Spain that address the tensions between street activism and political parties. Emily Achtenberg, a long-time housing expert from Boston and a reporter/analyst for NACLA, has studied Barcelona’s “Platform of People Affected by Mortgages” (PAH). PAH came out of Spain’s catastrophic housing crisis brought on by the financial meltdown of 2008. Some 650,000 homes are in foreclosure, and 400,000 families have been evicted.

 

 

With the help of Podemos, progressive activists won control of the big cities of Madrid, Barcelona, Cadiz, and Zaragoza. Ada Colau, the mayor of Barcelona, is a founder of PAH

 

In Spain, homeowners are responsible for debts even after declaring bankruptcy, debts that can block them from renting an apartment, buying a home or purchasing a car.

 

At the same time, according to the 2013 census, 34 million homes and apartments—14 percent of the country’s housing stock—are vacant, most owned by banks. And since the city has become one of Europe’s tourist magnets, “tens of thousands of once-affordable apartments are marketed to tourists through on-line platforms like Airbnb,” says Achtenberg, exacerbating the situation. But PAH and its allies on the city council have slowed down the evictions, cracked down on unlicensed Airbnb owners, and leaned on the banks to free vacant homes and apartments.

 

PAH now has some 200 chapters all over the country and is planning to press the national parliament to end the “debt for life” law. While allied with Podemos, PAH has maintained its political independence, working both sides of the street: sit-ins and protests, and running for office.

 

“A perennial question,” says Achtenberg, “is whether the impetus for progressive change comes from inside the institution, or from the streets. In Barcelona today, it seems that both strategies are needed, and are working.” As Colau says, for progressive movements “both are indispensible. For real democracy to exist, there should always be an organized citizenry keeping an eye on government—no matter who is in charge.”

 

Putting people in apartments and raising minimum wages does not overthrow capitalism, but many activists argue that such victories are essential for convincing people that change is possible and that the Troika is not all-powerful. They also play to the left’s strong suit: building a humanistic society.

 

Finding that fine line between change and co-optation is not easy, and one formula does not fit all circumstances. Spain has more breathing room than Portugal and Greece simply because it is bigger. The Portuguese may find their path a bit easier simply because they have allies in the eurozone. As Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras says, “I think it is not so easy to change Europe when you are alone.”

 

In the end the path may be like that old peace song: “If two and two and 50 make a million, we’ll see that day come ‘round.”

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