Tag Archives: Catalans

Spain: Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

Spain: Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

Dispatches From the EdgeConn Hallinan

Aug. 22, 2017

 

When the Catalans goes to the polls Oct. 1, much more than independence for Spain’s restive province will be at stake. In many ways the vote will be a sounding board for Spain’s future, but it is also a test of whether the European Union—divided between north and south, east and west—can long endure.

 

In some ways, the referendum on Catalan independence is a very Spanish affair, with grievances that run all the way back to Catalonia’s loss of independence in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714). But the Catalans lost more than their political freedom when the combined French and Spanish army took Barcelona, they lost much of their language and culture, particularly during the long and brutal dictatorship of Francisco Franco from 1939 to 1975.

 

The current independence crisis dates back to 2010, when, at the urging of the rightwing Popular Party, the Spanish Constitutional Court overturned an autonomy agreement that had been endorsed by the Spanish and Catalan parliaments. Since then, the Catalans have elected a pro-independence government and narrowly defeated an initiative in 2014 calling for the creation of a free republic. The Oct. 1 vote will re-visit that vote.

 

But the backdrop for the upcoming election has much of Europe looking attentively, in part because there are other restive independence movements in places like Scotland, Belgium and Italy, and in part because many of the economic policies of the EU will be on the line, especially austerity, regressive taxation, and privatization of public resources as a strategy for economic recovery.

 

When the economic meltdown of 2008 struck, there were few countries harder hit than Spain. At the time Spain had a healthy debt burden and a booming economy, but one mainly based on real estate speculation fed by German, Austrian, French, British and U.S. banks. Real estate prices ballooned 500 percent. Such balloons are bound to pop, and this one did in a most spectacular fashion, forcing Spain to swallow a bailout from the EU’s “troika”—the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission, and the European Bank.

 

The price of the bailout—the bulk of which went to pay off the banks whose speculation had fed the bubble in the first place—was a troika-enforced policy of massive austerity, huge tax hikes, and what one commentator called “sado-monetarism.” The results were catastrophic. The economy tanked, unemployment rose to 27 percent—over 50 percent for youth—and some 400,000 people were forced to emigrate.

 

While the austerity bred widespread misery, it also jump-started the Left Podemos Party, now the third largest in the Spanish parliament and currently running neck and neck with the Spanish Socialist party. Podemos-allied mayors control most of Spain’s largest cities, including Madrid, Valencia, and Barcelona.

 

In the 2015 election the ruling Popular Party lost its majority and currently rules as a minority party, allied with the conservative Catalan Ciudadanos Party and the main Basque party.

 

Needless to say, the PP’s control of Spain is fragile.

 

Starting in 2014 the Spanish economy began to grow, unemployment came down, and Spain seemed on its way back to economic health. Or at least that is the story the Popular Party and the EU is peddling.

 

The economy is the fastest growing in the EU, averaging around 3 percent a year. Next year projections are that it will grow 2.5 percent. Unemployment has dropped from 28 percent—50 percent for youth—to just over 17 percent.

 

But youth unemployment is at 37 percent, the second highest in Europe, and wages have still not caught up to where they were before the 2008 crisis. Spain is adding some 60,000 jobs a year, but many of them are temporary and without the same benefits as full time workers.

 

This temp worker strategy is continent-wide. Of the 5.2 million jobs created between 2013 and 2016, some 2.1 million were temporary.

 

The “recovery” is partly due to “labor reforms” that make it easier to layoff workers and replace full-time workers with “temps.” The shift has been from full-time workers protected by labor agreements to insecure temps with few protections. While that might make products cheaper and, thus, more attractive, it impoverishes the work force.

 

The strategy has become so widespread that economists have borrowed a term from physics to describe it: hysteresis.

 

Hysteresis describes a phenomenon where force permanently distorts what it is applied to.

 

“When unemployment is high for a long period of time, the shape of the labour market alters,” says Financial Times economist Claire Jones. “Would-be workers lose their skills, or find that technology or other economic forces make them obsolete. When the recovery comes, they are unable to join in. longer-term, or structural levels of unemployment set in and economy’s potential diminishes.”

 

In short, hysteresis produces an army of under and unemployed workers, whose living standards decline and who are economically marginalized. It also creates a vicious cycle that eventually dampens an economy. If governments are not spending—and under the strictures of the troika that is a given—and if consumers don’t have money, growth will eventually come to a halt, or at least become so anemic that it will be unable to absorb the influx of a younger generation.

 

Those marginalized communities and sectors of the economy are fertile ground for rightists who use xenophobia and racism to whip up anti-immigrant sentiment, as recent elections in Europe and the U.S. have demonstrated.

 

The vote by Britain to withdraw from the EU was put down to racism, but ,while anti-immigrant sentiment did play a role in the Brexit, that argument is a vast oversimplification of what happened. Much of the Brexit vote was not so much xenophobic as a repudiation of the major political parties that abandoned whole sectors of the country.

This particularly included the policies instituted by former Prime Minister Tony Blair and the “New Labour Party” that jettisoned its ties with the trade union movement and bought into the neo-liberal policies of free trade and globalization.

 

However, many of those Brexit voters turned around a few months later and backed the Labour Party and Jeremy Corbin’s left agenda. Given an opportunity to vote for ending the long reign of austerity, and for free university tuition, improved health services, and re-nationalizing transportation, they voted Labour, xenophobia be dammed.

 

Because the Spanish Popular Party claims that the current economic recovery is the direct result of its austerity and labor policies, other EU players are paying attention to the Catalan vote. If the vote goes badly for Catalan independence—and polls are currently showing it will be defeated 42 percent to 48 percent—the PP will claim a victory, not only over Catalan separatism, but also for the Party’s economic recovery strategy.

 

The French are certainly paying attention. Newly elected President Emmanuel Macron is preparing a similar program of cutbacks and labor “reforms” that he intends to ram through by executive decree, bypassing the French parliament.

 

A victory for the PP is also in the interests of the troika as proof that its recovery formula works, even though the track record of austerity as a cure has few success stories, and even those are questionable. For instance, low energy prices and a weak euro have more to do with the Spanish recovery than cutbacks in social services and the evisceration of labor codes.

 

The Popular Party should be riding high these days, but in fact its poll numbers are declining. It is still the largest party in Spain, but that translates into only 31 percent of the voters. Between them, the Spanish Socialist Party and the leftist Podemos Party garner just short of 40 percent.

 

Part of the PP’s woes stem from the fact that many Spaniards recognize there is something sour about the recent “recovery,” but there are also the corruption charges leveled at the PP, charges that have even ensnared Mariano Rajoy. The Prime Minister was recently forced to testify in a bribery and fraud case against some leading members of his Party.

 

While the Socialists have also been tarred with the corruption brush, the current case has riveted the public’s attention because some of it reads like a script from the Sopranos. The key defendant is Francisco Correa, who likes to be called Don Vito, Marlon Brando’s character in The Godfather. Two of his associates are known as The Moustache and The Pearl. Correa and 10 others have already been sentenced to prison for fraud and bribery, but Correa is also on trial for setting up a slush fund. Rajoy testified in that trial, although so far the Prime Minister is not accused of any wrongdoing.

 

A survey by the CIS Institute found that almost 50 percent of Spanish voters are deeply concerned with corruption, and that sentiment is dragging the Popular Party down.

 

The left and center-left parties are split on the Catalan question. Both oppose separatism, but they come at it very differently. Podemos is urging a “no” vote Oct. 1, but it supports the right of the Catalans to have their initiative. That position, along with Podemos’s progressive political program, has made it the number one party in Catalonia.

 

The Socialists have traditionally opposed Catalan separatism, and even the right of the Catalans to vote on the issue. But that position has softened since a major upheaval in the party that began last year when the Socialist’s right wing pulled off a coup and drove the Party’s left wing out of power. But the Socialist right-wingers made a major mistake by voting to allow Rajoy to form a minority government and continue the austerity policies. That move was too much for the Party’s rank and file, who threw out the right this past May and reinstated the Socialist’s left wing.

 

The Socialists’ willingness to consider allowing the initiative is partly a matter of simple math. The Party’s opposition to Catalan independence has resulted in it being virtually annihilated in the province, and no Socialist Party has ever come to power in Spain without winning Catalonia.

 

Whatever happens Oct. 1, Spain is not going to be the same country it has been since the restoration of democracy in 1977. The old two-party domination of the government is over, and there is general recognition that there has to be some shift on the Catalan question. Even Rajoy—who has hinted that he might consider using the military to block the Oct. 1 vote, or ruling the province from Madrid—has offered to give Barcelona the same deal the Basque province have. That would include collecting taxes, something Catalans now don’t have the right to do.

 

There is no little irony in Rajoy’s offer. When the Catalans made that same offer in 2012, Rajoy and the Popular Party wouldn’t even discuss the proposal. It is a measure of how the issue has evolved that Rajoy is now making the same offer as the Catalans did a half decade ago.

 

Polls—weak reeds to lean on these days—show the initiative going down to defeat, but the situation is fluid. Rajoy’s recent proposal and the softening of the Socialist Party’s position might convince the majority of Catalans that some kind of deal can be cut. Young Catalans favor independence, but older Catalans are uncomfortable with what will be a leap into darkness.

 

On the other hand, if Rajoy comes down hard it will likely bolster the “no” vote.

 

The European Union is in a crisis of its own making. By blocking its members from pursuing different strategies for confronting economic trouble and, instead, insisting on one-size-fits-all strictures, the trade group has set loose centrifugal forces that now threaten to tear the organization apart.

 

The eastern members of the EU have charted a course that throttles democracy in the name of stability. The southern members of the bloc are struggling to emerge from austerity regimes that have inflicted widespread, possibly permanent, damage to their economies. Even members with powerful economies, like Germany and France, are trying to keep the lid on the desire of their people for a better standard of living.

 

The Catalan vote reflects many of these crosscurrents, and is likely to be felt far beyond the borders of Iberia.

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1 Comment

Filed under Europe

Spain’s Turmoil and Europe’s Crisis

Spain’s Turmoil & Europe’s Crisis

Dispatches From the Edge

Oct. 7, 2026

 

While the chaos devouring Spain’s Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) mixed elements of farce and tragedy, the issues roiling Spanish politics reflect a general crisis in the European Union (EU) and a sober warning to the continent: Europe’s 500 million people need answers, and the old formulas are not working.

 

On the tragedy side was the implosion of a 137-year old party that at one point claimed the allegiance of half of Spain’s people now reduced to fratricidal infighting. The PSOE’s embattled General Secretary Pedro Sanchez was forced to resign when party grandees and regional leaders organized a coup against his plan to form a united front of the left.

 

The farce was street theater, literally: Veronica Perez, the president of the PSOE’s Federal Committee and a coup supporter, was forced to hold a press conference on a sidewalk in Madrid because Sanchez’s people barred her from the Party’s headquarters.

 

There was no gloating by the Socialists main competitors on the left. Pablo Iglesias, the leader of Podemos, somberly called it “the most important crisis since the end of the civil war in the most important Spanish party in the past century.”

 

That the party coup is a crisis for Spain there is no question, but the issues that prevented the formation of a working government for the past nine months are the same ones Italians, Greeks, Portuguese, Irish—and before they jumped ship, the British—are wresting with: growing economic inequality, high unemployment, stagnant economies, and whole populations abandoned by Europe’s elites.

 

The spark for the PSOE’s meltdown was a move by Sanchez, to break the political logjam convulsing Spanish politics. The current crisis goes back to the Dec. 20 2015 national elections that saw Spain’s two traditional parties—the rightwing People’s Party (PP), led by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, and Sanchez’s Socialists—take a beating. The PP lost 63 seats and its majority and the PSOE lost 20 seats. Two new parties, the leftwing Podemos and the rightwing nationalist party Ciudadanos, crashed the party, winning 69 seats and 40 seats, respectively.

 

While the PP took the most seats, it was not enough for a majority in the 350-seat legislature, which requires 176. In theory, the PSOE could have cobbled together a government with Podemos, Catalans and independents, but the issue of Catalonian independence got in the way.

 

The Catalans demand the right to hold a referendum on independence, something the PP, the Socialists and Ciudadanos bitterly oppose. While Podemos is also opposed to Spain’s richest province breaking free of the country, it supports the right of the Catalans to vote on the issue. Catalonia was conquered in 1715 during the War of the Spanish Succession, and Madrid has oppressed the Catalans’ language and culture ever since.

 

The Catalan issue is an important one for Spain, but the PSOE could have shelved its opposition to a referendum and made common cause with Podemos, the Catalans and the independents. Instead, Sanchez formed a pact with Ciudadanos and asked Podemos to join the alliance.

 

For Podemos, that would have been a poison pill. A major reason why Podemos is the number one party in Catalonia is because it supports the right of Catalans to hold a referendum. If it had joined with the Socialists and Ciudadanos it would have alienated a significant part of its base.

 

It is possible that’s what Sanchez’s had in mind, reasoning that Podemos’ refusal to join with the Socialists and Ciudadanos would hurt it with voters. Sanchez gambled that another election would see the Socialists expand at the expense of Podemos and give it enough seats to form a government.

 

That was a serious misjudgment. The June 26 election saw PSOE lose five more seats and turn in its worst ever performance. Ciudadanos also lost seats. While Podemos lost votes—at least 1 million—it retained the same number of deputies. The only winner was the Popular Party, which poached eight seats from Ciudadanos for an increase of 14. However, once again no party won enough seats to form a government.

 

The current crisis is the fallout from the June election. Rajoy, claiming the PP had “won” the election, formed an alliance with Ciudadanos and asked the PSOE to either support him or abstain from voting and allow him to form a minority government. Sanchez refused, convinced that allowing Rajoy to form a government would be a boon to Podemos and the end of the Socialists.

 

There is a good deal of precedent for that conclusion. The Greek Socialist Party formed a grand coalition with the right and was subsequently decimated by the leftwing Syriza Party. The German Social Democratic Party’s alliance with the conservative Christian Democratic Union has seen the once mighty organization slip below 20 percent in the polls. England’s Liberal Democratic Party was destroyed by its alliance with the Conservatives.

 

The ostensible reason Sanchez was forced out was that he led the Socialists to two straight defeats in national elections and oversaw the beating the PSOE took in recent local elections in the Basque region and Galicia. But the decline of the Socialists predated Sanchez. The party has been bleeding supporters for over a decade, a process that accelerated after it abandoned its social and economic programs in 2010 and oversaw a mean-spirited austerity regime.

 

The PSOE has long been riven with political and regional rivalries. Those divisions surfaced when Sanchez finally decided to try an alliance with Podemos, the Catalans and independents, which suggests he was willing to reconsider his opposition to a Catalan referendum. That’s when Susana Diaz, the Socialist leader in Spain’s most populous province, Andalusia, pulled the trigger on the coup. Six out of seven PSOE regional leaders backed her. Diaz will likely take the post of General Secretary after the PSOE’s convention in several weeks.

 

The Andalusian leader has already indicated she will let Rajoy form a minority government. “First we need to give Spain a government,” she said, “and then open a deep debate in the PSOE.” Sanchez was never very popular—dismissed as a good looking lightweight—but the faction that ousted him may find that rank and file Socialists are not overly happy with a coup that helped usher in a rightwing government. This crisis is far from over.

 

In the short run the Popular Party is the winner, but Rajoy’s ruling margin will be paper-thin. Most commentators think that Podemos will emerge as the main left opposition. While the Socialists did poorly in Galicia and the Basque regions, Podemos did quite well, an outcome that indicates that talk of its “decline” after last June’s election is premature. In contrast, Ciudadanos drew a blank in the regional voting, suggesting that the party is losing its national profile and heading back to being a regional Catalan party.

 

Hanging over this is the puzzle of what went wrong for the left in the June election, particularly given that the polls indicated a generally favorable outcome for them? It is an important question because while Rajoy may get his government, there are few willing to bet it will last very long.

 

Part of the outcome was its dreadful timing: two days after the English and the Welsh voted to pull the United Kingdom out of the European Union. The “Brexit” was a shock to all of Europe and hit Spain particularly hard. The country’ stock market lost some $70 billion, losses that fed the scare campaign the PP and the PSOE were running against Podemos.

 

Even though Podemos supports EU membership, the right and the center warned that, if the leftwing party won the election, it would accelerate the breakup of Europe and encourage the Catalans to push for independence. The Brexit pushed fear to the top of the agenda, and when people are afraid they tend to vote for stability.

 

But some of the lost votes came because Podemos confused some of its own supporters by moderating its platform. At one point Iglesias even said that Podemos was “neither right nor left.” The Party abandoned its call for a universal basic income, replacing it with a plan for a minimum wage, no different than the Socialist Party’s program. And dropping the universal basic income demand alienated some of the anti-austerity forces that still make up the shock troops in ongoing fights over poverty and housing in cities like Madrid and Barcelona.

 

Podemos was also hurt by Spain’s undemocratic electoral geography, where rural votes count more than urban ones. It takes 125,000 votes to elect a representative in Madrid, 38,000 in some rural areas. The PP and the PSOE are strong in the countyside, while Podemos is strong in the cities.

 

Podemos had formed a pre-election alliance—“United We Can”—with Spain’s Unite Left (UL), an established party of left groups that includes the Communist Party, but made little effort to mobilize it. Indeed, Iglesias disparaged IU members as “sad, boring and bitter” and “defeatists whose pessimism is infectious,” language that did not endear IU’s rank and file to Podemos. Figures show that Podemos did poorly in areas where the IU was strong.

The Galicia and Basque elections indicate that Podemos is still a national force. The Party will likely pick up PSOE’s members who cannot tolerate the idea that their party would allow the likes of Rajoy to form a government. Podemos will also need to shore up its alliance with the IU and curb its language about old leftists (which young leftists tend to eventually become).

 

The path for the Socialists is less certain.

 

If the PSOE is not to become a footnote in Spain’s history, it will have to suppress its hostility to Podemos and recognize that two party domination of the country is in the past. The Socialists will also have to swallow their resistance to a Catalan referendum, if for no other reason than it will be impossible to block it in the long run. Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont recently announced an independence plebiscite would be held no later than September 2017 regardless of what Madrid wants.

 

The right in Spain may have a government, but it is not one supported by the majority of the country’s people. Nor will its programs address Spain’s unemployment rate—at 20 percent the second highest in Europe behind Greece—or the country’s crisis in health care, education and housing.

 

For the left, unity would seem to be the central goal, similar to Portugal, where the Portuguese Socialist Workers Party formed a united front with the Left Bloc and the Communist/Green Alliance. While the united front has its divisions, the parties put them aside in the interests of rolling back some of the austerity policies that have made Portugal the home of Europe’s greatest level of economic inequality.

 

The importance of the European left finding common ground is underscored by the rising power of the extreme right in countries like France, Austria, England, Poland, Greece, Hungry, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Germany. The economic and social crises generated by almost a decade of austerity and growing inequality needs programmatic solutions that only the left has the imagination to construct.

 

One immediate initiative would be to join Syriza’s and Podemos’ call for a European debt conference modeled on the 1953 London Conference that canceled much of Germany’s wartime debt and ignited the German economy.

 

But the left needs to hurry lest xenophobia, racism, hate and repression, the four horsemen of the right’s apocalypse, engulf Europe.

 

—30—

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4 Comments

Filed under Europe

Spanish Elections: EU Watershed?

The Spanish Challenge

Dispatches From The Edge

June 8, 2016

 

For the past quarter of a century there have been few watershed moments in Spanish political history. Like a well-choreographed pas de deux, the center-left Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) and right-wing Popular Party (PP) have taken turns governing the country.

 

But the 2015 election changed all that. Upstart parties on the right and left crashed the ball, punished the two major parties, and forced another round of voting on June 26 that could be a turning point in a growing campaign to roll back austerity policies that have spread poverty and unemployment throughout the continent.

 

Last December’s vote saw the ruling PP drop 63 seats and lose its majority. But voters chastised the Socialists as well, with the party losing 20 seats. Many of the seats that formerly went to the two major parties shifted to the left-wing Podemos Party and, to a lesser degree, the rightist Ciudadanos Party. In the current parliament, the PP controls 123 seats, the Socialists 90, Podemos 69, and Ciudadanos 40. Regional parties of Basques, Catalans and Canary Island independents hold 28 seats. The parliament has 350 seats and a ruling majority is 176.

 

The new election was forced when none of the parties could form a working majority. The PP and Ciudadanos are on the same page politically, but together fall short of a majority. The Socialists, Podemos and the regional parties—most of which are leftist to one extent or another—could have formed a government, but the Socialist Party refuses to have anything to do with Catalan separatists.

 

While polls indicate that Spaniards are likely to vote pretty much the same way they did in December, a new kid on the block has altered the electoral terrain and raised the pressure on the center-left Socialists to make a choice: follow the lead of Portugal, where the Socialist Party formed a united front with the Left Bloc and the Communist/Green alliance, or imitate the Social Democrats in Germany and join a “grand coalition” and make common cause with the right?

 

The “new kid” is “Unidos Podemos” (“United We Can”), a coalition of Podemos and the United Left (UL). No one expects the new alliance to win a majority, but most analysts predict, that under Spain’s quirky election system the coalition could increase its representation by 25 percent, or somewhere between 15 to 20 seats. That would vault the new formation past the PSOE, making United Podemos (UP) the second largest bloc in the parliament. The PP is still number one and on track to slightly increase the 29 percent they received in the last election.

 

Spain’s election geography is heavily weighted toward rural areas, where the PP and Socialist Party are strong. While it takes 128,000 votes to elect someone in Madrid, it only takes 38,000 in some areas of the countryside. The rules also favor regional depth over broad support. In December, the UL won almost a million votes but only got two representatives. Other parties averaged one seat for every 60,000 votes.

 

United Podemos has internal tensions, but both parties have put these aside for the moment. For instance, Podemos supports continued membership in NATO, while United Left opposes the military alliance. The UL is also opposed to the current structure of the European Union and calls for a “refounding” of the organization.

 

What both agree on is ending Spain’s punishing austerity regime and confronting the country’s staggering unemployment. The national jobless rate is 21 percent, with a catastrophic 45.5 percent for youth 25 and under. The education system is in a state of collapse, and there is a national housing crisis. In the face of those conditions, the UP has decided to shelve disagreements over NATO and the EU and make common cause.

 

This is almost exactly what the left did in Portugal, where disagreements on NATO and the EU were sidelined in favor of freezing privatizations, rolling back tax increases, increasing the minimum wage and augmenting funding for education and medical care. There is no question that differences will eventually surface, but the Portuguese left has decided that when the house is burning down saving the inhabitants takes precedent. Whether the Spanish Socialist Party will take that step is an open question.

 

In some ways the divisions of the left in Spain are narrower than they are in the Portuguese alliance: part of the UP—specifically Podemos—backs NATO membership and the EU. But the PSOE’s opposition to Catalan independence is a major roadblock to an alliance with the UP. Podemos also believes Catalonia should remain part of Spain, but it supports the right of the Catalans to hold a referendum on the issue.

 

The Socialist Party’s hostility to Catalan independence allies it with the PP and Ciudadanos. The latter was formed to oppose Catalan independence, and the PP has led a mean-spirited campaign against Barcelona. When Catalans banned bull fighting, Madrid made bull fighting a “national cultural heritage” to thwart the ban. When Catalans flew their nationalist “Estelada” flag at the Copa Del Rey soccer match finals in Madrid, the government tried to block it. A court stopped the authorities from banning the flag, and Barcelona defeated Madrid in the match.

 

PP leader and acting Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, is pressing the Socialists to join a grand coalition that, so far, the latter has resisted. But the PSOE is deeply split. Some in the Party would rather bed down with the right than break bread with Podemos United. Others are afraid that, if the Socialist Party enters a grand alliance with the Popular Party, the Socialists will end up suffering the consequences. Center-left parties that join with center-right parties tend to do badly come election time.

 

The Greek Socialist Party was decimated by the left-wing Syriza Party after the former went into a grand coalition with the right. The Liberal Party’s alliance with the Conservative Party in England turned out to be a disaster. The Liberal Party barely exists today. And the German Social Democrat’s grand coalition with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union has seen the once mighty Socialists slip below 20 percent in the polls. In Spain the mantel of “the left” would clearly shift to the UP alliance, something that many in the Socialist Party deeply fear.

 

There are profound differences among the European left, making unity difficult. The Socialist parties in Portugal and Spain, for instance, support paying off their countries debts to European banks and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The Portuguese Socialist Party’s alliance partners, as well as the Spanish United Left, think the debt is unpayable and, in any case, unfair because most of the debt is the result of the 2008 economic crisis brought on by the irresponsible speculation of private banks. Speculators may have lost the money, but the taxpayers are picking up the tab.

 

There is a potential path out of the current situation, but it will have to overcome powerful interests and a deeply flawed economic system.

 

Those “interests” are the debt holders, ranging from governments to the European Central bank and the IMF.

 

The flaw is built into the eurozone, which is made up of the 19 countries in the 28-member European Union that use the common currency, the euro. As economist Thomas Piketty puts it, the eurozone has “a single currency with 19 different public debts, 19 interests rates upon which the financial markets are completely free to speculate, 19 corporate tax rates in unbridled competition with one another, without a common social safety net or shared educational standard—this cannot possibly work, and never will.”

 

Piketty argues the eurozone’s rigidity on debt and its strategy for solving it—austerity and yet more austerity—has “throttled” a recovery, particularly in Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland. Even where countries economies are finally growing—Spain and Ireland—their debts are actually higher than when they instituted austerity regimes. And the “growth” is not due to the EU’s economic strategy, but rather to cheap oil and the declining value of the euro.

 

Piketty proposes a conference on debt, similar to the one that saved postwar Germany. Syriza has long called for such a gathering. Such a conference could cut debt burdens, lower interest rates and spread out repayments.

 

However, the eurozone would also have to be democratized. The current European parliament includes non-eurozone members and is largely powerless. Decisions are largely made by the unelected Troika—the IMF, the European Central Bank, and the European Commission. One thing that could be done immediately would be to institute a common corporate tax rate, which could be used to finance infrastructure improvements and education.

 

Germany is unlikely to support such an approach, but Germany only represents 25 percent of the EU’s population and GDP, while France, Italy and Spain combined account for 50 percent. Add in Ireland, Portugal and Greece, and Germany and its allies are a distinct minority.

 

Italy is openly advocating debt reductions and loosening of the eurozone’s rules, and France has already raised the issue of a more democratic and transparent EU political structure along the lines of what Piketty is proposing.

 

Can it be done? It won’t be easy, but Germany is increasingly isolated, and countries in the southern tier of the eurozone are desperate for relief from the endless rounds of austerity. They are also no longer convinced that such a strategy will lower their debt burdens and stimulate their economies. In fact, most the debt is unpayable no matter how much austerity is applied.

 

There are some wild cards in the upcoming election. Both the PP and PSOE have been tarred with the corruption bush, and two former Socialist governors of Andalusia have just been charged with illegal payments to supporters. Turnout will likely be lower than in the December election, but the left’s effective grassroots organizations may offset that.

 

The Spanish elections arrive at a critical time for the European Union, and a Madrid government that resists the increasingly discredited economic strategy of the troika could shift the balance in the direction imagined by Piketty.

 

That, however, will depend on whether the Socialist Party decides to join with the left or go into a grand coalition with the right.

 

A failure by the left to unite will open the door for Europe’s resurgent far right, whose xenophobia and racism have gained ground all over the continent.The only way to effectively counter the far right is to democratize the European Union and pursue economic policies that will provide jobs and raise living standards. Only the left can deliver such a program.

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1 Comment

Filed under Europe, FPIF Blogs