Tag Archives: European Left

Europe: The Danger From The Center

Europe: The Danger of the Center

Foreign Policy In Focus

June 13, 2017

 

The good news out of Europe is that Marine Le Pen’s neo-Nazi National Front took a beating in the May 7 French presidential election. The bad news is that the program of the winner, Emmanuel Macron, might put Le Pen back in the running six years from now.

 

Macron pledges to cut 120,000 public jobs, reduce spending by 60 billion Euros, jettison the 35-hour workweek, raise the retirement age, weaken unions’ negotiating strength and cut corporate taxes. It is a program that is unlikely to revive the morbid French economy, but it will certainly worsen the plight of jobless youth and seniors and hand the National Front ammunition for the 2022 election.

 

Europe is enmeshed in an economic crisis brought on by the structure of the European Union (EU), on one hand, and the nature of capitalism, on the other. That convergence has derailed economies throughout the 27-member trade group, impoverished tens of millions, and helped conjure up racist, rightwing movements that are not likely to be deterred by a few election losses.

 

Obscuring the roots of this crisis is the myth that debt is the result of spendthrift behavior, the economic sluggishness a consequence of high taxes, and rigid labor rules that handcuff businesses and inhibit growth. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is fond of saying that countries should behave like a “frugal Swabian house frau.”

 

Is Merkel’s observation bases on a myth or is it allegory? While an allegory is the “figurative treatment of one subject under the guise of another,” a myth is “an unproven or false collective belief that is used to justify a social institution.” The difference may seem pedantic, however, it is anything but, and, because myths are particularly hard to dislodge once they become widespread, it is essential to unpack exactly how the EU got itself in trouble.

 

Part of the problem is capitalism itself, an economic system that generates both enormous productive capacity and economic chaos.

 

Capitalism is afflicted by two kinds of crisis, cyclical and structural. The cyclical ones—recessions—tend to occur pretty much every 10 ten years. The U.S. and Europe went through recessions in the early 1980s, early 1990s, and the first years of 2000. They are painful and unpleasant but generally over in about 18 months.

 

Every 40 or 50 years, however, there is a structural crisis like the 1929 crash and the ensuing Great Depression.

 

When a structural crisis hits, capitalism re-organizes itself. In the 1930s, the solution was to create a re-distributive capitalism that used the power of the state to prime the economic pump and alleviate some of the chaos that accompanies such re-organizations. Unemployment insurance and Social Security took some of the edge off the pain, public works absorbed some of the jobless, and unions got the right to organize and strike.

 

Capitalism went through another structural crisis at the end of the 1970s, and it is the fallout from that one that currently plagues the EU—and the U.S. Using the 1979-81 recession as a screen, taxes on corporations and the wealthy were slashed, business and finance de-regulated, public institutions privatized, and unions assaulted. Capitalism also went global.

 

Globalism did spur enormous growth, but with a deep flaw. With unions weakened—in part by direct attack, in part by the enormous pool of cheap labor now available in the developing world—wages either stagnated or fell in Europe and the U.S., and the gap between rich and poor widened. A 2015 study by Oxfam found that 1 percent of humanity now controls over half the world’s wealth, and the top 20 percent owns 94.5 percent. In short, 80 percent of the world gets by on 5.5 percent of the world’s wealth.

 

This is not just a problem for the developing and under developed world. Germany has the biggest economy in the EU, and the fourth largest in the world. In 2000, Germany’s top 20 percent earned 3.5 percent more than the bottom 20 percent. Today that number has increased five times. For the bottom 10 percent, income has actually fallen. While earnings are up 6 percent, the cost of living has increased 24 percent. If that Swabian house frau was among that 10 percent, it didn’t make a whole lot of difference how frugal she was, she was broke.

 

Globalization generated instability by creating a crisis of accumulation. A few people had lots of money, but far too many had very little, certainly not enough to absorb the output of the global economy. Global capitalism was awash with cash, but where to use it? The answer was financial speculation—especially since many of the restraints and safety measures had been removed through deregulation.

 

For Europe, most of that speculation went into land. Land prices in Spain and Ireland rose 500 percent from 1999 to 2007. In the case of Ireland, it was almost unreal. Irish real estate loans went from 5 billion Euros in 1999 to 96.2 billion Euros in 2007, or more than half the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the Republic. Over the same period, European household debt increased on the average by 39 percent.

 

That this was a bubble was obvious and all bubbles pop sooner or later. This one exploded in the U.S. in late 2007 and quickly spread to Europe.

 

What is important to keep in mind is that the EU countries that got in trouble were hardly spendthrifts. Spain, Portugal, and Ireland all had modest debt ratios and budget surpluses at the time of the crisis.

 

The problem was not prodigal governments but a sudden hike in borrowing rates, which made it expensive to finance government operations. That was coupled with a decision to use taxpayer money to bail out banks that had gotten themselves in trouble speculating on real estate. Essentially, Portuguese, Spaniards, Greeks and Irish picked up the debts of banks they had never borrowed anything from.

 

Irish taxpayers shelled out 30 billion Euros to bailout the Irish-Anglo bank, a figure equivalent to the Republic’s tax revenues for an entire year. Since none of these countries had that kind of money on hand, they applied for “bailouts” from the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, and the European Commission, the so-called “troika.” Some 89 percent of those bailouts went to banks. The day the Greek bailout was announced, French bank shares rose 24 percent.

 

It was not that EU countries were debt free, but in 2014, the Committee for a Citizen’s Audit on the Public Debt found that between 60 and 70 percent of those debts were due not to overspending, but instead tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, and increases in interest rates. The latter favors creditors and speculators. The Committee found that most deficits were the result of “political decisions” that shift the wealth from one class to another.

 

In the long run, some of that debt will have to be forgiven because it is simply unpayable. The 1952 London Debt Convention that cut Germany’s post-war debt and ignited an economic revival could serve as a template.

 

Converging with this crisis of capitalism is the way the EU is structured, although the two are hardly independent of one another. Many of EU’s strictures were specifically designed to favor capital and finance and to marginalize the control that the Union’s 500 million members have over economic matters.

 

The first problem is that all economic decisions are made by the “troika,” an unelected body that answers to no one. There is a European Parliament, but it has little power or control over finance. The same is true for EU member governments. When former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis told German Finance Minister Wolfgang Wolfgang Schauble that his left-wing Syriza Party was elected to resist the austerity policies of the EU, Schuable replied, “We cannot possibly let an election change anything.”

 

The second problem is that national governments have no control over the value of the Euro. Of the EU’s 27 members, 19 of them use the common currency and make up the Eurozone. Germany’s condition for giving up the Mark and adopting the Euro was that Eurozone members were required to keep budget deficits to no more than 3 percent of national income, and debt levels to no higher than 60 percent of GDP. While that formula works well for Germany’s powerful export model, it doesn’t for of a number of other Eurozone economies.

 

The Euro’s value is set by the European Central Bank, which means that members cannot devalue their currency, a common strategy for dealing with debt, and one near and dear to the U.S. Treasury. As long as it’s smooth sailing, this rule works, but when a financial crisis hits, the common currency and the debt restrictions can mean big trouble for the smaller, less export-centered economies. When the financial bubble popped in 2008, countries like Italy, Spain, Portugal and Ireland—and to a certain extent, France—saw their debts soar, with strategies for dealing with it hamstrung by the Eurozone rules.

 

And that is when the third problem with the Eurozone kicked in. While there is a common currency, there is no sharing of debt through tax receipts. In a single currency system like the U.S., powerful economies in California and New York pay for bills in places like Mississippi and Louisiana.

 

Some 44 percent of Louisiana’s state budget is paid for by the federal government, which collects taxes in wealthy states and doles out some of it to regions whose economies are either too small or inefficient to meet their budget needs. If you get into trouble in the Eurozone, you are on your own.

 

While the EU has been good for banks and countries like Germany and Austria, it hasn’t been so good for many other of its members. Applying austerity as a cure for debt doesn’t cure the problem, it just creates a spiral of more debt and yet more austerity. As Rana Foroohar, business columnist for the Financial Times put it, “No nation can grow when the consumer, the corporate sector, and the public sector stop spending.”

 

Because most the center-left parties bought into the austerity-as-a-cure-for-debt formula, they have been devastated at the polls. The Dutch Labor Party was crushed in the last election, the French Socialists got less than 7 percent of the vote, and the Spanish Socialists are barely keeping ahead of the much more left Podemos Party. The Italian Socialist Party has dropped over 15 points in the polls and is now running behind the rather bizarre Five Star Movement. The Greek Socialists are a footnote.

 

The lesson for the left would seem to be that moving to the center or the right is a prescription for electoral disaster,

 

Macron’s new centrist party, En Marche!, won, but mostly due to the anti-Le Pen vote. His program of austerity, restraints on unions, and corporate tax cuts is popular with everyone, although En Marche! did well in the first round of voting for the legislature, and poll indicate he may get a majority. If he does not, he plans to push the measures through by decree.

 

It is unlikely that such a centrist program will do anything to reduce France’s unemployment rate—9.6 percent overall and 25 percent among youth age 18 to 29—or lift the economy. Labor “reform” and austerity do not jump start economies, and tax cuts have an equally dreary record. Indeed, as Foroohar points out, there is not a single example in the last 20 years where tax cuts for business or the wealthy stimulated an economy. Indeed, the economic surge in the 1990s happened while tax rates were on the rise.

 

If the economic situation worsens, or even stays the same, the right will be waiting to pounce with their easy answers to economic crisis: nationalism and racism.

 

The clock is ticking. Germany will hold elections in September, and it looks as if Italy will also go to the polls this fall. In Spain, the right-wing minority government is looking increasingly fragile and another election is a strong possibility.

 

Center-left parties are doing well in Portugal, where the Socialists have made common cause with two more leftist parties. In Britain the Labour Party’s sharp break with the Party’s centrism upended the Conservative Party, denied it a majority in Parliament. A recent YouGov poll found that a majority of Britains supported Labour’s left-wing platform over the Conservatives’ austerity program.

 

The Portuguese coalition is demonstrating that there are successful economic models out there to deal with debt and growth that don’t impoverish the many for the benefit of a few. The question is, can the left in Italy, Spain and Germany put together programs that tap into the seething unrest that globalism’s inequality has generated?

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Europe

Brexit and Spain: Europe On The Edge

The Brexit & Spain: Europe On The Edge?

Dispatches From The Edge

July 5, 2016

 

On the surface, the June 23 Brexit and the June 26 Spanish elections don’t look comparable. After a nasty campaign filled with racism and Islamophobia, the British—or rather, the English and the Welsh—took a leap into darkness and voted to leave the European Union (EU). Spanish voters, on the other hand, rejected change and backed a rightwing party that embodies the policies of the Brussels-based trade organization.

 

But deep down the fault lines in both countries converge.

 

For the first time since Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan rolled out a variety of free market capitalism and globalization that captured much of the world in the 1980s, that model is under siege. The economic strategy of regressive taxes, widespread privatization and deregulation has generated enormous wealth for the few, but growing impoverishment for the many. The top 1 percent now owns more than 50 percent of the world’s wealth.

 

The British election may have focused on immigration and the fear of “the other”—Turks, Syrians, Greeks, Poles, etc—but this xenophobia stems from the anger and despair of people who have been marginalized or left behind by the globalization of the labor force that has systematically hollowed out small communities and destroyed decent paying jobs and benefits.

 

“Great Britain’s citizens haven’t been losing control of their fate to the EU,” wrote Richard Eskow of the Campaign for America’s Future, “They’ve have been losing it because their own country’s leaders—as well as those of most Western democracies—are increasingly in thrall to corporate and financial interests.”

 

While most of the mainstream media reported the Spanish election as a “victory” for acting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s Popular Party (PP) and defeat for the left, it was more a reshuffle than a major turn to the right, and, if Rajoy manages to cobble together a government, it is likely to be fragile and short lived.

 

It was a dark night for pollsters in both countries. British polls predicted a narrow defeat for the Brexit, and Spanish polls projected a major breakthrough for Spain’s left, in particular Unidos Podemos (UP), a new alliance between Podemos and the Communist/Green party, Izquierda Unida.

 

Instead, the Brexit passed easily and the UP lost 1 million votes from the last election, ending up with the same number of seats they had in the old parliament. In contrast, the Popular Party added 14 seats, although it fell well short of a majority.

 

A major reason for the Spanish outcome was the Brexit, which roiled markets all over the world, but had a particularly dramatic effect on Spain. The Ibex share index plunged more than 12 percent and blue-chip stocks took a pounding, losing about $70 billion dollars. It was, according to Spain’s largest business newspaper, “The worst session ever.” Rajoy—as well as the Socialist Party (SP)—flooded the media with scare talk about stability, and it partly worked.

 

The Popular Party poached eight of its 14 new seats from the center-right Ciudadanos Party and probably convinced some UP voters to shift to the mainstream SP.

 

But Rajoy’s claim that “We won the election. We demand the right to govern” is a reach. The PP has 137 seats, and it needs 176 seats to reach a majority in the 350-seat parliament. The Prime Minister says he plans to join with Ciudadanos, but because the latter lost seats in the election such an alliance would put the PP seven votes short. An offer for a “grand alliance” with the SP doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. “We are not going to support Rajoy’s investiture or abstain,” said Socialist Party spokesman Antonio Hernando. An abstention would allow the PP to form a government.

 

Which doesn’t mean Rajoy can’t form a government. There are some independent deputies from the Basque country and the Canary Islands who might put Rajoy over the top, but it would be the first coalition government in Spain and a fragile one at that.

 

Part of that fragility is a scandal over an email between Rajoy and Jean-Claude Juncker, head of the European Commission, that was leaked to the media. The Commission is part of the “troika” with the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank that largely decides economic policy in the EU.

 

During the election Rajoy promised to cut taxes and moderate the troika-imposed austerity measures that have driven Spain’s national unemployment rate to 22 percent, and a catastrophic 45 percent among young people. But in a confidential email to Juncker, the Prime Minister pledged that, “In the second half of 2016, once there is a new government, we will be ready to take further measures to meet deficit goals.”

 

In short, Rajoy lied to the voters. If the PP had won an absolute majority that might not be a problem, but a coalition government is another matter. Would Ciudadanos and the independents be willing to associate themselves with such deceit and take the risk that the electorate would not punish them, given that such a government is not likely to last four years?

 

Unidos Podemos supporters were deeply disappointed in the outcome, although the UP took the bulk of the youth vote and triumphed in Catalonia, Spain’s wealthiest province, and the Basque country. What impact UP’s poor showing will have on divisions within the alliance is not clear, but predictions of the organization’s demise are premature. “We represent the future,” party leader Pablo Iglesia said after the vote.

 

There is a possible path to power for the left, although it leads through the Socialist Party. The SP dropped from 90 seats to 85 for its worst showing in history, but if it joins with the UP it would control 156 seats. If such a coalition includes the Catalans that would bring it to 173 seats, and the alliance could probably pick up some independents to make a majority. This is exactly what the left, agreeing to shelve their differences for the time being, did in Portugal after the last election.

 

The problem is that the SP refuses to break bread with the Catalans because separatists dominate the province’s delegation and the Socialist Party opposes letting Catalonia hold a referendum on independence. Podemos also opposes Catalan separatism, but it supports the right of the Catalans to vote on the issue.

 

Rajoy may construct a government, but it will be one that supports the dead-end austerity policies that have encumbered most of the EU’s members with low or flat growth rates, high unemployment and widening economic inequality. Support for the EU is at an all time low, even in the organization’s core members, France and Germany.

 

The crisis generated by the free market model is hardly restricted to Europe. Much of Donald Trump’s support comes from the same disaffected cohort that drove the Brexit, and, while “The Donald” is down in the polls, so were the Brexit and the Spanish Popular Party.

 

The next few years will be filled with opportunity, as well as danger. Anti-austerity forces in Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal and Ireland are organizing and beginning to coordinate resistance to the “troika”. But so, too, are parties on the right: France’s National Front, Hungary’s Jobbik, Greece’s Golden Dawn, Britain’s United Kingdom Independence Party, Austria’s Freedom Party, Denmark’s People’s Party and Sweden’s Democratic Party.

 

Instead of reconsidering the policies that have spread so much misery through the continent, European elites were quick to blame “stupid” and “racist” voters for the Brexit. “We are witnessing the implosion of the postwar cultural and economic order that has dominated the Euro-American zone for more than six decades,” writes Andrew O’Helir of Salon. “Closing our eyes and hoping that it will go away is not likely to be successful.”

 

A majority of Britain said “enough,” and while the Spanish right scared voters into backing away from a major course change, those voters will soon discover that what is in store for them is yet more austerity.

 

“We need to end austerity to end this disaffection and this existential crisis of the European project,” said a UP statement following the election. “We need to democratize decision making, guarantee social rights and respect human rights.”

 

The European Union is now officially a house divided. It is not clear how long it can endure.”

 

—30

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 Comments

Filed under Europe

Portugal: The Left Takes Charge

Portugal: The Left Takes Charge

Dispatches From the Edge

Nov. 25, 2015

 

 

After several weeks of political brinkmanship, Portugal’s rightwing president, Anibal Cavaco Silva, finally backed off from his refusal to appoint the leader of a victorious left coalition as prime minister and accept the outcome of the Oct. 4 national elections. Silva’s stand down has ushered in an interesting coalition that may have continent-wide ramifications.

 

Portugal’s elections saw three left parties—the Socialist Party, the Left Bloc, and the Communist/Green Alliance take 62 percent of the vote and end the rightwing Forward Portugal Party’s majority in the 230-seat parliament. Forward Portugal is made up of the Social Democratic Party and the Popular Party.

 

Even though Forward Portugal lost the election—it emerged the largest party, but garnered only 38 percent of the votes—Silva allowed its leader, former Prime Minister Passos Coelho, to form a government. That maneuver lasted just 11 days. When Coelho introduced a budget loaded with austerity measures and privatization schemes, the left alliance voted it down, forcing the government to resign.

 

Rather than giving the left alliance a chance to form a government, however, Silva—a former leader of the Social Democrats—insisted that the alliance pledge in writing that it would maintain the country’s role in NATO and commit itself to euro zone financial rules. Portugal is a member of the 19-country euro zone, those countries in the 28-member European Union that use the euro as a common currency.

 

Silva’s threat was real. While the president’s term only runs until January, the constitution requires a six-month delay between the appointment of a new president and fresh elections. It would have been eight months before the left alliance could take power and roll back some of the more onerous austerity measures that Forward Portugal had installed.

 

In the face of growing outrage and a threatened general strike, however, Silva finally asked Socialist Party leader Antonio Costa to form a government.

 

Portugal is the victim of the great 2008 international banking crisis. At the time, Portugal’s debt was small and its public spending modest, but speculators drove up the price of borrowing beyond what the country’s small economy could manage. Through no fault of its own, Portugal suddenly found itself on the edge of bankruptcy.

 

In 2011, the “Troika”—the European Central Bank, the European Commission, and the International Monetary Fund—lent Portugal $83 billion, but in exchange instituted an austerity regime that raised taxes, slashed education and medical care, cut wages and pensions, and drove 20 percent of the population below the poverty line. The crisis forced almost half a million young people to emigrate, and Portugal ended up with one of the highest income disparities in Europe.

 

The left alliance government is unprecedented in Portugal, where the Communists and the Socialists have locked horns since the 1974 Carnation Revolution overthrew the 48-year old dictatorship. But four years of austerity have apparently convinced everyone on the left that there needs to be some immediate relief.

 

The Communists and the Left Bloc have agreed to temporarily shelve their demands to exit NATO and the euro zone, and the Socialists have agreed to roll back austerity measures, cut taxes, and raise pensions and wages. Privatization will be on hold.

 

There are still major differences within the alliance, however, and not just over dumping the euro and getting out of NATO. The Communists and Left Bloc want debt reduction because much of the country’s encumbrances are the result of private speculators, not profligate public spending. The Socialists did not mention debt reduction during the election and, at least for now, seem committed to repaying all debts.

 

However, the new government is pledged to loosen austerity’s grip and to challenge the Troika’s tight-fisted formula for economic recovery with one based on economic stimulus. If successful, that could model a new strategy for the rest of Europe, where, in spite of years of austerity, economies are still sluggish or in recession.

 

Even in countries that show growth, the rate is relative. Spain, for instance, is growing at a respectable 3 percent, but unemployment is over 20 percent—close to 50 percent for young people—and its gross domestic product has still not reached pre-2008 levels. Wages have declined in nine out of 14 quarters. According to Simon Tilford of the Center for European Reform, Spain’s recovery is not due to austerity, but rather, to low interest rates, the declining value of the euro, and a worldwide fall in oil prices.

 

Certainly the new Portuguese government will not be welcomed by Madrid, where the declining popularity of the rightwing Popular Party’s threatens its control of the Spanish Parliament. It is not unlikely that the Dec. 20 elections in Spain will produce a very similar outcome to Portugal’s: the Popular Party will lose its majority to the center-left Socialist Party and the left Podemos Party. Whether that will result in the kind of coalition that Portugal’s left has stitched together is not clear, in part because the centrist Citizen’s Party is a bit of a wild card and there are complex politics around Catalan independence.

 

However, even if the smaller Spanish parties cannot unite a’ la Portugal, they will put the brakes on the Popular Party’s austerity policies and its push to muzzle the media and curtail mass demonstrations.

 

The Portuguese model may end up having an influence on the rest of the European left, where conversations are going on about how to begin moving the continent away from the policies of the Troika. There are at least two major currents now engaging the left, the so-called “Plan A” and “Plan B.”

 

Plan A—supported by the United European Left/Nordic Green Alliance, the group representing the left parties in the European parliament—calls for democratizing the European Union and the European Central Bank, taxing the rich, raising wages, funding social services, and creating jobs through public investment. Plan A is backed by Spain’s Podemos, Greece’s Syriza, and Germany’s Die Linke (Left Party).

 

Plan B was launched Sept. 11 by five key figures in the European left—Oskar Lafontaine, a former leader of Die Linke, Italian parliamentary deputy Stefano Fassina, Jean-Luc Melenchon of France’s Left Party, and two former Syriza leaders, Zoe Kostntopoulou and Yanis Varoufakis. Plan B is somewhat more nebulous than Plan A, and not everyone who advocates it is on the same page. While it doesn’t contradict Plan A, most of its advocates are not sure the EU is really reformable.

 

According to Liam Flenady of Green Left Weekly, the September call “remains intentionally open to what this Plan B could look like.” For one thing, it comes off sounding a little wonky: “Parallel payment systems, parallel currencies, digitization of euro transactions, community based exchange systems…euro exit and transformation of the euro into a common currency.”

 

Not all of the five left figures are in agreement. Varoufakis, Greece’s former finance minister, is for staying with the euro, while the Italian Fassina is not. No one openly attacks Syriza, but most supported Popular Unity, the anti-euro split from Syriza that failed to win any seats in the last Greek election.

 

A Plan B summit is set for the end of the year.

 

The disagreements between—and within—the plans reflect the enormous complexity of the task facing Europe’s left, including how to present a united front while still searching for solutions that are not obvious. Is trying to democratize the euro zone like teaching a pig to whistle: can’t be done and annoys the pig? Can a country withdraw from a common currency zone without the Troika destroying its economy? Do countries within the euro zone have the right to experiment with different economic strategies?

 

Greece was forced to swallow the Troika’s medicine, in part because Syriza assumed that the Troika was essentially rational and actually interested in resolving the crisis. It was not, because the Troika saw Syriza’s resistance as the precursor to a continent-wide movement against its austerity policies.

 

Portugal is charting a somewhat different path than Syriza. Instead of head-on confrontation, the left is trying to maneuver while strengthening its base by improving people’s lives. Disagreements will eventually surface—hardly an unhealthy thing—but the Portuguese alliance has decided to kick that can down the road.

 

On Nov. 20, the Portuguese united left used its majority to approve a law allowing same sex couples to legally adopt children and permit lesbians to obtain medically assisted fertilization. That little act hardly shakes the foundation of the EU, and one doubts it caused the Troika to tremble. But suddenly Portugal is a little bit kinder place than it was a month ago.

 

Small things can lead to big things.

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Europe, FPIF Blogs

Portugal: European Left Batting 1,000

Portugal: Europe’s Left Batting 1000

Dispatches From The Edge

Oct. 7, 2015

 

In spite of a well-financed scare campaign, and a not very subtle effort by the European Union (EU) to load the dice in the Oct. 4 Portuguese elections, the ruling rightwing Forward Portugal coalition lost its majority in the parliament, Left parties garnered more than 50 percent of the vote, and the austerity policies that have paralyzed the country for four years took a major hit.

 

Along with last month’s Greek election, it was two in a row for the European Left.

 

While most the mainstream media touted the election as a victory for Prime Minister Passos Coelho’s Social Democratic Party/Popular Party coalition, the rightist alliance dropped from 50.4 percent in the 2011 election to 38.4 percent, losing 28 seats. In contrast, the center-left Socialist Party picked up 11 seats, the Communist/Green alliance 1 seat, and the Left Bloc 13 seats. All in all, the Left went from 40 percent of the vote in 2011 to a little over 50 percent in 2015.

 

There are still four seats to be determined by the votes of expatriates, but even if all four went to Forward Portugal, it would still be short of a majority. And given that a flood of young, mostly professional, Portuguese fled the austerity regime inflicted on the country by the “Troika”—the European Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Commission—those votes may well end up in the Left’s column.

 

The parliament has 230 seats. The Right now controls 104 and the left 121. A majority is 116 seats.

 

The surprise in the election was that the Left Bloc more than doubled its representation in spite of the fact that there were three Left parties vying for voters.

 

The Right ran endless images of poor Greek pensioners lining up at banks, and warned voters that voting for the Left could result in the kinds draconian measures the EU took out on Greece, but the scare tactics didn’t work.

 

The Troika also eased up on Portugal prior to the election, exactly the opposite approach it took in Greece, even though Portugal’s debt is still high and its growth is anemic—1.6 percent this year. Unemployment has come down from a high of 17 percent, but it is still 12 percent, and over 30 percent among youth—those that haven’t emigrated. Out of a population of 10.4 million, some 485,000 young people emigrated from 2011 to 2014.

 

In what one leftwing party member told the Financial Times was an “unseemly interference” in the election, Standard & Poor’s upgraded Portugal’s credit rating just two weeks before the election. S&P has long been accused of politicizing its credit ratings.

 

Forward Portugal is already backing away from some of its more bombastic attacks on the Left, and Coelho says his coalition would enter into “necessary agreements” with the Socialists in the future. Most commentators think the new parliamentary alignment is too unstable to last long.

 

The question now is, can the Left unite to roll back the four years of austerity that has impoverished the country? One in five Portuguese are below the poverty line of $5,589 income a year, and the minimum wage is $584 a month. Portugal has one of the greatest income disparities in Europe—the top 20 percent earn six times more than the bottom 20 percent—and education levels are among the lowest in the EU.

 

But much of the Left is not on the same page. Indeed, it did surprising well in the election considering its message was hardly consistent.

 

The Socialist Party is still saddled with the fact that it instituted the austerity policies in 2011 when financial speculators in the rest of Europe drove up interest rates on borrowing. Contrary to the Right’s charge, the debt was due to financial speculation, not spending. The Socialists also had a corruption problem, so voters turned to the Right in the 2011 election.

 

With an absolute majority in the parliament, the rightist alliance slashed wages, cut back pensions, privatized public property and raised taxes. One of the few checks on the slash-and-burn assault was the Portuguese Constitutional Court, which blocked some of the more onerous austerity measures.

 

In this election the Socialists ran against the austerity policies, but the message voters got was mixed: roll back austerity, but abide by EU rules. However, given that it was the EU rules that brought on the austerity, it was a message that voters found hard to decipher. The Socialists were also silent on the debt, a large part of which is of a questionable nature.

 

A study by the Committee for a Citizen’s Audit on the Public Debt found that most debt was not due to government spending, but massive tax cuts and rising interest rates. The Committee concluded that as much as 50 percent to 60 percent of most countries debts were “illegitimate.”

 

The Left Bloc—which is close to Greece’s Syriza and Spain’s anti-austerity Podemos Party—not only opposed the austerity, it demanded debt reduction. Indeed, without debt reduction—a so-called “haircut”—it is unlikely that small countries, like Greece, Portugal or Ireland, can ever emerge from their current economic crises. After years of austerity, Portugal’s debt is still among the highest in Europe.

 

The Communist/Green alliance did marginally better than 2011, although the Left Bloc passed if for the first time. The Communist Party has a strong reservoir of respect in Portugal because of its long resistance to the 48-year military dictatorship. It has been a consistent opponent of the austerity policies, but so far it has shown little interest in working with the Socialists, which its leaders say is Forward Portugal light. The Party calls for an exit from the Eurozone, the 19 countries in the 28-member European Union that use the Euro. While some on the Left also want to leave the Eurozone, the Socialist Party is committed to the common currency.

 

However, there is agreement scross the Left around privatizations and cuts, and that the crisis in housing, education, and daily life—including food and medical care—has to be addressed. Without a majority, the Right will have to back away from more austerity and plans to privatize some schools and public pensions.

 

Does this election have reverberations outside of Portugal? The Wall Street Journal’s headline on the outcome was that it was “a cause for concern” for Spain’s rightwing government, which goes before the voters in about 10 weeks.

 

But if there is one thing that the recent election in Greece made obvious, it is that small countries cannot take on the power of the EU by themselves. The European Union is now the single most powerful alliance of capital on the planet, and it is not a bit shy about crushing anything it sees as a potential threat. However, the Troika’s efforts to scare—and bribe—Portugal failed.

 

So, what is to be done?

 

In the long run, a common currency was a bad idea for everyone but Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and the banks, but a quick exit would be like pulling a spear out of your leg—without careful preparations you are likely to hemorrhage to death. While the ultimate goal should be to move away from the euro, the process may take awhile.

 

One thing the European Union is vulnerable on is democracy. Being in the EU essentially means abandoning sovereignty. The recently signed agreement between the Troika and Greece says that the former can veto any policy it does not agree with, including anti-corruption legislation aimed at tax scofflaws. Essentially, democracy has become dispensible.

 

Syriza and the Portuguese Left successfully made this an issue in their campaigns, and it has great potential to become a pan-European issue. At the same time, there is potential danger with the issue of sovereignty, and the Left must clearly distinguish itself from the xenophobic European Right’s opportunistic adoption of the issue.

 

Ronan Burtenshaw, vice-chair of the Irish Congress of Trade Union Youth Committee and Coordinator of the Greek Solidarity Committee in Ireland, has proposed that the European Left look to Latin America for a model.

 

Mercosur, the huge Latin American trading block, is the third largest on the planet, but it doesn’t dictate economic policy to its members. The Bolivarian Alliance, ALBA, draws progressive countries into a political and economic union, and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States has replaced the U.S. dominated Organization of American States. The Bank of the South offers development loans without the rigid strictures of the IMF and the World Bank.

 

Latin America is a counter to the European mantra that “there is no alternative” to economic crisis and debt but austerity. Each country in the region developed its own way of turning away from the market-driven, austerity laden “Washington consensus” that blitzed economies from Brasilia to Santiago during the 1980s and ‘90s. And the Left played an important role in establishing continent-wide political and economic connections, specifically in Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador and Bolivia.

 

There are, of course, differences. Many in the European Left contrast Argentina’s successful replacement of the dollar with the peso and its refusal to service its debt with Syriza’s acceptance of the Troika’s demands.

 

But Argentina is a big, powerful country, self-sufficient in energy and food. Greece—or Portugal or Ireland—is neither. And while Argentina had support from other countries in the region, Greece stood alone, even from parties like the French Socialists and the German Social Democrats.

 

Somehow the Left will have to chart a perilous passage between resisting austerity on one hand, and not committing suicide on the other—or rather, allowing the Troika to impoverish its base even more than it currently has. How that will happen is hardly clear, but solidarity is its essential ingredient, along with a willingness to work with others.

 

The Left will have to persuade or pressure center-left forces to abandon their romance with the euro and confront the social crisis created by austerity. Social democratic parties should take note that moving to the right does not translate into political power. Syriza smoked the center forces in Greece, and the Left Bloc made the biggest gains in Portugal.

 

To a certain extent, this process is underway with the election of long-time leftist Jeremy Corbyn to head the British Labor Party.

 

In his speech at the Fete de la Rose this past summer, former Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, told the Socialist Party gathering that what the Left in Greece had done was to give Europeans “a sense that democracy can change things.” Portugal was another step on that path, with Spain due up in December and Ireland in April.

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Europe

Europe’s Elections: A Coming Storm?

Europe’s Elections: A Coming Storm?

Dispatches From The Edge

Aug. 26, 2015

 

 

Between now and next April, four members of the European Union (EU) will hold national elections that will go a long ways toward determining whether the 28-member organization will continue to follow an economic model that has generated vast wealth for a few, widespread misery for many, and growing income inequality. The choice is between an almost religious focus on the “sin” of debt and the “redemption” of austerity, as opposed to a re-calibration toward economic stimulus and social welfare.

 

The backdrop for elections in Greece, Portugal, Spain and Ireland is one of deep economic crisis originally ignited by the American financial collapse of 2007-08. That meltdown burst real estate bubbles all over Europe—particularly in Spain and Ireland—and economies from the Baltic to the Mediterranean went off the rails. Countries like Ireland, Greece, Spain and Portugal saw their GDPs plummet, their banks implode and their unemployment rates reach levels not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Debt levels went through the ceiling.

 

The response of the EU to the crisis was a carbon copy of the so-called “Washington consensus” that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) applied to indebted Latin American countries during the 1990s: massive cutbacks in government spending, widespread layoffs and double digit tax raises on consumers.

 

Instead of lower debt levels and jumpstarting economies, however, the IMF strictures for Latin America did exactly the opposite. Cutbacks, layoffs, and high taxes impoverished the majority, which in turn tanked economies and raised debt levels. The formula was a catastrophe that Latin America is still digging itself out from.

 

But the strategy was very good for a narrow stratum, led by banks, speculators, and multinational corporations. U.S, British, German, Dutch and French banks helped inflate real estate bubbles by pouring low interest money into building binges. The banks certainly knew they were feeding a bubble—land prices in Spain and Ireland jumped 500 percent.

 

However, as economist Joseph Stiglitz points out, the banks had a trick: their private debts would be paid for by the public. Taxpayers did pick up the tab, but only by borrowing money from the Troika—the IMF, the European Central Bank, and the European Commission—and accepting the same conditions that tanked Latin American in the 1990s. Needless to say, history was replicated on another continent.

 

The upcoming elections will pit the policies of the Troika against anti-austerity movements in Portugal, Greece, Spain and Ireland. If these movements are to succeed, they will first have to confront the mythology that the current economic crisis springs from avaricious pensioners, entitled trade unionists, and free spending bureaucracies, rather than irresponsible speculation by banks and financiers. And they will have to do so in a political arena in which their opponents control virtually all of the mass media.

 

Never have so few controlled so much that informs so many.

 

The election terrain is enormously complex, and, while resistance to austerity gives these movements a common goal, the political geography is different in each country. Plus the Left essentially has to fight on two fronts: one, against the policies of the Troika, and two, against a rising tide of racist, xenophobic and increasingly violent right-wing movements that have opportunistically adopted anti-austerity rhetoric. The openly Nazi Golden Dawn in Greece and the fascist National Front in France may attack the policies of the EU, but their programs have nothing in common with organizations like Greece’s Syriza, Ireland’s Sinn Fein, Spain’s Podemos, or Portugal’s Left Bloc.

 

Size counts in this coming battle. Because Greece makes up only 1.3 percent of the EU’s GDP, the Troika could force Greece to make a choice between, in the words of former Syriza economic minister Yanis Varoufakis, “suicide or execution”—suicide if Syriza accepted another round of austerity, execution of the country’s banks and financial structure if it did not. Because it is small, Greece’s death would scarcely cause a ripple in the EU. A similar situation exists for Ireland and Portugal.

 

But not for Spain. Spain is the 14th largest economy in the world and the fifth largest economy in the EU. Bankrupting it or driving it out of the Eurozone—the 19 countries that use the euro instead of a national currency—would cause more than a ripple, it could sink the entire enterprise. That is why the austerity measures the Troika impressed on Spain were severe, but not as onerous as those inflicted on Ireland, Portugal and Greece.

 

Besides trying to ameliorate the worst aspects of the Troika program, the anti-austerity Left faces an existential question: should their indebted countries remain in the Eurozone, or should they call for withdrawal and a return to national currencies?

 

The Eurozone has been a disaster for most its members, except Germany, and, to a certain extent, Austria and the Netherlands. While the currency is common, there is no shared responsibility for the results of economic unevenness. In the U.S., big economies like California help pay the way for Mississippi, under the assumption that a common interstate market is a good thing and why shouldn’t the wealthier states help the less fortunate? In the Eurozone, it is every man for himself, and if you’re in trouble, talk to the Troika loan sharks.

 

Since the euro is controlled by the European Central Bank—read Germany—countries can’t manipulate their currencies to help get themselves out of trouble the way the U.S., China, Russia, India, Brazil, Great Britain, and others do. A currency union doesn’t work without a political union, and such a union is a bad idea when it puts countries like Germany and Greece on the same playing field. In the end, the big dogs dominate.

 

While the issues throughout the Eurozone may be similar, each country is different. A short scorecard:

 

Greece-Sept. 20

 

Syriza, the leftwing party that won the last election, has split with 25 former Syriza deputies who formed the Popular Union Party and called for full resistance to the Troika’s demands. Despite retreating from his previous opposition to any new austerity, polls show Syriza’s former prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, is popular. The parties that formerly dominated Greece—the right-wing New Democracy and center-left PSAOK—have been badly discredited, and the centrist Potami Party doesn’t have a clear program, except none of the above. The Left should do well, but it will be divided. Division in the face of the Troika is perilous, but this battle is a long way from over, and there are creative ways to resist the Troika without taking it head on. A civil war within the Left, however, could be disastrous.

 

Portugal-Oct. 4

 

The country is currently dominated by the conservative Popular Party/Social Democratic Party coalition that holds 132 seats in the 230-seat assembly. But polls show the opposition is running neck and neck with the Socialists (74 seats), The Socialists put in the austerity program, but have since turned against it. The leftwing United Democratic Coalition (16 seats), an alliance of the Communist Party and the Greens, and the Left Bloc (8 seats), looks like they will pick up deputies. There is a strong possibility that the conservatives will fall, and that the center-left and left opposition will form a coalition government. The Left already controls 98 seats. It will need 116 to form a government.

 

Spain, December, 2015

 

The political situation in Spain is fluid. The rightwing ruling Popular Party is in trouble because of several major corruption scandals and its enthusiastic support for austerity. The Socialist Party has recently increased its popularity but it was the Socialists that instituted the austerity policies. Support for the leftwing anti-austerity Podemos Party appears to have stalled, but it has elected, or helped to elect, the mayors of Madrid, Barcelona, Cadiz and Zaragoza. Unlike Syriza, which is a coalition of left parties, Podemos is a grassroots organization that knows how to get the voters out.

 

There is also the center-right Ciudadanos Party that did well in spring elections, but is anti-immigrant and anti-abortion, and whose economic program is at best opaque.   Those things are not likely to translate into major electoral gains. Whatever happens, Spain is no longer a two party country, and the Left will play a key role in any coalition building to form a government.

 

There is a wildcard in this election: the newly minted Citizens Security Law, which the Popular Party rammed through Parliament and is aimed at suppressing demonstrations, criticism of the government, and free speech. It is clearly aimed at shutting down Podemos.

 

 

Ireland, April 2016

 

“Volatile” is the only way one can describe the Irish Republic, where the polls shift from month to month. The economy is growing, but the Troika’s austerity regime is still raw. Over 100,000 mortgages are under water and since 2008, some 400,00—mostly young professionals—have fled to Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the U.S., inflicting a crippling brain drain on the island.

 

The centrist coalition of Fine Gael and Labor currently rules, but that is likely to change after the election. Polls show Fine Gael at 28 percent, and Labor at 7 percent. At 21 percent, the leftwing, anti-austerity Sinn Fein Party is in the number two post, although its support has fallen off slightly since last year. However, the popularity of its leader, Gerry Adams, has been climbing. Lastly, there is a mix of independent parties, ranging from Greens to socialists, supported by 24 percent of the voters. Most are anti-austerity and potential coalition partners if the ruling parties fall. The conservative Fianna Fail Party is polling about 20 percent.

 

In these upcoming elections, the Left will have to confront the enormous power of the Troika on the one hand, and on the other, deliver services and jobs. It will also have to clearly differentiate itself from the racism of the right on the immigration crisis and challenge the unwillingness of their own governments to find a humane solution to the problem. Since of the bulk of the refugees are generated by the irresponsible policies of countries like France, Britain, Italy and Germany in Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria, the Left must clearly link the foreign adventurism of their elites to the flood of people now seeking safety from the storms those elites help generate.

 

None of this will be easy and disunity will make it harder. The Left elsewhere in the world cannot expect small countries like Greece, Portugal and Ireland to take on the power of international capital by themselves. Not since the rise of Nazism has there been such a pressing need for international solidarity. In a very real way, we are all Greeks, Spanish, Portuguese and Irish. These elections are as much about the U.S. as they are about the parties and movements that have decided to resist a species of capitalism that is particularly red of tooth and claw.

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Europe