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Europe’s Elections and The Barbarians

Europe’s Elections

Dispatches From The Edge

Mar. 17, 2017

 

Going in to the recent elections in the Netherlands, the mainstream story seemed lifted from William Butler Yeats poem, The Second Coming: ”Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold—The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” The Right was on the march, the Left at war with itself, the traditional parties adrift, and the barbarians were hammering at the gates of the European Union.

 

It’s a grand image, a sort of a politics as the “Game of Thrones,” but the reality is considerably more complex. There is, of course, some truth in the apocalyptic imagery: rightwing parties in the Netherlands, France, and Germany have grown. There are indeed some sharp divisions among left parties. And many Europeans are pretty unhappy with those that have inflicted them with austerity policies that have tanked living standards for all but a sliver of the elite.

 

But there are other narratives at work in Europe these days besides an HBO mega series about blood, war, and treachery.

 

The recent election in the Netherlands is a case in point. After holding a lead over all the other parties, Geert Wilders rightwing, racist Party for Freedom (PVV) faltered. In the end, his Islamophobes did not break the gates (but they did pick up five seats). Overall it was a victory for the center, but it was also a warning for those who advocate “staying the course” politics and, most pointedly the consequences of abandoning principles for power.

 

The Left Greens did quite well by taking on Wilders’ anti-Islam agenda and challenging Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s center-right Popular Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) on the economic front. In one national debate, Jesse Klaver, the Left Green’s dynamic leader, argued that janitors should be paid more and bankers less. The election, he said, is not about “Islam and Muslims,” but about “housing, income and health care.” The voters clearly bought it.

 

Rutte’s coalition partner, the left Labour Party, was crushed, losing 29 seats. For the past four years Labour has gone along with Rutte’s program of raising the retirement age and cutting back social spending, and voters punished them for shelving their progressive politics for a seat at the table.

 

The VVD also lost eight seats, which probably went to centrist parties like Democrats66, suggesting that Rutte’s “business as usual” is not what voters want either . VVD is still the number one party in the 150-seat parliament.

 

There were some lessons from the Dutch elections, though not the simplistic one that the “populist” barbarians lost to the “reasonable” center. What it mainly demonstrated is that voters are unhappy with the current situation, they are looking for answers, and parties on the left and center left should think carefully about joining governments that think it “reasonable” to impoverish their own people.

 

Next up in the election docket is France, where polls show Marine Le Pen’s neo-Nazi National Front leading the pack in a five-way race with traditional rightwing candidate Francois Fillon, centrist and former Socialist Party member Emmanuel Macron, Socialist Party candidate Benoit Hamon, and leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon. The first round, scheduled for April 23, will eliminate all but the two top vote getters. A final round will be held May 7.

 

With Melenchon and Hamon running at 11.5 percent and 13.5 percent respectively, thus splitting the left vote, the race appears to be between Fillon, Macron and Le Pen, with the latter polling slightly ahead of Macron and considerably better than Fillon.

 

If you are is attracted to the apocalypse analogy, France is probably your ticket.

 

Le Pen is running a campaign aimed against anyone who doesn’t look like Charlemagne or Joan of Arc, but her strong anti-EU positions play well with young people, in small towns, and among rural inhabitants. All three groups have been left behind by the EU’s globalism policies that have resulted in de-industrialization and growing economic inequality. Polls indicate she commands 39 percent of 18 to 24 year olds, compared with 21 percent for Macron and 21 percent for Fillon.

 

Fillon has been wounded by the revelation that he has been using public funds to pay family members some $850,000 for work they never did. But even before the scandal, his social conservatism played poorly to the young and workers are alienated by his economic strategy that harkens back to those of British Prime Minister Margret Thatcher, whom he greatly admires. His programs sound much like Donald Trump’s: cut jobless benefits and social services, lay off public workers, and give tax cuts to the wealthy.

 

Macron, an ex-Rothschild banker and former minister of economics under Hollande, is running neck and neck with Le Pen under the slogan “En Marche” (“On Our Way”), compelling critics on the left to ask “to what?” His platform is a mix of fiscal discipline and mild economic stimulation, and he is young, 39, telegenic, and a good speaker. But his policies are vague, and it is not clear there is a there, there.

 

Most polls indicate a Le Pen vs. Macron runoff, with Macon coming out on top, but that may be dangerous thinking. Macron’s support is soft. Only about 50 percent of those who say they intend to vote for him are “certain” of their vote. In comparison, 80 percent of Le Pen’s voters are “certain” they will vote for her.

 

There are, as well, some disturbing polling indications for the second round. According to the IFOP poll, some 38 percent of Fillon’s supporters say they will jump to Le Pen—two million voters—and 7 percent of Hamon voters and 11 percent of Melenchon backers would shift to Le Pen as well. What may be the most disturbing number, however, is that 45 percent of Melenchon voters say they will not vote if Macron is the candidate. Some 26 percent of Fillon’s voters and 21 percent of Hamon’s votes would similarly abstain.

 

Le Pen will need at least 15 million votes to win—the Front has never won more than six million nationally—but if turnout is low, Le Pen’s strongly motivated voters could put her into the Elysee Palace. In this way, France most resembles Britain prior to the Brixit vote.

 

If that comes to pass, Le Pen will push for a national referendum on the EU. There is no guarantee the French will vote to stay in the Union, and if they leave, that will be the huge trade organization’s death knell. The EU can get along without Britain, but it could not survive a Frexit.

 

Germany will hold national elections, Sept. 24, but the story there is very different than the one being played out in France. The government is currently a grand coalition between Chancellor Andrea Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the Bavarian-based Christian Social Union (CSU), and the Social Democrats(SD). The alliance has been a disaster for the SD, which at one point saw its poll numbers slip below 20 percent.

 

But German politics has suddenly shifted. On Merkel’s left, the Social Democrats changed leaders and have broken with industrial policies that have driven down the wages of German workers in order to make the country an export juggernaut. On the Chancellor’s right, the racist, neo-Nazi Alternative for Germany (AfG) has drained CDU and CSU voters to support a ban on immigration and a withdrawal from the EU, although the Alternative is dropping in the polls.

 

The game changer has been the sudden popularity of former EU President, Martin Schultz, the new leader of the Social Democrats. The SD is now neck and neck with the CDU/CSU front, and some polls show Schultz actually defeating Merkel. In terms of personal popularity, Schultz is now running 16 points ahead of Merkel. While the Chancellor’s CDU/CSU alliance tops the polls at 34 percent, the Social Democrats are polling at 32 percent and climbing.

 

Schultz has made considerable headway critiquing declining living standards. Germany has large numbers of poorly paid workers, and almost 20 percent of workers age 25 to 34 are on insecure, short-term contracts. Unemployment benefits have also been cut back, even though Germany’s economy is the most robust in Europe and the country has a $310 billion surplus.

 

In any case, the days when Merkel could pull down 40 percent of the vote are gone. Even if her coalition comes in number one, it may not have enough seats to govern, even if its traditional allies, the Free Democrats, make it back into the Bundestag.

 

That creates the possibility of the first so-called “red-red-green” national government of the SD, the left Die Linke Party, and the Green Party. Die Linke and the Greens are both polling at around 8 percent. Such an alliance currently runs several major cities, including Berlin. It would not be an entirely comfortable united front: the SD and the Greens are pro-EU, while Die Linke is highly critical of the organization.

 

But there is a model out there that gives hope.

 

Portugal is currently run by a three-party center-left to left alliance. Those parties also disagree on things like the EU, the debt, and NATO membership, but for the time being they have decided that stimulating the economy and easing the burden of almost decade of austerity trumps the disagreements.

And then there are the Italians.

 

While Italy has not scheduled elections, the defeat of Democratic Party leader and then Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s constitutional referendum almost guarantees a vote sometime in the next six months.

 

Italy has one of the more dysfunctional economies in the EU, with one of the Union’s highest debt ratios and several major banks in deep trouble. It is the EU’s third largest economy, but growth is anemic and unemployment stubbornly high, particularly among the young.

 

Renzi’s center-left Democratic Party (PD) still tops the polls, but only just, and it has fallen nearly 15 points in two years. Nipping at its heels is the somewhat bizarre Five Star Party run by comedian Beppe Grillo, whose politics are, well, odd. Five Star is strongly opposed to the EU, and allies itself with several rightwing parties in the European Parliament. It applauded the election of Donald Trump. On the other hand, it has a platform with many progressive planks, including economic stimulation, increased social services, a guaranteed income for poor Italians, and government transparency. It is also critical of NATO.

 

Five Star has recently taken a few poll hits, because the Party’s Mayor of Rome has done a poor job keeping the big, sprawling city running—in truth, the ancient Romans found it a daunting task—and is caught up in a financial scandal. Some Democratic Party leaders are also being investigated for corruption.

 

The only other major parties in the mix are former Prime Minister Silvio Burlusconi’s center-right Forza Italia, which is polling around 13 percent, and the racist., xenophobic Northern League at 11.5 percent. The latter, which is based the northern Po Valley, made a recent effort to broaden its base by taking its campaign to Naples in southern Italy. The result was a riot with protestors tossing rocks, bottles and Molotov cocktails at Northern League leader Matteo Salvini.

 

There are informal talks going on about uniting the parties. Burlusconi has worked with the Northern League in the past.

 

There are also a gaggle of smaller parties in the parliament, ranging from the Left Ecology/Greens to the Brothers of Italy, none registering over 5 percent. But since whoever comes out on top will need to form a coalition, even small parties will likely punch above their weight.

 

If Five Star does come in first and patches together a government, it will press for a referendum on the EU, and there is no guarantee that Italians—battered by the austerity policies of the big trade group—won’t decide to bail like the British did. An Italexit would probably be a fatal blow to the EU.

 

Predicting election outcomes are tricky these days, the Brexit and the election of Donald Trump being cases in point. The most volatile of upcoming ballots are in France and Italy. Germany’s will certainly be important, but, even if Merkel survives, the center-right will be much diminished and the left will be stronger. And that will have EU-wide implications.

 

The European left is divided, but not all divisions are unhealthy, and a robust debate is not a bad thing. None of the problems Europe faces are simple. Is the EU salvageable? What are the alternatives to austerity? How do you tackle growing inequality and the marginalization of whole sections of society? How do you avoid the debt trap facing many countries, blocked by the EU’s economic strictures from pursuing any strategy other than more austerity?

 

In a recent interview, Yanis Varoufakis, former Greek economic minister and one of the founders of the left organization DiEM25, proposed a “New Deal” for Europe, where in “All Europeans should enjoy in their home country the right to a job paying a living wage, decent housing, high-quality health care and education, and a clean environment.”

 

The “Deal” has five goals that Varoufakis argues can be accomplished under the EU’s current rules and without centering more power in Brussels at the expense of democracy and sovereignty. These would include:

  • “Large-scale” investment in green technology.
  • Guaranteed employment with a living wage
  • An EU-wide anti-poverty fund.
  • Universal basic income.
  • Anti-eviction protection.

 

None of those goals will be easy to achieve, but neither can Europe continue on its current path. The rightwing “populists” may lose an election, but they aren’t going away.

 

Almost 40 years ago, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher launched her neo-conservative assault on trade union rights, health care, education and social services with the slogan, “There is no other choice.” The world is still harvesting the bitter fruits of those years and the tides of hatred and anger they unleashed. It is what put Trump into the Oval Office and Le Pen within smelling distance of the French presidency.

 

But there is a choice, and it starts with the simple idea of the greatest good to the greatest number.

 

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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.”

 

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Greece: Memory and Debt

Greece: Memory & Debt

Dispatches From the Edge

Conn Hallinan

March 14, 2015

 

Memory is selective and therein lays an explanation for some of the deep animosity between Berlin and Athens in the current debt crisis that has shaken the European Union (EU) to its foundations.

 

For German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble, “memory” goes back to 2007 when Greece was caught up in the worldwide financial conflagration touched off by American and European speculators. Berlin was a major donor in the 240 billion Euro “bailout”—89 percent of which went to pay off the gambling debts of German, French, Dutch and British banks. Schauble wants that debt repaid.

 

Millions of Greeks are concerned about unpaid debts as well, although their memories stretch back a little further.

 

In July, 1943 Wehrmacht General Hubert Lanz, commander of the First Mountain Division, was annoyed because two of his officers had been threatened by civilians in the Western Greek town of Kommeno. It was dangerous to irritate a German commander during the 1941-45 occupation of Greece.

 

Lanz first murdered 153 men, women and children—ages one to 75—in Mousiotitsas, then surrounded Kommeno, where his troops systematically killed 317 people, including 172 women. Thirteen were one-year old, and 38 people were burned alive in their houses. After the massacre, the soldiers ate their lunch in the village square, surrounded the by bodies of the dead, and then pushed on to other villages, killing more than 200 civilians.

 

It was not the first, nor the last massacre of Greeks, and most people in that country can recite them like the beads on a rosary: Kondomari (60 killed); Kardanos (180 killed); Alikianos (118 killed); Viannos (over 500 killed); Amari (164 killed); Kalavryta (over 700 killed); Distomo (214 killed). All in all, the Germans destroyed more than 460 villages, executed 130,000 civilians, and murdered virtually the entire Jewish population—60,000—during the occupation.

 

On top of that, Athens was forced to “lend” Germany 475 million Reich marks—estimated today at 14 billion Euros—to pay for the occupation. Adding interest to the loan makes that figure somewhere around 95 billion Euros.

 

Greece’s public debt is currently 315 billion Euros.

 

The Greeks “remember” a few other things about those massacres. Gen. Kurtl Student, the butcher of Kondomari, Kardanos, and Alikianos, was sentenced to five years after the war, but got out early on medical grounds. The beast of Mousiotitsas and Kommeno, Gen. Lanz, was sentenced to 12 years, served three, and became a major military and security advisor to the German Free Democratic Party. In 1954 he wrote a book about his exploits and died in bed in 1982. Gen. Karl von Le Suire of Kalavryta fame was not so lucky. Captured by the Soviets, he died in a Stalingrad POW camp in 1954. Lt. Gen. Friedrich-Wilhelm Muller, who ordered the Viannos massacre, was tried and executed by the Greeks in 1947.

 

It is not hard to see why many Greeks see a certain relationship between what the Germans did to Greece during the occupation and what is being done to it today. There are no massacres—although suicide rates are through the ceiling—and no mass starvation, but 44 percent of the Greek people are now below the poverty line, the economy shattered, and Greeks feel they no longer control their country. Up until the last election, they didn’t. The Troika—the European Central Bank, the European Commission, and the International Monetary Fund—dictated the price of the loan: layoffs, wage and pension reductions, and huge cutbacks in health care. True, their occupiers did not wear the double thunderbolts of the SS or the field green of the Wehrmacht, but armies in pinstripes and silk ties can inflict a lot of damage.

 

Germany dismisses the Greek demand for reparations—estimated at anywhere from some 160 billion Euros to over 677 billion Euros—as a long-dead issue that was decided back in 1960 when the Greek government signed a Bilateral Agreement with Berlin and accepted 115 million Deutschmarks in compensation.

 

“It is our firm belief that questions or reparations and compensation have been legally and politically resolved,” said Steffen Seibert, a spokesperson for German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “We should concentrate on current issues and, hopefully what will be a good future.”

 

But that is a selective reading of history. There was never any “resolution” of Nazi Germany’s post-war debts because the country was divided between East and West. The 1953 Treaty of London cut Germany’s obligations in half and stretched out debt payments, but the Treaty did not address reparations because they were supposed to be resolved in the final peace treaty. However, with Germany divided, there was no such agreement.

 

When Germany was unified in 1990, the Greeks raised the issue of reparations, but the Germans dismissed the issue as resolved by the combination of the London Treaty and the 1960 payoff. But not according to historian Hagen Fleischer, who has studied the reparations issue and the original loan documents. Fleischer says that Germany first argued that as long as the country was divided, Berlin could not consider repaying any debts. “Then after German reunification Helmut Kohl [then Chancellor] and Hans-Dietrich Genscher [then Foreign Minister] said that it was now much too late. The matter was ancient history.”

 

According to the Syriza government, the 115 million marks Germany paid in 1960 were only in compensation for Greek victims of Nazism, not the physical damage to the country, the destruction of the economy, or the forced loans.

 

“Germany has never properly paid reparations for the damage done to Greece,” argues Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tspiras. “After the reunification of Germany in 1990 the legal and political conditions were created for this issue to be solved. But since then, German governments chose silence, legal tricks and delay.”

 

Many Greeks refuse to accept what they consider a paltry sum for the vast crimes of the occupation. Four descendents of the 214 civilians massacred by the 4th SS Panzergrenadier Division at Distomo sued and, in 1997, were awarded 37.5 million Euros, a ruling upheld by the Greek Supreme Court in 2000. When Germany refused to recognize the verdict, the defendants took their case to Italy, and in 2008 an Italian court ruled that the plaintiffs had the right to seize German-owed property in compensation for the Greek award, including a villa on Lake Como.

 

Germany appealed the Italian decision to the International Court at Hague, which found in favor of Berlin on a principle of international law that countries are immune from the jurisdiction of other states.

 

However, Germany has assets in Greece, including property and the Goethe Institute, a leading cultural center in Athens. Justice Minister Nikos Paraskevopoulos says he is ready to begin seizing German assets in Greece.

 

Tsipras says Germany has a “moral obligation” to pay reparations, a sentiment that some on the German left agrees with. “From a moral point of view, Germany ought to pay off these old compensations and the ‘war loan’ that they got during the Occupation,” says Gabriele Zimmer of Die Linke, a party closely allied to Syriza in the European Parliament.

 

Addressing the Greek Parliamentary Committee for Claiming the German Reparations on Mar. 10, Tsipras asked “Why do we tackle the past” instead of focusing on the future? “But what country, what people can have a future if it does not honor its history and its struggles?”

 

Dismissing the argument that reparations are ancient history—“The generation of the Occupation and the National Resistance is still living”—Tsipras warned about the consequences of amnesia: “The crimes and destruction caused by the troops of the Third Reich, across the Greek territory, but also across the entire Europe” are memories “that must be preserved in the younger generations. We have a duty—historical, political, ethical—to preserve, remember forever what Nazism means, what fascism means.”

 

Nazism is not a memory that needs a lot of refreshing in Greece. Sometime this spring some 70 members of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn Party, including 16 current and former Parliament members, will go on trial for being members of a “criminal organization.” The anti-Semitic and racist Golden Dawn Party has been associated with several murders, attacks on leftists, trade unionists, and immigrants, and has close ties with the police and several of the billionaire oligarchs who dominate Greek politics and the economy.

 

Indeed, its profile is eerily similar to that of the German National Socialist Party (Nazi) in its early years. Golden Dawn has 17 members of Parliament and is the third highest vote getter in the country, though its support has recently dipped.

 

Old memories certainly fuel Greek anger at Germany, but so do the current policies of enforced austerity that Berlin has played a pivotal role in inflicting on debt-ravaged Greece. “Germany’s Europe has finished,” says Greek Social Security Minister Dimitris Statoulis, the Europe “where Germany forbids and all other countries execute orders.”

 

Thanks to Kia Mistilis, journalist, photographer and editor, for providing material for this column

 

 

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Greece: Whispers Of Battles Past

Greece: A Whisper of Battles Past

Dispatches From the Edge

 

March 5, 2015

 

 

The recent negotiations between Greece and the European Union (EU) bring to mind Themistocles, a man who knew when to retreat and when to fight. The year was 480 BC and Xerxes I—“the king with half the east at heel”—was marching on Greece with a massive army accompanied by an enormous fleet. Against the invasion stood a small Greek army, led by Leonidas of Sparta, and an equally outnumbered navy, commanded by the Athenian, Themistocles.

 

It didn’t look good for the Greeks in August 480 BC. The Persian army was at least 10 times the size of the Greek force, and Themistocles was outnumbered almost three to one. It didn’t look good for Syriza in 2015: not a single EU member supported the Greek call for easing the debt crisis and ending the punishing austerity regime that has shattered the country’s economy and impoverished many of its people.

 

The Greek army and Leonidas were destroyed at Thermopylae, but the wily Themistocles first bloodied the Persians at Artemisium, then retreated, buying time to lay a trap at Salamis. With a little deception and a wind at his back—always a plus when you are ramming other people’s ships—the Greeks annihilated the Persian fleet and defeated the invasion.

 

Can Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his finance minister Yanis Varoufakis pull off a Salamis and best what looks like another unbeatable foe? It is too soon to tell, but the deal they cut in Brussels bears a resemblance to that long ago battle in the Straits of Artemisium: both sides took losses, but the Greeks bought themselves valuable time.

 

And as Varoufakis recently remarked, “Time is our most precious commodity.”

 

There are a couple of things to keep in mind about the Feb. 20 agreement approved by the 19 European finance ministers.

 

First, Syriza did not have a mandate from the electorate to play one of its most powerful cards: “give us a deal or we leave the Eurozone and maybe tank the Euro.”

 

Second, Greece had a gun to its head: a Feb. 28 deadline, after which its banks would have lost support from the European Central Bank (ECB), one of the “Troika” members that include the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Commission. Without ECB support, Greek banks might have gone under, forcing Athens to default on the debt and force it to exit from the Eurozone.

 

In the long run the Greeks may decide to default or drop the Euro, but that is not a decision that a freshly elected government that relies on a coalition to stay in power can make in a few weeks.

 

Third, as attractive as it is to think of scrappy little Greece defeating the mighty Troika and the EU, let’s be serious. Greece represents about 2 percent of the EU’s GDP. Its foes would have made Xerxes’ tremble: Germany, France, Italy, Finland, and the Netherlands, and even the debt-strapped governments of Spain, Portugal, and Ireland.

 

Syriza’s critics charge that the Party folded in Brussels, getting little more than a few cosmetic word changes in the Memorandum of Understanding that the Troika forced on Greece back in 2010. But language, as economist James Galbraith points out, has power. In “Reading the Greek Deal Correctly,” the University of Texas professor argues that substituting words like “the current programme” with “Master Financial Assistance Facility Agreement” means the agreement is extended “but the commitments are to be reviewed.”

 

Analyzing the centerpiece of the agreement, Galbraith concludes that there is no “unwavering commitment to the exact terms and conditions” of the 2010 Memorandum. “So,” he writes, “No, the Troika cannot come to Athens and complain about the rehiring of cleaning ladies.”

 

Georgos Katroughalos, a Syrizan minister, called the Feb. 20 agreement a study in “constructive ambiguity” that “allows different readings. Our reading is that we are not applying the Memorandum program. We are applying our agenda.”

 

What Syriza accepted were those sections of the Memorandum that mirrored its own program: running down tax evaders—unpaid taxes are estimated at 76 billion Euros—ending corruption, targeting fuel and tobacco smuggling, modernizing public administration, and tackling the “humanitarian crisis” with programs for food stamps, free medical care, and electricity for the poor. There will also be a pilot program for a minimum income for those under the poverty line—Brazil has had much success with this—and mortgage relief.

 

Which is not to say there were no casualties.

 

Syriza backed away from its pledge to end privatizations, although it added a caveat that the sale of public property must actually bring in significant amounts of cash. To date, many privatizations have been inside deals at fire sales prices. The privatization part of the agreement could be a retreat, or a loophole to put the brakes on the process. People will just have to wait and see what Syriza does.

 

“Labor reform” is another area around where sparks are certain to fly. By “reform” the Troika means cutting back minimum wages, abolishing collective bargaining, increasing the retirement age, and laying off workers. In theory this is supposed to make Greek workers more “productive” and more like German workers. In fact, Greeks work longer hours than German workers, but Greece does not possess Germany’s modernized infrastructure, including computers, high-speed rail, and autobahns.

 

Much of the German “modernization” was paid for by the U.S. to serve as a bulwark against the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc countries. The 1953 London Agreement that canceled much of Germany’s World War II debts and stretched out payments—Syriza is asking for something very similar— was not done out of kindness, but as a critical ingredient in the Cold War. Germany would be part of the “west wall” against the Russians.

 

Syriza has agreed to “phase in” raising the minimum wage but is vague about implementing the rest of the “reform” package. Again, this could be seen as capitulation or as a temporary retreat. The measure of that will be what the Greek government actually does.

 

Greece is facing some deadlines this summer, and there is pressure from the EU for yet another bailout deal. But if Athens gets its anti-corruption program up and running, throttles gas and tobacco smuggling, and successfully collects taxes, Greece will have cash on hand to fulfill some of its election promises to restore jobs and pensions, and fund health care. The agreement recognizes that Greece is facing a “humanitarian crisis,” wording that might give Syriza more space to maneuver.

 

Greece is not alone in this fight. While it received no support from other Eurozone countries, most of those countries have growing anti-austerity movements that back Syriza. The Greek party’s close ally in the European Parliament, Podemos, is now the second largest party in Spain. And while governments in Portugal and Ireland have demanded that Greece stick with its austerity program, those governments are under siege at home for their own austerity regimes.

 

Portuguese Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelhois is one of Syriza’s sharpest critics, dismissing the Greek Party’s position as a “children’s fairytale,” but his center-right Social Democrats are running behind the Socialist Party (SP). While the Socialists negotiated the original austerity agreement with the Troika, they have since turned against it. Antonio Costa, the recently elected major of Lisbon and leader of the SP, says austerity has brought nothing to Portugal but poverty and unemployment. On Feb. 12 a multi-party group of 32 leading politicians, economists and scientists urged Coelho to end his “punitive” approach to Greece and instead declare “solidarity” with Athens.

 

Even the Germans are not all on the same page. While Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble—sounding more like a Wehrmacht commander than a European politician— snarled that Syriza “would have a difficult time to explain the deal to their voters,” Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel was far more conciliatory.

 

What about just dumping in the Euro and declaring bankruptcy? Argentina did that and its economy grew for several years straight. But Argentina still cannot borrow money without paying onerous interest rates, and the IMF’s blockade of international finances has hurt Buenos Aires. In any case, Argentina has a much bigger economy than Greece and close ties with other South American countries through the trade bloc, Mercosur. In short, it has far greater resources than Athens.

 

The Euro has not been good for Greece, or for most of Southern European members of the Eurozone. A common currency doesn’t work when some economies are big, industrial and strong, while others are smaller and, like Greece, rely on business like tourism. Indeed, Greece has lost some of its industrial base since joining the Eurozone. When the playing field is uneven, the big dogs take over, which is why Germany dominates the EU.

 

The consequences of withdrawing from the Euro are uncertain, and not something a newly elected government can responsibly take. In any case, the vast majority of Greeks have yet to have that conversation.

 

In the coming months it will be obvious whether the latest agreement was a defeat or a tactical maneuver by Syriza. If the new government is to successfully resist the Troika, however, it will need support, not only within Greece, but from Europe and beyond. As UK political activist and journalist Tom Walker put it, “This battle is a long way from over,” and “the future of austerity across Europe now rests on what happens in Greece. If we give up on them we are giving up on our own struggles too.”

 

In 480 BC the Spartans held the Persians for three days, and poems were written about their courage, but they all died. It was Themistocles, who knew when to retreat and when to fight, who saved Greece.

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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