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The European Union and the Left

The EU & the Left

Dispatches From The edge

Jan. 10, 2017

 

When European Union President Jean-Claude Juncker addressed the European Parliament in Strasbourg this past September, he told them the organization was facing an “existential crisis” and “national governments so weakened by the forces of populism and paralyzed by the risk of defeat in the next election.”

 

Indeed it has been a bad year for the huge trading group:

  • The “Breixit,” or the United Kingdom’s vote to withdraw.
  • Rome’s referendum to amend the country’s constitution was trounced, and several Italian banks are in deep trouble.
  • The austerity policies of the EU have kept most of its members’ economies either anemic or dead in the water. Even those showing growth, like Ireland and Spain, have yet to return to where they were before the 2008 economic melt down. Between 2007 and 2016, purchasing power fell 8 percent in Spain and 11 percent in Italy,

 

It is also true that number of national governments—in particular those in Germany and France—are looking nervously over their shoulders at parties to their right.

 

But the crisis of the EU does not spring from “populism,” a term that many times obscures more than it reveals, lumping together neo-fascist parties, like France’s National Front and Germany’s Alternative for Germany, with left parties, like Spain’s Podemos. Populism, as Juncker uses it, has a vaguely atavistic odor to it: ignorant peasants with torches and pitchforks storming the citadels of civilization.

 

But the barbarians at the EU’s gate did not just appear out of Europe’s dark forests like the Goths and Vandals of old. They were raised up by the profoundly flawed way that the Union was established in the first place, flaws that did not reveal themselves until an economic crisis took center stage.

 

That the crisis is existential, there is little doubt. In fact, the odds are pretty good that the EU will not be here in its current form a decade from now—and possibly considerably sooner. But Juncker’s solutions include a modest spending program aimed at business, closer military ties among the 28—soon to be 27—members of the organization, and the creation of a “European Solidarity Corps” of young volunteers to help out in cases of disasters, like earthquakes. But there was nothing to address the horrendous unemployment rate among young Europeans. In short, rearranging the Titanic’s deck chairs while the ice looms up to starboard.

 

But what is to be done is not obvious, nor is how one goes about reforming or dismantling an organization that currently produces a third of the world’s wealth. The complexity of the task has entangled Europe’s left in a sharp debate, the outcome of which will go a long way toward determining whether the EU—now a house divided between wealthy countries and debt-ridden ones—can survive.

 

It is not that the European left is strong, but it is the only player with a possible strategy to break the cycle of debt and low growth. The politics of racism, hatred of immigrants, and reactionary nationalism espoused by the National Front, the Alternative For Germany, Greece’s Golden Dawn, Denmark’s People’s Party, and Austria’s Freedom Party, will not generate economic growth, any more than Donald Trump will bring back jobs for U.S. steelworkers and coal miners and “make America great again.”

 

Indeed, if the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany Party gets its way, that country will be in deep trouble. German deaths currently outnumber births by 200,000 a year, a figure that is accelerating. According to the Berlin Institute for Population and Development, to have a sufficient working-age population that can support a stable pension system, the country will require an influx of 500,000 immigrants a year for the next 35 years.

 

Many other European countries are in the same boat.

 

There are several currents among the European left, ranging from those who call for a full withdrawal, or “Lexit,” to reforms that would democratize the organization.

 

There is certainly a democracy deficit in the EU. The European Parliament has little power, with most key decisions made by the unelected “troika”—the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the European Central Bank, and the European Commission. The troika’s rigid debt policies mean members have lost the ability to manage their own economies or challenge the mantra that debt requires austerity, even though that formula has clearly been a failure.

 

As economists Markus Brunnermeier, Harold James, and Jean-Pierre Landau point out in their book “The Euro and the Battle of Ideas,” growth is impossible when consumers, corporations, and governments all stop spending. The only outcome for that formula is misery and more debt. Even the IMF has begun to question austerity.

 

But would a little more democracy really resolve this problem?

 

Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, a long-time critic of austerity, argues that while the EU does indeed need to be democratized, a major problem is the common currency. The euro is used by 19 of the EU’s 28 members that constitute the Eurozone.

 

Stiglitz argues that the Euro locked everyone into the German economic model of modest wages coupled with a high power export economy. But one size does not fit all, and when the economic crisis hit in 2008, that became painfully obvious. Those EU members that used a common currency were unable to devalue their currency—a standard economic strategy to deal with debt.

 

There is also no way to transfer wealth within the EU, unlike in the U.S. Powerful economies like California and New York have long paid the bills for states like Louisiana and Mississippi. As Stiglitz points out, “a lack of shared fiscal policy” in the EU made it “impossible to transfer wealth (via tax receipts) from richer states to poorer ones, ensuring growing inequality between the core and the periphery of Europe.”

 

Stiglitz proposes a series of reforms, including economic stimulus, creating a “flexible” euro, and removing the rigid requirement that no country can carry a deficit of more than 3 percent of GDP.

 

Former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, however, argues that the Union “is not suffering from a democratic deficit that can be fixed with a ‘little more democracy’ and a few reforms here and there.” The EU, he says, “was constructed intentionally as a democracy-free zone” to keep people out of decision-making process and to put business and finance in charge.

 

Is the machine so flawed that it ought to be dismantled? That is the opinion of British Pakistani writer and journalist Tariq Ali and King’s College Reader in politics, Stathis Kouvelakis, both whom supported the Brexit and are urging a campaign to hold similar referenda in other EU member countries.

 

But since that that position is already occupied by the xenophobic right, how does the left argue for Lexit without entangling itself with racist neo-Nazis? Varoufakis, a leading member of the left formation, DiEM25, asks whether “such a campaign is consistent with the Left’s fundamental principles” of internationalism?

 

He also argues that a Lexit would destroy the EU’s common environmental policy and the free movement of members, both of which find strong support among young people.

 

Is re-establishing borders and fences really what the left stands for, and wouldn’t re-nationalizing the fossil fuel industry simply turn environmental policies over to the multi-national energy giants? “Under the Lexit banner, in my estimation,” says Varoufakis, “the Left is heading for monumental defeats on both fronts.”

 

DiEM25 proposes a third way to challenge the disastrous policies of the EU, while avoiding a return to borders and “every country for itself” environmental policies. What is needed, according to Varoufakis, is “a pan-European movement of civil and governmental disobedience” to create a “democratic opposition to the way European elites do business at the local, national and EU levels.”

 

The idea is to avoid the kind of trap that Greece’s left party, Syriza, has found itself in: running against austerity only to find itself instituting the very policies it ran against.

 

What DiEM25 is proposing is simply to refuse to institute EU austerity rules, a strategy that will only work if the resistance is EU-wide. When Greece tried to resist the troika, the European Central Bank threatened to destroy the country’s economy, and Syriza folded. But if resistance is widespread enough, that will not be so easy to do. In any case, he says, “the debt-deflationary spiral that drives masses of Europeans into hopelessness and places them under the spell of bigotry” is not acceptable.

 

DiEM25 also calls for a universal basic income, a proposal that is supported by 64 percent of the EU’s members.

 

Portugal’s left has had the most success with trying to roll back the austerity measures that caused widespread misery throughout the country. The center-left Socialist Party formed a coalition with the Left Bloc, and the Communist/Green Alliance put aside their differences, and restored public sector wages and state pensions to pre-crisis levels. The economy only grew 1.2 percent in 2016 (slightly less than the EU as a whole), but it was enough to drop unemployment from 12.6 percent to 10 percent. The deficit has also declined.

 

Spain’s Podemos and Jeremy Corbyn of the British Labour Party have hailed the Portuguese left coalition as a model for an anti-austerity alliance across the continent.

 

Debt is the 800-pound gorilla in the living room. Most of the debt for countries like Spain, Portugal and Ireland was not the result of spendthrift ways. All three countries had positive balances until the real estate bubble pumped up by private speculators and banks burst in 2008, and taxpayers picked up the pieces. The “bailouts” from the troika came with onerous austerity measures attached, and most of the money went straight to the banks that had set off the crisis in the first place.

 

For small or underdeveloped countries, it will be impossible to pay off those debts. When Germany found itself in a similar position after World War II, other countries agreed to cut its debt in half, lower interest rates and spread out payments. The 1952 London Debt Conference led to an industrial boom that turned Germany into the biggest economy in Europe. There is no little irony in the fact that the current Berlin government is insisting on applying economic policies to debt-ridden countries that would have strangled that German post-war recovery had they not been modified.

 

It is possible that the EU cannot be reformed, but it seems early in the process to conclude that. In any case, DiEM25’s proposal to practice union-wide civil disobedience has not really been tried, and it certainly has potential as an organizing tool. It is already being implemented in several “rebel” cities like Barcelona, Naples, Berlin, Bristol, Krakow, Warsaw and Porto, where local mayors and city councils are digging in their heels and fighting back.

 

For that to be successful throughout the EU, however, the left will have to sideline some of the disputes that divide it and reach out to new constituencies. If it does not, the right has a dangerous narrative waiting in the wings.

 

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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.

 

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Europe’s New Barbarians

Europe’s New Barbarians

Dispatches From The Edge

Aug. 28, 2015

 

On one level, the recent financial agreement between the European Union (EU) and Greece makes no sense: not a single major economist thinks the $96 billion loan will allow Athens to repay its debts, or to get the economy moving anywhere but downwards. It is what former Greek Economic Minister Yanis Varoufakis called a “suicide” pact, with a strong emphasis on humiliating the leftwing Syriza government.

 

Why construct a pact that everyone knows will fail?

 

On the Left, the interpretation is that the agreement is a conscious act of vengeance by the “Troika”—the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund—to punish Greece for daring to challenge the austerity program that has devastated the economy and impoverished its people. The evidence for this explanation is certainly persuasive. The more the Greeks tried to negotiate a compromise with the EU, the worse the deal got. The final agreement was the most punitive of all. The message was clear: rattle the gates of Heaven at your own peril.

 

It was certainly a grim warning to other countries with strong anti-austerity movements, in particular Portugal, Spain and Ireland.

 

But austerity as an economic strategy is about more than just throwing a scare into countries that, exhausted by years of cutbacks and high unemployment, are thinking of changing course. It is also about laying the groundwork for the triumph of multinational corporate capitalism and undermining the social contract between labor and capital that has characterized much of Europe for the past two generations.

 

It is a new kind of barbarism, one that sacks countries with fine print.

 

Take Greece’s pharmacy law that the Troika has targeted for elimination in the name of “reform.” Current rules require that drug stores be owned by a pharmacist, who can’t own more than one establishment, that over the counter drugs can only be sold in drug stores, and that the price of medicines be capped. Similar laws exist in Spain, Germany, Portugal, France, Cyprus, Austria and Bulgaria, and were successfully defended before the European Court of Justice in 2009.

 

For obvious reasons multinational pharmacy corporations like CVS, Walgreen, and Rite Aid, plus retail goliaths like Wal-Mart, don’t like these laws, because they restrict the ability of these giant firms to dominate the market.

 

But the pharmacy law is hardly Greeks being “quaint” and old-fashioned. The U.S. state of North Dakota has a similar law, one that Wal-Mart and Walgreens have been trying to overturn since 2011. Twice thwarted by the state’s legislature, the two retail giants recruited an out-of-state signature gathering firm and poured $3 million into an initiative to repeal it. North Dakotans voted to keep their pharmacy law 59 percent to 41 percent.

 

The reason is straightforward: “North Dakotans have pharmacy care that outperforms care in other states on every key measure, from cost to access,” says author David Morris. Drug prices are cheaper in North Dakota than in most other states, rural areas are better served, and there is more competition.

 

The Troika is also demanding that Greece ditch its fresh milk law, which favors local dairy producers over industrial-size firms in the Netherlands and Scandinavia. The EU claims that, while quality may be affected, prices will go down. But, as Nobel Laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz found, “savings” in efficiency are not always passed on to consumers.

 

In general, smaller firms hire more workers and provide more full time jobs than big corporations. Large operations like Wal-Mart are more efficient, but the company’s workforce is mostly part time and paid wages so low that workers are forced to use government support services. In essence, taxpayers subsidize corporations like Wal-Mart.

 

A key demand of the Troika is “reform” of the labor market to make it easier for employers to dismiss workers, establish “two-tier” wage scales—new hires are paid less than long time employees—and to end industry-wide collective bargaining. The latter means that unions—already weakened by layoffs—will have to bargain unit by unit, an expensive, exhausting and time consuming undertaking.

 

The results of such “reforms” are changing the labor market in places like Spain, France, and Italy.

 

After years of rising poverty rates, the Spanish economy has finally begun to grow, but the growth is largely a consequence of falling energy prices, and the jobs being created are mostly part-time or temporary, and at considerably lower wages than pre-2007. As Daniel Alastuey, the secretary-general of Aragon’s UGT, one of Spain’s largest unions told the New York Times, “A new figure has emerged in Spain: the employed person who is below the poverty threshold.”

 

According to the Financial Times, France has seen a similar development. In 2000, some 25 percent of all labor contracts were for permanent jobs. That has fallen to less than 16 percent, and out of 20 million yearly labor contracts, two-thirds are for less than a month. Employers are dismissing workers, than re-hiring them under a temporary contract.

 

In 1995, temporary workers made up 7.2 percent of the jobs in Italy. Today, according to the Financial Times, that figure is 13.2 percent, and 52.5 percent for Italians aged 15 to 24. It is extremely difficult to organize temporary workers, and their growing presence in the workforce has eroded the power of trade unions to fight for better wages, working conditions and benefits.

 

In spite of promises that tight money and austerity would re-start economies devastated by the 2007-2008 financial crisis, growth is pretty much dead in the water continent-wide. And economies that have shown growth have yet to approach their pre-meltdown levels. Even the more prosperous northern parts of the continent are sluggish. Finland and the Netherlands are in a recession.

 

There is also considerable regional unevenness in economic development. Italy’s output contracted 0.4% in 2014, but the country’s south fell by 1.3%. Income for southern residents is also plummeting. Some 60% of southern Italians live on less than $13,400 a year, as compared to 28.5% of the north. “We’re in an era in which the winners become ever stronger and weakest move even further behind,” Italian economist Matteo Caroli told the Financial Times.

 

That economic division of the house is also characteristic of Spain, While the national jobless rate is an horrendous 23.7 percent, the country’s most populous province in the south, Andalusia, sports an unemployment rate of 41 percent. Only Spanish youth are worse off. Their jobless rate is over 50 percent.

 

Italy and Spain are microcosms for the rest of Europe. The EU’s south—Italy, Portugal, Spain, Greece, Cyprus, and Bulgaria—are characterized by high unemployment, deeply stressed economies, and falling standards of living. While the big economies of the north, France, Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Germany, are hardly booming—the EU growth rate over all is a modest 1.6 percent—they are in better shape than their southern neighbors.

 

Geographically, Ireland is in the north, but with high unemployment and widespread poverty brought on by the austerity policies of the EU, it is in the same boat as the south. Indeed, Greek Finance Minister Euclid Tsakalotos told the annual conference of the leftwing, anti-austerity party Sinn Fein that Greece considered the Irish “honorary southerners.”

 

Austerity has become a Trojan horse for multinational corporations, and a strategy for weakening trade unions and eroding democracy. But it is not popular, and governments that have adopted it have many times found themselves driven out of power or nervously watching their polls numbers fall. Spain’s rightwing Populist Party is on the ropes, Sinn Fein is the second largest party in Ireland, Portugal’s rightwing government is running scared, and polls indicate that the French electorate supports the Greeks in their resistance to austerity.

 

The Troika is an unelected body, and yet it has the power to command economies. National parliaments are being reduced to rubber stamps, endorsing economic and social programs over which they have little control. If the Troika successfully removes peoples’ right to choose their own economic policies, then it will have cemented the last bricks into the fortress that multinational capital is constructing on the continent.

 

In 415 BC, the Athenians told the residents of Milos that they had no choice but to ally themselves with Athens in the Peloponnesian War. “The powerful do whatever their power allows and the weak simply give in and accept it,” Thucydides says the Athenians told the island’s residents. Milos refused and was utterly destroyed. The ancient Greeks could out-barbarian the barbarians any day.

 

But it is not the 5th century BC, and while the Troika has enormous power, it is finding it increasingly difficult to rule over 500 million people, a growing number of whom want a say in their lives. Between now and next April, four countries, all suffering under the painful stewardship of the Troika, will hold national elections: Portugal, Greece, Spain and Ireland. The outcomes of those campaigns will go a long way toward determining whether democracy or autocracy is the future of the continent.

 

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