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Brexit and A Brave New World

Brexit & A Brave New World

Dispatches From The Edge

Oct. 31, 2017

 

As the clock ticks down on Britain’s exit from the European Union, one could not go far wrong casting British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn as the hopeful Miranda in Shakespeare’s Tempest: ”How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world that has such people in’t.” And Conservative Party Prime Minister Theresa May as Lady Macbeth: “Out damned spot, out, I say!”

 

With the French sharpening their knives, the Tories in disarray, the Irish demanding answers, and a scant 17 months to go before Brexit kicks in, the whole matter is making for some pretty good theater. The difficulty is distinguishing between tragedy and farce.

 

The Conservative’s Party’s Oct. 1-4 conference in Manchester was certainly low comedy. The meeting hall was half empty, and May’s signature address was torpedoed by a coughing fit and a prankster who handed her a layoff notice. Then the Tories’ vapid slogan “Building a country that works for everyone” fell on to the stage. And several of May’s cabinet members were openly jockeying to replace her.

 

In contrast, the Labour Party’s conference at Brighton a week earlier was jam packed with young activists busily writing position papers, and Corbyn gave a rousing speech that called for rolling back austerity measures, raising taxes on the wealthy and investing in education, health care and technology.

 

Looming over all of this is March 2019, the date by which the complex issues involving Britain’s divorce from the EU need to be resolved. The actual timeline is even shorter, since it will take at least six months for the European parliament and the EU’s 28 members to ratify any agreement.

 

Keeping all those ducks in a row is going to take considerable skill, something May and the Conservatives have shown not a whit of.

 

The key questions to be resolved revolve around people and money, of which the first is the stickiest.

 

Members of the EU have the right to travel and work anywhere within the countries that make up the trade alliance. They also have access to health and welfare benefits, although there are some restrictions on these. Millions of non-British, EU citizens currently reside in the United Kingdom. What happens to those people when Brexit kicks in? And what about the two million British that live in other EU countries?

 

Controlling immigration was a major argument for those supporting an exit from the EU, though its role has been over-estimated. Many Brexit voters simply wanted to register their outrage with the mainstream parties—Labour and Tories alike—that had, to one extent or another, backed policies which favored the wealthy and increased economic inequality. In part, the EU was designed to lower labor costs in order to increase exports.

 

Indeed, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl (1982 to 1998) pressed the EU to admit Central and Eastern Europe countries precisely because they would provide a pool of cheap labor that could be used to weaken unions throughout the trade bloc. In this he was strongly supported by the British. Union membership in Britain has declined from over 13 million in 1979 to just over six million today.

 

The Conservatives want to impede immigration, and also have full access to the trade bloc, what has been termed the “have your cake and eat it too” strategy. So far that approach has been a non-starter with the rest of the EU. Polls show that only 30 percent of EU members think that that Britain should be offered a favorable deal. This drops to 19 percent in France

 

The Conservatives themselves are split on what they want. One faction is pressing for a “hard Brexit” that rigidly controls immigration, abandons the single market and customs union, and rejects any role for the European Court of Justice.

 

Another “soft Brexit” faction would accept EU regulations and the Court of Justice, because they are afraid that bailing out of the single market will damage the British economy. Given that countries like Japan, China and the U.S. seem reluctant to cut independent trade deals with Britain, that is probably an accurate assessment.

 

While the Tories are beating up on one another, the Labour Party has distanced itself from the issue, quietly supporting a “soft” exit, but mainly talking about the issues that motivated many of the Brexit voters in the first place: the housing crisis, health care, the rising cost of education, and growing inequality. That platform worked in the June 2017 snap election that saw the Conservatives lose their parliamentary majority and Labour pick up 32 seats.

 

Divorces are not only messy, they’re expensive.

 

This past September, May offered to pay the EU 20 billion Euros to disentangle Britain from the bloc, but EU members are demanding at least 60 billion Euros—some want up to 100 billion—and refuse to talk about Britain’s access to the trade bloc until that issue is resolved. All talk of “cake” has vanished.

 

And then there is Ireland.

 

The island is hardly a major player in the EU. The Republic’s GDP is 15th in the big bloc, but it shares a border with Northern Ireland. Even though the North voted to remain in the EU, it will have to leave when Britain does. What happens with its border is no small matter, in part because it is not a natural one.

 

Those counties that were a majority Protestant in 1921 became part of Ulster, while Catholic majority counties remained in the southern Republic. During the “Troubles” from the late 1960s to the late 1990s, the border was heavily militarized and guarded by thousands of British troops. No one—north or south—wants walls and watch towers again.

 

But trade between the Republic and Ulster will have to be monitored to insure that taxes are paid, environmental laws are followed, and all of the myriad of EU rules are adhered to.

 

Other than trade there is the matter of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended the fighting between Catholics and Protestants. While laying out a way to settle the differences between the two communities through power sharing, it also re-defined the nature of sovereignty. Essentially the Irish Republic and Britain agreed that neither country had a claim on Ulster, and that Northern Irish residents be accepted as “Irish, or British or both, as they may so choose”

 

Such fluid definition of sovereignty is threatened by the Brexit, and most of all by the fact that May and the Conservatives—at the price of a two billion Euro bribe— have aligned themselves with the extremely right wing and sectarian Protestant party, the Democratic Unionist Party, in order to pass legislation. While the pact between the two is not a formal alliance, it nonetheless undermines the notion that the British government is a “neutral and honest broker” in Northern Ireland.

 

May did not even mention the Irish border issue in her September talk, although the EU has made it clear that the subject must be resolved.

 

Talks between Britain and the EU are barely inching along, partly because the Conservatives are deeply divided, partly because the EU is not sure May can deliver or that the current government will last to the next general elections in 2022. With Labour on the ascendency, May reliant on an extremist party to stay in power, and countries like France licking their chops at poaching the financial institutions that currently work out of London, EU members are in no rush to settle things. May is playing a weak hand and Brussels knows it.

 

Eventually, the Labour Party will have to engage with Brexit more than it has, but Corbyn is probably correct in his estimate that the major specter haunting Europe today is not Britain’s exit but anger at growing inequality, increasing job insecurity, a housing crisis, and EU strictures that have turned economic strategy over to unelected bureaucrats and banks.

 

“The neoliberal agenda of the last four decades may have been good for the 1 percent,” says Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, “but not for the rest.” Those policies were bound to have “political consequences,” he says, and “that day is finally upon us.”

 

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Leprechauns, Nazis and Truncheons

Of Leprechauns, Nazis, and truncheons

Dispatches From The Edge

Oct. 8, 2017

 

Ballingarry, Republic of Ireland

 

This tiny village in the heart of County Limerick, with its narrow streets and multiple churches, seems untouched by time and untroubled by the economic and political cross currents tearing away at the European Union (EU). But Ireland can be a deceptive place, and these days nowhere is immune from what happens in Barcelona, Paris and Berlin.

 

Ballingarry—the place my grandfather emigrated from 126 years ago—was a textile center before the 1845 potato famine starved to death or scattered its residents. Today it houses five pubs, “One for every 100 people” notes my third cousin Caroline, who, along with her husband John, live next to an old Protestant church that has been taken over by a high tech company.

 

When the American and European economies crashed in 2008, Ireland was especially victimized. Strong-armed into a “bailout” to save its banks and speculators, the Republic is only beginning to emerge from almost a decade of tax hikes, layoffs, and austerity policies that impoverished a significant section of its population. The crisis also re-ignited the island’s major export: people, particularly its young. Between 2008 and 2016, an average of 30,000 people, age 15 to 24, left each year.

 

The Irish economy is growing again, but the country is still burdened by a massive debt, whose repayment drains capital from much needed investments in housing, education and infrastructure. But “debt” can be a deceptive word. It is not the result of a spending spree, but the fallout from of a huge real estate bubble pumped up by German, Dutch and French banks in cahoots with local speculators and politicians, who turned the Irish economy into an enormous casino. From 1999 to 2007, Irish real estate prices jumped 500 percent.

 

People here have reason to be wary of official government press releases and Bank of Ireland predictions. The center-right government of former Prime Minister Enda Kenny crowed that the economy had grown an astounding 26 percent in 2015, but it turned out to be nothing more than a bunch of multinationals moving their intellectual property into Ireland to protect their profits. The forecast has since been labeled “Leprechaun economics.”

 

Former U.S. Speaker of the House, Thomas “Tip” O’Neill—whose ancestors hailed from County Donegal in Ireland’s northwest—once said, “All politics are local,” and that’s at least partly true here. The news outlets are full of a scandal about the Irish police, the Garda, cooking breathalyzer tests to arrest motorists, an upcoming abortion referendum, and a change of leadership in the left-wing Sinn Fein Party. There is also deep concern about the Brexit. Britain is Ireland’s number two trading partner—the U.S. is number one—and it is not clear how London’s exit from the EU will affect that. There is also the worrisome matter of the now open border between the Republic and Northern Ireland, accompanied by fears that Brexit will undermine the Good Friday peace agreement between northern Catholics and Protestants.

 

But even the Irish have a hard time focusing on themselves these days, what with the German elections vaulting Nazis into the Bundestag and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s auto da fe against the Catalans. Watching Spain’s Guardia Civil using truncheons on old people, whose only crime was trying to vote, felt disturbingly like the dark days when Gen. Francisco Franco and his fascist Falange Party ran the country.

 

There is an interesting parallel between Catalonia and Ireland. Dublin is still awash with the100th anniversary commemorations of the 1916 Easter Rebellion. At the time the rising was opposed by many of the Irish, but when the British authorities began executing the rising’s leaders, sentiment began to shift. In 1921, the British threw in the towel after 751 years.

 

It is a lesson Rajoy should examine. Before he unleashed the Guardia Civil, polls showed the Catalans were deeply split on whether they wanted to break from Spain. That sentiment is liable to change rather dramatically in the coming weeks.

 

There are a number of cross currents in Europe these days, although many of them have a common source: an economic crisis in the European Union and austerity policies that have widened the inequality gap throughout the continent. The outcome of the German elections is a case in point.

 

Going into the Sept. 25 vote, the media projected a cakewalk for Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union alliance. What happened was more like a train wreck, The major parties, including the Social Democratic Party (SDP), dropped more than 100 seats in the Bundestag, and the openly racist, rightwing Alternative for Germany took almost 13 percent of the vote and 94 seats.

 

In some ways the German election was a replay of the British election last June, but without the Labour Party’s leftwing turn. Faced with the British Conservative Party’s numbingly vague platform of “experience” and “order,” voters went for Labour’s progressive program of tax the rich, free tuition, and improve health care and education, and denied the Tories a majority.

 

Merkel ran an election not very much different than the British Conservatives, but with the exception of the small Die Linke Party (which was itself divided) there were not a lot of alternatives for voters. The SDP were part of Merkel’s Grand Coalition government, making it rather hard to critique the Chancellor’s policies. The SDP leader, Martin Schultz started off campaigning against economic inequality, but shifted to the middle after losing three state elections. In their one big debate it was hard to distinguish Schultz from Merkel, and both avoided climate change, housing, the Brexit, and growing poverty.

 

There was certainly ammunition to go after the Chancellor with. In Merkel’s 12 years in power, the chasm between rich and poor in the EU’s wealthiest state has widened. In spite of low unemployment, almost 16 percent of the population is near the poverty line. The problem is that many are working low paying temp jobs.

 

Under normal circumstances that would be a powerful issue, except that it was Chancellor Gerhard Schoder and the SDP who put policies in place that led to rise of temporary jobs and reduced wages. Suppressing wages boosted German exports but left a whole section of the population behind.

 

It is a continent-wide problem. According to the European Commission, almost one-third of Europe’s workforce is part of the “gig” economy, many working for under minimum wage and without benefits. The replacement of employees with “independent contractors” has allowed companies like Uber to amass enormous wealth, but the company’s drivers end up earning barely enough to get by.

 

In short, German voters did not trust the SDP and looked for alternatives. Given the hysteria around immigration, some choose the fascist Alternative for Germany. As odious as it is to have the inheritors of the Third Reich sitting in the Bundestag, it would be a mistake to think the Party’s program was behind its success. The Alternative has nothing to offer but racism and reaction, and neither will do much to close the wealth gap in Germany.

 

Dublin has turned over a wing of its National Library to an exhibit of the great Irish poet and playwright, William Butler Yeates, who is much quoted these days. A favorite seems to be some lines from “The Second Coming”: “Thing fall apart; the Centre cannot hold…the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

 

On one level that seems a pretty good description of the rise of Europe’s extreme rightwing parties, and the precipitous decline of center and center-left parties. It is an attractive literary simile, but misleading. It was the “Centre” that introduced many of the neo-liberal policies that wiped out industries, cut wages, and abandoned whole sections of the population. When French, British, German, Spanish, Italian and Greek socialists embraced free trade and wide-open markets over strong unions and social democracy, is it any wonder that voters in those countries abandoned them?

 

When center-left parties returned to their roots, as they did in Britain and Portugal, voters rewarded them. After being dismissed as a deluded leftist who would destroy the British Labour Party, suddenly Jeremy Corbyn is being talked of as a future prime minister. In the meantime the alliance of the Portuguese Socialist Party with two other left parties is rolling back many of the more onerous austerity policies inflicted on Lisbon by the EU, sparking economic growth and a drop in the jobless rate.

 

Visually, Ireland is a lovely country, though one needs to prepare for prodigious amounts of rain and intimidatingly narrow roads (having destroyed two tires in 24 hours I was banished to riding shotgun half way through our trip). But while the meadows sweeping down from dark mountains in Kerry look timeless to the tourists who pack the scenic Ring, they are not. Ireland’s modern landscape is a deception.

 

In 1845 the population of Kerry was 416 people per square mile, compared to 272 in England and Wales. Those sweeping meadows that the tourists ogle were crowded with cottages before three years of potato blight swept them all away, “Look at those great grass fields, empty for miles and miles away,” wrote the Bishop of Clonfert in 1886,”every one of them contained once its little house, its potato ground, its patch of oats.”

 

It is ironic that Europe is so befuddled by the flood of immigrants pounding on its doors, or that Europeans somehow think the current crisis is unique. Between 1845 and 1848, one and half to two million Irish fled their famine-blackened land (another million—likely far more—starved to death) in large part due to the same kind of economics Europe is currently trying to force on countries like Ireland, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain and Cyprus.

 

“God brought the blight, the English brought the famine,” is an old Irish saying, and it is spot on. The Liberal Party government in London was deeply enamored with free trade and market economics, the 19th century version of neo-liberalism, and they rigidly applied its strictures to Ireland. The result was the single worst disaster to strike a population in the 19th century. Between 1845 and 1851 Ireland lost between 20 and 25 percent of its people, although those figures were far higher in the country’s west.

 

Today, the migrants are from Syria, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, fleeing wars that Europeans helped start and from which some make a pretty penny dealing arms. Others are from Africa, where a century of colonialism dismantled existing states, suppressed local industries and throttled development. Now those chickens are coming home to roost.

 

Ireland is a small player in the scheme of things, but it has much to teach the world: courage, perseverance, and a sense of humor. When the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed in 1921, the people of Galway pulled down a statue of Lord Dunkellen and tossed it into the sea, while a band played “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles.”

 

And Europe would do well to pay attention to some if its poets, like Patrick Pierce, who was executed at Kilmainham jail for his part in the Easter Rebellion: “I say to the masters of my people, beware. Beware of the risen people who shall take from ye that which you would not give.”

 

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Spain: Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

Spain: Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

Dispatches From the EdgeConn Hallinan

Aug. 22, 2017

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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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.

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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