Pablo Iglesias, leader of Spain's Podemos party Thursday 12 February 2015
The new despots who are trying to persuade us that Europe’s problem is Greece are putting the European project itself at risk
Alexis Tsipras of Greece, left, and Pablo Iglesias, author of this piece. ‘The diktats of those who still appear to be running things in Europe have failed. And the victims of this inefficiency and irresponsibility are Europe’s citizens.’ Photograph: Luigi Mistrulli/Sipa/Rex
During his swearing-in speech as Greece’s prime minister, Alexis Tsipras was clear: “Our aim is to achieve a solution that is mutually beneficial for both Greece and our partners. Greece wants to pay its debt.”
The European Central Bank’s (ECB) response to the Greek government’s desire to be conciliatory and responsible, was also very clear: negative. Either the Greek government abandons the programme on which it was elected, and continues to do the very thing that has been disastrous for Greece, or the ECB will stop supporting Greek debt.
The ECB’s calculation is not only arrogant, it is incoherent. The same central bank that recognised its mistakes a few weeks ago and began to buy government debt is now denying financing to the very states that have been arguing for years that the role of a central bank should be to back up governments in protecting their citizens rather than to rescue the financial bodies that caused the crisis.
Now, instead of acknowledging that Greece deserves at least the same treatment as any other EU member state, the ECB has decided to shoot the messenger. Excesses of arrogance and political short-sightedness cost dear. The new despots who are trying to persuade us that Europe’s problem is Greece are putting the European project itself at risk.
Europe’s problem is not that the Greeks voted for a different option from the one that led them to disaster; that is simply democratic normality. Europe’s threefold problem is inequality, unemployment and debt – and this is neither new nor exclusively Greek.
Nobody can deny that austerity has not solved this problem, but rather has exacerbated the crisis. Let’s spell it out: the diktats of those who still appear to be running things in Europe have failed, and the victims of this inefficiency and irresponsibility are Europe’s citizens.
It is for this precise reason that trust in the old political elites has collapsed; it is why Syriza won in Greece and why Podemos – the party I lead – can win in Spain. But not all the alternatives to these failed policies are as committed as Syriza and Podemos are to Europe and to European democracy and values.
The Greeks have been pushed to the point of disaster, yet the Greek government has reached out and shown great willingness to cooperate. It has requested a bridge agreement that would give both sides until June to deal with what is little short of a national emergency for the majority of the Greek population.
It has proposed linking repayment of the debt to growth (the only real way of paying creditors and of guaranteeing their rights), and has indicated its desire to implement those structural reforms needed to strengthen an impoverished state left too long in the hands of corrupt elites.
Greece has accepted a primary surplus (1.5% of GDP instead of the 3% that the troika had demanded) to give a minimum margin for dealing with the social consequences of the crisis and to devote, if necessary, a portion of the profits made by central banks after buying Greek bonds.
This means, pure and simple, making sure the European money destined to help Greece is in fact aid for citizens and for the economy, and not a way of rewarding the banks and slowing down recovery. However, faced with the statesmanlike moderation of a government that would have every reason to be more drastic, the ECB and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, respond with a dogmatic arrogance that sits ill with European values. The question is: who will pay for their arrogance? The most short-sighted cynics perhaps think that this is the Greek government’s problem and it does not affect the rest of the European family.
Yet we need only look at what has happened to the Greek socialist movement PASOK; the formerly mighty German SPD, which is now utterly subordinate to Merkel; the ideological collapse of the French Socialist party, heading for historic humiliation at the hands of Marine Le Pen; and at the socialists in Spain, who are so desperate they would prefer the right to win the coming election rather than Podemos.
Austerity has shattered the political space historically occupied by social democracy, so it would be in the interests of these parties to rectify this and support the Greek government.
It seems that Italy’s Matteo Renzi, despite his lukewarm support, is alone in fully grasping what is at stake in Greece. Or do people perhaps think that if Europe’s leadership refuses to budge in its attitude, then the “normality” of austerity can be restored? It is unwise to put a democratic government between a rock and a hard place. The wind of change that is blowing in Europe could become a storm that speeds up geopolitical changes, with unpredictable consequences.
The viability of the European project is at stake. Pro-Europeans, especially those in the socialist family, should accept the hand offered by Tsipras and help curb the demands of the pro-austerity lobby. It’s not just their own political survival that is at stake but that of Europe itself.