Can Europe Make It?

Actually existing Europe

How is it that Greek PM, Tsipras, who tries to relieve the suffering of his people, is a less acceptable EU negotiation partner than Viktor Orbán?

Yudit Kiss
19 June 2015
Chancellor Angela Merkel and PM Orbán in economic press conference.

Chancellor Angela Merkel and PM Orbán in economic press conference. Demotix/Goncalo Silva. All rights reserved.The European Union is bleeding from a thousand wounds.

Despite some optimistic forecasts, its crisis is not over; its economies are fragile with very modest, if any, promises of better future, with significant unemployment, particularly among the young, soaring inequality, social exclusion and poverty. In the east, an increasingly aggressive Russia has been rewriting the continent’s borders, in almost total impunity: in the west, David Cameron has won elections on an agenda that openly questions the European construction.

In the heart of Europe, in Hungary, Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz government has systematically dismantled the democratic political system and openly mocks fundamental European values. All over the continent, increasingly anti-European, radical right-wing nationalist parties, some with bluntly racist, xenophobe ideology keep gaining ground and imposing their demands and rhetoric on mainstream politics. In several countries they have already entered into Parliament; they threaten to become a decisive political power in France, come back reinforced in Austria and have just formed a bloc inside the European Parliament that will give them increased resources and public space.

In what has become the EU’s principal head-ache, Greece, the latest events forecast a dramatic outcome. In the South, just on the other side of the Mediterranean, the beautiful promises of the Arab spring were crushed and the whole region is suffocated in bloodshed, remodeled dictatorships, ruinous civil wars and an efficient, devastating war-machine, ISIS. Thousands of desperate people flee this situation and intend to cross to Europe in hope of finding a better life or sheer survival and thousands of them die on the way.

How does the European Union react to these grave challenges that are threatening its very existence? It issues lukewarm warnings to Russia, promises to accommodate Britain as much as possible, scolds Orbán, gets alarmed about the propagation of extremism and proposes to “resolve” the problem of illegal immigrants by increasing the budget for border protection and preventing refugees to reach its shores.

As far as the bitter aftermaths of the Arab spring is concerned, Europe’s behavior can best be described as non-assistance in a situation of mortal danger. (Europe cannot be blamed for all the tragedies of the Middle East, but one shouldn’t forget that the monster of ISIS was set free by the disastrous military intervention in Iraq - launched despite the largest political mobilizations since WW2 that tried to prevent it. The British and French military intervention in Libya had similarly grave consequences.)

The only field where the EU has an unmistakably strong position is its insistence on fiscal discipline and faultless execution of austerity measures. Our continent’s leaders manifest astonishing unity and determination in pushing the Syriza government to follow the instructions provided by the EU’s and international financial institutions. Alexis Tsipras and his Minister of Finance, Yanis Varoufakis have become the bad boys of the continent whose alleged intransigence prevent Greece from being helped by its European partners. Since Mr Tsipras’ open letter published in Le Monde, the EU political establishment has launched a concentrated series of attacks on the Greek leaders. The mounting political pressure has been accompanied by a campaign in most of the mainstream media that repeats the same old clichés about the lazy Greeks who overspend and want German (and other ‘good’ European) taxpayers to pay for their excesses, about their ungratefulness and unwillingness to honor their obligations.

Root causes

Anybody who has looked into the root causes of the present situation in Greece, knows that the descent to hell started when the country joined the Eurozone, falsifying its statistics, encouraged by European authorities and advised by Goldman Sachs; that since they had easy access to credits, the ruling elites started to borrow enormous sums, again, assisted and encouraged by the Union’s respective authorities and financial institutions that keep advising them; that tax–evasion became a national sport, started by the very same governing elites who remained in place when the Troika entered into the picture to “rescue” Greece.

We also know that thanks to the intervention of EU institutions, the debt Greece owed to private banks was converted into public debt, so private investors were bailed out; that the large sums of money provided to Greece with ever harsher conditions under the bailouts were principally used for debt servicing, instead of restructuring and redressing the economy; that the dogmatic execution of the Troika’s prescriptions has pushed Greece further into the abyss; that two years ago even the IMF admitted that its measures caused much bigger economic and human damage to Greece than they had expected, and still they keep imposing them.

Further we understand that instead of paying out for the lazy Greeks, Germany and other northern European countries, as well as the IMF, largely benefit from the Greek crisis; that Syriza won elections, and maintains its overwhelming popular support because the Greek people have had enough and wanted a genuine change. That the Syriza government intends to address the most acute aspects of the economic, social and humanitarian crisis and start a series of fundamental reforms to redress the country, but that as soon as they came to power, they were deprived of cheap EU credits and were pushed into a corner where their space of maneuver has been reduced to a minimum. The Greeks are expected to cross a deep ravine blindfold, hands and feet tied. If they happen to reach the other side, they are assured that they will have to repeat the exercise over and over again. And when they ask for a safety harness, they are accused of non-cooperation.

The EU's messages

During the last five years, but particularly in the last months, since Syriza won the elections, the EU has been sending chilling messages to its citizens, governments and the non-European world. That people and governments have no more right to take autonomous decisions, that long-fought social achievements can be abolished with a signature of non-elected officials, that a government has no right to defend its citizens in case of extreme hardship, that it does not even have right to consider alternatives and asks questions about the rationality of the options that are imposed on it.

The epic struggle that is taking place between the Greek government and the EU political establishment and the international financial institutions is not at all about meeting this or that deadline. It’s about the possibility of a political alternative. The Syriza-led coalition is a heterogonous formation and has its contradictions and problems. But it is the only European government today that intends to translate into political action the popular discontent that flooded the streets of Europe (and the US) some years ago. They dare saying loudly and clearly what people on the streets have been saying for years now: that the economic and social model that is pushing more production to consume more, to destroy more in order to produce more, destroying human beings, societies and the Earth, is fundamentally wrong.

Decent livelihood, a more equitable distribution of the world’s riches, protection of the planet, participation in taking decisions that concern us all – these are not particularly radical propositions. Europe’s political elite, however, remains blind and deaf to its peoples’ demands and keeps defending the status quo, defined by abstract economic parameters. During the negotiations between the representatives of Greece and its “savers”, one could clearly see how the agenda, logic and language of the international financial institutions have permeated the EU’s decision-making mechanisms. Rigid fiscal parameters, minuscule percentage points of GDP growth that do not translate into any genuine economic and social gains for the bulk of society have become fetishized targets that crowd out every other consideration.

EU representatives mechanically repeat the slogans of a democratic and just Europe, where prosperity comes together with the respect of basic human rights, but keep pushing through a business agenda that has nothing to do with these ideals.

No wonder David Cameron, who executes an extreme version of the classic neo-liberal agenda, Francois Hollande who was elected on the promise of renegotiating the principles of EU’s economic construction and did not even try to do it, Mariano Rajoy, who feels threatened by the emergence of Podemos, Angela Merkel, whose Germany reproduces an outdated economic model supported by depressed wages, precarious work and increasing inequality, became irritated, when Tsipras reminded them of the EU’s founding principles.

Orbán vs.Tsipras

How is it that Tsipras, who tries to relieve the suffering of his people and save the country from disaster, who is looking for a compromise with the EU even at the price of abandoning key elements of his own political agenda, is a less acceptable negotiation partner than Viktor Orbán, who openly wages a “freedom fight” against Brussels and is taking his country towards a major economic and social crisis?

Orbán has received some critical assessments and stern declarations from EU institutions, but has got away with cosmetic changes. The EU’s only severe warning came when he crossed the sacrosanct 3% budget deficit threshold. He understood it right away: he squeezed the population a little bit more to maintain the prescribed quota and continues building his illiberal authoritarian regime with EU money. What is the EU’s message? That you are free to violate basic human rights, sacrifice future generations, use your country’s resources for cementing your own power base – as long as you stick to the financial requirements to the letter?

By now there is plenty of evidence that instead of economic recovery rigid austerity creates further economic crises with extreme social burdens, poverty, social inequality, all of which jeopardize further development and open wide the door for political extremism. In a rare moment of self-reflection even IMF experts admitted that their tough demands for European state budget cuts, emulated by the European Commission and the OECD, were miscalculated. Why do the EU’s decision-makers continue as if nothing happened?

Austerity politics suits the agenda of the world’s dominant corporations and financial institutions, the only genuinely concerted and consistent force that has been shaping the post-Cold War world. For them crisis, civil wars, natural catastrophes, epidemics, life and death are just business opportunities that have to be grabbed and exploited as fast and efficiently as possible.

In recent decades they have succeeded in imposing their predatory business strategies on the world, by finding the ways to validate their interests through political structures, including the complicated decision-making mechanisms of the EU. They assisted Greece’s downfall and keep finding new opportunities there, for example in their repeated requests to privatize the country’s natural and productive assets. In the middle of the insolvency crisis, they managed to convince the leaders of Germany and France to sell weapons to the Greek government, while they pushed them to painful budgetary cuts slashing welfare, health and education. They keep pressing European governments and EU officials to introduce into European legislation a set of trade agreements that would guarantee corporations global control over people and democratically elected governments.

The Greek crisis has revealed with a striking brutality that despite the valuable work of some of its committees, agencies and representatives, the European Union today is as far from its proclaimed values as “actually existing socialism” was from a genuine socialist model. On paper too, the EU stands for freedom, democracy, justice and equal rights, right to a decent livelihood, to freedom of organization, thought and speech. More of a positive utopia than a reality, nevertheless for decades the EU has presented itself as the embodiment of these values, an ideal that encouraged generations of Eastern Europeans during the Cold war years and afterwards, that was still invoked by the rebels of the Arab spring just four years ago, and for which only slightly more than a year ago, people still died in Kiev’s Maidan Square.

Who will tell all those aspirants that they were mistaken? That their dead died for the wrong cause?

Greece, with its centuries-long experience of resilience, will survive an eventual break-up with the EU, particularly if Syriza is able to initiate genuine changes. But the EU might not. If no compromise is found, the centripetal forces at the level of national governments, political parties and citizens, whose alienation from the Union is already significant, will accelerate. All progressive elements inside the EU system and social movements outside the comfortable rooms of Brussels should push European decision-makers to give Greece a chance – and start a radical restructuring of the EU’s institutional system. One that might give our continent the possibility of a human, livable future. Maybe it’s not too late yet.

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