Lithuanian President, Dalia Grybauskaite. Demotix/Mikhail Palinchak. All rights reserved.In late June, debates in the European institutions reached their lowest point ever. Xenophobia, parochialism and flawed economic thinking shaped the two main debates, which focused on Greece and immigration. The statements of Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaite during the European Council and on social media exemplify the substance of the debate. With a humanitarian crisis unfolding in Greece, Grybauskaite tweeted that “The Greek government still wants to party but the bills have to be paid by somebody else”. Note: this came from the president of a country that is among the largest net recipients of EU funds, both in per capita terms and as a proportion of GDP.
Unrepentant, Grybauskaite displayed her complete lack of states(wo)manship again at the European Council meeting on June 25. In a discussion on the European refugee crisis, Grybauskaite stated that she had no intention of contributing to any solution. Her statement accompanied Lithuania’s rejection of the European Commission’s Agenda on Migration, which required the country to host a few hundreds of refugees escaping conflict and poverty. Lithuania’s position on the migration issue was echoed by that of most other east and central European EU member states. European Council president and former Polish prime minister Donald Tusk sided with this “regional alliance”, completely disregarding the impartiality that his current position requires, which caused an unprecedented clash with Commission president Jean Claude Juncker.
Their position appears all the more parochial if the broader picture is taken into account. Thus far, the refugee crisis has had little or no impact on these member states, with the exception of Bulgaria and Hungary. By contrast, hundreds of thousands of central and east European citizens have left their countries for western Europe in recent years, thereby enjoying the benefits of European integration. And yet, today their European leaders want to keep their borders closed (to poor refugees). Hungary has even announced the construction of a wall on its border with Serbia, a move evoking memories of another wall that separated Eastern Europe from the west. Polish prime minister Ewa Kopacz declared that Poland was ready to welcome 60 Christian families from Syria, suggesting that the concept of religious tolerance is still foreign to her. Hence, many leaders of the “new” EU member states have not fully understood that xenophobia should be left out of the European institutions, or that solidarity is not a concept that applies exclusively to debates concerning Russia and EU structural funds.
Several western European member states are proving to be no less xenophobic. Earlier in June, France closed its border with Italy to migrants, leaving them to spend the night in makeshift encampments on the rocky coast near Ventimiglia. Under the initiative and leadership of western European member states, the EU drew up plans for military attacks to stop migrant boats. It is unclear how such attacks would distinguish between traffickers and refugees, or how they would avoid making civilian casualties in Libyan ports. Most importantly, even if the recently launched EU naval/military operation (Eunavfor Med) is successful, it would not improve the plight of migrants: they would be grounded in war-torn countries, where their human rights and lives are at risk.
The response to the migration crisis has shown that, despite regularly boasting about their support for human rights, solidarity and democracy, European leaders are hardly concerned with these values in crisis situations. This has become evident not only vis-à-vis non-EU citizens in distress, but also in the Union’s treatment of one of its own member states, Greece.
After five years of economic recipes imposed by the ‘troika’ (the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund), Greece’s GDP shrank by over 20%, far more than the troika had predicted in 2010 and 2012. Unemployment rose to over 25% and youth unemployment stands at 50%.
Other indicators also draw a tragic picture: the number of Greeks living below the threshold of poverty has soared (40% of Greek children are estimated to live below the poverty line), while the total number of suicides increased by 35%. Simultaneously, little or nothing was done to improve tax collection and fight tax evasion. Most of the money of the two bailouts of Greece was used to save banks and private investors; less than 10% of it was used by the government for reforming its economy and safeguarding weaker members of society. This is the record of Antonis Samaras’s centre-right government, which held power from June 2012 until late January 2015 and patiently complied with the troika’s requests.
Tired of recessionary and self-destructive policies, in January 2015 a relative majority of Greeks voted for the left-wing party Syriza, which promised to improve the welfare of poorer Greeks and renegotiate the terms of Greece’s debt payments to its international creditors. Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras and his finance minister Yanis Varoufakis went into the negotiations with the troika, now rebranded as ‘the institutions’, genuinely believing that the country’s creditor would take into account the failure of the previous austerity programmes and the dire straits of the Greek economy and society.
However, they were faced with the IMF’s insistence on further cuts in welfare expenditure and pensions, despite the fact that 45% of Greek retirees live below the poverty line. Moreover, European leaders proved reluctant to discuss debt relief with Greece, even though the IMF itself advocated it.
At the European level, Tsipras and Varoufakis were confronted with strong political opposition from the Spanish, Irish and Portuguese leadership. This opposition was based entirely on domestic political considerations, rather than on any economic calculations pertaining to the Greek economy. At the height of their national crises, in a position similar to that of their Greek colleagues, the Spanish, Irish and Portuguese governments had already sold to their electorates the message that accepting the tough austerity measures demanded by the troika was the only way out of the crisis. For them, allowing an alternative solution for Greece – no matter whether it is viable or not – involves the risk of alienating their voters and strengthening the domestic political opposition.
Negotiations between Greece and the institutions dragged on until the end of June, until the Greek side realized that it would not be able to extract any non-recessionary and socially fair proposal from the creditors. The institutions drastically revised even a last-ditch Greek proposal that included estimated cuts of 8 billion euros, as they would be raised predominantly from taxation - with a higher toll on big businesses - and not from budget cuts (here is the Greek draft with the radical rewriting put forward by the troika).
Hence, EU leaders largely ignored the plight of the Greek economy and society and the result of the January elections, which had clearly signalled the necessity of a new approach, at the very least combining conditionality with flexibility in the methods to achieve economic objectives. Instead, the European Council ended up proposing more of the same: a 5-month extension of the bailout programme and some vague promises to discuss debt relief in the context of a third bailout programme, which neither the Greek government nor many other national leaders want. Having been elected with the promise of ending bankrupt austerity policies, Alexis Tsipras had no economic reasons or democratic mandate to accept this proposal.
Ultimately, the Euro-Greek drama at the end of June exposed the lack of solidarity of Eurozone leaders towards a member state, as well as their parochial fixation on counterproductive rules and flawed economic policies.
Instead of developing an ambitious vision for the future of Greece and the Eurozone, national and EU leaders decided to stick to the erroneous policies of the past. Significantly, large and small member states with centre-left governments aligned themselves with the conservative majority, providing further evidence for the argument that European Social Democratic parties are incapable of putting forward an alternative European leadership. With a political class that is unable to interpret the Greek call for economic and social change, and has largely adopted a xenophobic rhetoric in the immigration debate, the European construction has reached its nadir.