Can Europe Make It?

SYRIZA provides an opportunity that is only given once in every generation

Nick Dearden, director of Global Justice Now, discusses debt cancellation, EU reform and what a Syriza victory means for the anti-austerity movement in Europe.

Nick Dearden Anastasia Yamali
15 April 2015
arton4945-e0fb6.jpg rights reservedAnastasia Yamali: Greece’s debt has been in the spotlight for a long time. Are there any other western countries that have a more serious debt problem? Who's next? What do we understand from these countries’ public /private debt ratio?

Nick Dearden: Greece is unusual because it has a large public debt, present even before the crisis. Most other European countries had a very large private debt that was simply transferred into public debt. Greece’s debt is completely unmanageable, it was present before the so-called ‘bailout’ began and it is much worse now. Other countries, such as Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Italy, however, are also having a hard time managing 'their' debt.

Britain’s debts are still mostly private, it has an absolutely massive private debt, but, of course, we now know that this represents a huge potential problem for the public sector too. We must, therefore, cancel debts for several countries.

We need to do more than that.

The interesting thing is that all of these countries had huge private debts.

The answer to this should have been that governments controlled the private sector and reigned in finance. Instead, they chose to let the financial sector do what it wanted. Governments tolerated and even encouraged any amount of personal debt, but imposed austerity to deal with the public debt, which was never a problem. We need to acknoweledge that private debts should never have become public debts.

AY: What are the implications for an audit committee of public debt? In Greece, such a committee was established in March. Let's assume that the committee finds that a large part of the debt is ‘odious’. What happens next? We need debt cancellation in Europe (and elsewhere). But who will decide which debts are cancelled and how?

ND: We’ve seen lots of debt cancellations throughout history. Look at the so-called solution to the ‘Third World Debt’ Crisis: about $100billion was cancelled by the creditors, as a supposed act of forgiveness. It, therefore, carried conditions that actually made things worse in some cases. It forced countries to privatise public utilities and liberalise trade. The creditors, therefore, remained in control.

The debt of Greece is unmanageable – it simply cannot be paid. It needs, however, to be declared illegitimate. It needs to be cancelled from below and called odious and disowned. That is a totally different form of debt cancellation, which will, if carried out, force changes in the international financial system.

It is not easy, of course. The markets will try to make the Greek economy scream. So people need to be prepared. We have a duty here too - a responsibility to shield Greece from economic revenge by our own governments. It would be a truly radical act.

AY: Syriza is the only radical left party in power in the EU. How hard is it for them to even attempt to implement their agenda? Before the elections that brought Syriza to power, Alexis Tsipras was calling for a European solidarity movement. Do you see it happening?

ND: This is very hard, of course. Solidarity is absolutely essential. We see it here - from trade unions, from NGOs, from activist and even the media. But it's too small and shallow. We need to deepen and strengthen. We need people going to Greece and learning and helping and sharing - international brigades. We need a very big solidarity conference, which recaptures some of the international spirit of the old anti-globalisation movement. We need to build real links to support (and push) Syriza.

Without this, it will be impossible. So it is all our duty, especially in Spain. For Spain to elect a radical government in the next 6 months, well that changes everything. The possibilities are huge. So we must support our friends in Spain too.

You see, it is very difficult what Syriza faces, but at the same time it cannot fail. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity we have. All of Europe, all of the world, looks to Greece now. And you must also ask us for what you need. Many people look to Greece, but aren't sure what to do .Together we need to empower ordinary Europeans. Really, I think it is already having some effect here - look at the radical movements growing in Scotland.

But we must do more.

AY: There has been great pressure from the European elites to proceed with privatization. The left has accepted the axiom that "privatization is bad". Is there any way to have privatizations that are "good" for the people?

ND: I don't think we need to worry about this because the market and the private sector in Europe today are seen as the only solution. Our task is to convince people that there are many ways to run an economy and a society, not just the market. There is no danger in Europe, at the moment, of the state taking over every corner shop.

What I think we need to do is to push for a democratisation of the public sector The opposite of the market isn't that a state bureaucracy owns and runs everything. Although, certainly, national and international planning are vital when we look at global challenges like climate change or wealth redistribution. The opposite of the market, however, is democracy.

Some of the solidarity organisations built in Greece are very inspiring; collectives, cooperatives, etc. In Germany too, the local democratic control of energy is taking hold. In Jakarta last week the privatisation of water was ruled unlawful.

Now the challenge is the democratisation of public control.

You can't have a democracy only by voting every few years. People need to control their economy too. That hasn't always looked democratic or effective.. That doesn't mean we can't make it democratic. We can. After the Second World War, people in Britain said 'the market will not dictate healthcare, education and so on’. We must do the same.

AY: If nothing changes in European politics, Europe will be a German neoliberal Europe. What is next? Dissolution?

ND: Yes, I think so.

Under the worst circumstances – that is to say, by moving increasingly rightward, into a right-wing populism.

We have the opportunity to stop this. For me, that means building a people's Europe - as European activists coming together to create something different. We've been very bad at this, and of course, this doesn't mean not fighting local and national battles. We must do that. But we need, also, a European agenda. Syriza's victory makes this possible for the first time in 3 decades.

We need to get to work.

This article was originally published in Greek at Avgi.

If you enjoyed this article then please consider liking Can Europe Make it? on Facebook and following us on Twitter @oD_Europe

Get weekly updates on Europe A thoughtful weekly email of economic, political, social and cultural developments from the storm-tossed continent. Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData