Stage set for the Inaugural Convention of MeRA25, DiEM25 electoral wing, in the Ilisia Theatre, Athens, Greece. March 26, 2018.Last Monday (26/3) marked the birth of a new political party in Greece, MeRA25. Why should non-Greek Europeans care about yet another political party being launched in a peripheral country of the Union?
The first reason is that MeRA25, which in Greek means “Day25”, is the first national electoral wing of the pan-European movement DiEM25 (“Democracy in Europe Movement 2025”), founded two years ago in order to reclaim democracy in the EU, thereby beginning the process of calling a halt to its ongoing disintegration. MeRA25 is more than just another political party, since it is rooted in this experience of a horizontal and self-organized political movement.
Since MeRA25 is fully committed to establishing a large pan-European front, capable of withstanding the technocratic and oligarchic drift that constitutes the main cause of Europe’s current “constitutional crisis”, its horizon is broader than Greece itself.
The second reason lies in the very name of MeRA, which stands for “European Realist Disobedience Front”. This new political association aims to build a new kind of politics, based on the principle of “realist” and “constructive” disobedience. The only way to restore full democratic sovereignty in both Greece and the EU is to disobey policies that are condemning the former to “debt bondage”, while advancing a realistic, constructive and responsible alternative policy agenda. But, where does MeRA25 come from and what does its experience mean for other European countries?
When in January 2015, the Coalition of Radical Left (SYRIZA) rose to power in Greece, a semester-long battle began between the Mediterranean state and its creditors – the infamous troika of the EU Commission, the ECB and the IMF. In what Yanis Varoufakis has named the “Greek Spring”, Greek citizens reclaimed their streets. Only this time, it was not to protest the government, but to support it. While Tsipras and Varoufakis were negotiating for a “viable” and “mutually-beneficial” solution with the country's creditors, the Constitution square of central Athens was full of people demonstrating against austerity. This movement reached its peak during the days before the referendum on austerity that took place on 5 July 2015. All around Greece, but even in other European countries like Italy and Spain, citizens rushed to squares in order to support the Greek demand against austerity.
When the results of the referendum emerged, some were overtaken by joy and others by fear. A big majority (62%) of Greeks voted against the creditors' demands. But Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was told that the referendum changed nothing for the creditors and that he should decide between capitulating to their demands or pushing Greece out of the Eurozone. Tsipras decided to capitulate and the dreams of an austerity-free Greece were gone. The morning after the referendum, Varoufakis submitted his resignation, arguing that he could not betray the Greek people's emphatic “NO” to austerity. Ever since, he has been preaching the rejection of austerity and the EU's democratisation all around Europe. Three years later, Varoufakis is now back in Greece with MeRA25 to give expression to that silent majority, the 62% “NO” vote.
Greeks R Us
The implications of MeRA25 for other European countries are therefore paramount. As recorded by Yanis Varoufakis, in his poignant memoir Adults in the Room, European progressive elites have constantly failed to stop “reinforcing the surplus countries’ domination of fiscally stressed ones”. This inability to act has brought the continent to a stalemate, where TINA (There Is No Alternative) prevails. The only alternative to rising xenophobia and nationalism is to accept the status quo. The result is a pervasive feeling that the European social and political model, based on liberal constitutionalism and welfare protection, is broken beyond repair. The current French political landscape appears to be a perfect example of this predicament.
Almost a year ago, President Emmanuel Macron was elected in a landslide after facing far right-wing candidate Marine Le Pen in a runoff election. Great expectations notwithstanding, his promise in the opinion polls has already sunk to a record low of 40%. Such a downfall can at least be partly ascribed to Macron’s “bitter chalice” strategy: although policies aiming to restore the competitiveness of EU countries should go hand in hand with continent-wide macroeconomic stabilisation and investments, the former are to be considered as the prerequisite for the latter, in order to gain the confidence of both the financial markets and the “European partners”, i.e. the hegemonic bloc constituted by German Christian democrats.
That is why the government led by President Macron and by his Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, has not shied away from implementing neo-liberal reforms that range from labour market flexibilization to recent attempts to abolish the special status of railway workers, which many see as the first step towards the privatization of the French public railway company (SNCF).
At the same time, President Macron’s government is pursuing the strict border control policies already enforced by its predecessors and the Ministry of Interiors is about to present a reform of immigration and asylum laws that might well constitute a breach of basic human rights. Moreover, individual citizens giving aid to migrants trying to cross the French border in the Alps, even under the most critical weather conditions, are being prosecuted as criminals.
This neo-liberal “law and order” turn is destroying the unarticulated majority that backed Emmanuel Macron in the last elections, thus fuelling the sentiment that not only European institutions, but also the French Fifth Republic can no longer ensure true democratic governance, based on the balance of power and the possibility of adopting alternative policy options.
As Hannah Arendt puts it, “a significant number of citizens”, in France just as in Greece or elsewhere in Europe, “have become convinced either that the normal channels of change no longer function, and grievances will not be heard or acted upon, or that, on the contrary, the government is about to change and has embarked upon and persists in modes of action whose legality and constitutionality are open to grave doubt”. (Hannah Arendt, Crises of the Republic 1972).
Is this a sign that democracy, both at the national and at the continental level, is doomed to wither away?
Those are precisely the conditions under which civil disobedience, as defined by Hannah Arendt, can arise. Civil disobedience differs from a mere breach of the law in the sense that it constitutes a conscious political practice. The civil disobedient, “though he is usually dissenting from the majority, acts in the name and for the sake of a group; he defies the law and the established authorities on the ground of basic dissent, and not because he, as an individual, wishes to make an exception for himself and to get away with it”. (Hannah Arendt, Crises of the Republic 1972).
As a political practice, civil disobedience transcends the traditional divide between reform and revolution: whereas reformers seek change within the boundaries of the existing legal and political framework and revolutionaries aim to forcefully break this very framework, the disobedient wish to substantially modify the status quo by hacking the mechanisms that help stabilize it, turning them against their own goals.
MeRA25 and DiEM25’s constructive disobedience approach takes traditional civil disobedience one step further. Disobeying policies and directives, whether they are directly enforced by national governments or by European institutions, the consequences of which are contrary to “the basic principles that a defensible and sustainable EU should espouse” is no longer enough.
Political dissent, rather than the will to “make an exception for oneself”, on which civil disobedience relies, needs to translate into counter-proposals outlining policies that are not only alternative to those that are disobeyed, but also “universalisable” in the Kantian sense of the term: they must be the policies that one should want to see implemented everywhere throughout Europe, in order to ensure a truly democratic and supportive union.
It is precisely for those reasons that MeRA25 is not just another Greek political party, but a beacon of hope for the whole continent: their struggle is our struggle, their success will be our success.
An end to never-ending deadlock
But what new does MeRA25 propose for Greece? In the country hit hardest by the Euro crisis, governments have been mere accessories since 2010. Despite ideological and political differences between the parties in power, the governments of the past eight years have been following the recipe of austerity. On one hand, the coalition governments of right-wing New Democracy and centre-left PASOK defended the austerity programmes dictated by the creditors, “adopting” the policies of the troika.
The SYRIZA-Independent Greeks government, on the other hand, has been implementing the same austerity that its predecessors introduced to Greece, but presenting the policies as a “necessary evil”. In effect, though, despite a few differences in the management of the state, the policy-making process has virtually been the same.
MeRA25 was created to provide Greeks with an alternative to this never-ending deadlock. MeRA25 is, as of this Monday, the only pro-European party in Greece that is proposing the end of austerity. There are some measures that Varoufakis urges us to consider essential if the conditions are to be created for Greece to be released from its bonds. The newly founded party proposes the immediate implementation of seven specific measures, irrespective of the creditors' opinion of them. These are:
1) Public debt restructuring with a repayment rate equal to the rate of growth of the Greek economy.
2) Re-adjustment of the primary surplus goals for the next five years to 1.5% maximum (from 3.5% today).
3) Restructuring of unsolvable private loans with the creation of a “bad bank” and direct halt to all auctions of primary residencies and SME (small-medium entreprises) for five years.
4) Reduction of the VAT to 15-18% (from 23% today), reduction of SME tax to 15-18%, abolition of the law that demands payment of taxation in advance and of the “solidarity tax” for households with less than 30.000€ income.
5) Creation of an online parallel system of peer-to-peer payments without the participation of banks.
6) Reinstatement of collective bargaining in enterprises, five-year-long exemption of new entreprises from insurance contributions, maximum insurance contributions at 50% of enterprises' profits.
7) Transformation of TAIPED (the agency created to privatise public property) to a development bank, using public property as collateral. The development bank's assets will be used to support social security.
According to Varoufakis, the above policy package is the minimum a Greek government is required to pass into law if it is to move forward and reinstate hope for the future.
But what if the country's creditors reject these policies and cut the funding? MeRA25 is prepared to finish the battle that Varoufakis began in 2015 as Finance Minister. In the eventuality of such a rejection from the creditors, the government of MeRA25 will adopt Charles de Gaulle's “empty seat” policy: Greek officials and representatives of the government will be absent from EuroWorking Group, Eurogroup and EU Council meetings. At the same time, all payments to the country's creditors will be suspended, until the seven measures that MeRA25 proposes are accepted.
Critics say that such a move will lead to a forced Grexit. However, Varoufakis suggests that, even if it takes time, Greece's creditors will finally accept his party's proposals, as the cost of Grexit will be too big – both financially and politically. And if they don't, Greece will have to deal with the multifaceted problems of a Grexit, but the necessary measures will have been taken to rebuild the country.
Will the rockstar economist's adventure in this national political arena be a success? No one can tell for sure. But the prospects for MeRA25 are looking gloomy enough. In Greece, Varoufakis has been stigmatised by the whole of the political spectrum as “the narcissistic academic who was willing to put the country at risk to experiment with his nostrums.” His former comrades at SYRIZA see him as a force for disequilibrium that put this government of the left in danger. Centrists and right-wingers see him as a national traitor. The Greek Communist Party has him down as a capitalist dressed up as a leftist. At the same time, the media are not friendly to Varoufakis and treat him as a pariah. If MeRA25 managed to overcome all these obstacles, it would be a miracle. But it might be exactly that miracle that Greece is in need of right now.
Yanis Varoufakis on stage to launch Greece's new political party.