Following a week of vacation, I left Athens for London just hours after Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras made his dramatic address to the nation, stating his intention to put the latest EU bailout offer to a referendum. While the popular islands and tourist areas of central Athens showed few outward signs of the unfolding drama, queues were already forming at ATMs in poorer and more residential areas. The following are my thoughts on the Greek crisis and the behaviour of the international institutions which increasingly supplant national democracy.
No wonder the power brokers of Europe are dazed, confused and spitting with rage. Cyprus meekly fell into line when their turn came. Ireland whimpered and did what it was told. But Greece is displaying a puzzling degree of stubbornness and outright disrespect by failing to behave like a weak supplicant nation with no negotiating power, infuriating the finance ministers and leaders of the other eurozone countries in the process. It’s almost as though, in their arrogance, the Greek government actually believes that its primary duty is to the people of Greece rather than the multinational institutions which now seek to go through the country’s budget and the government’s manifesto with a red veto pen.
Heaven knows that Greece is not without blame in this crisis. A Byzantine system of differing VAT rates, ludicrously early retirement ages, inefficient state-owned industries and unchecked cartels and corruption have all played their part in running up the Greek deficit and ensuring that the last few years of bailout assistance have failed to produce results or return the economy to growth.
But for as long as our world is built on the principle of the sovereign nation state, free people in a free country have the inviolable right to make their own bad choices and then take what measures they see fit to correct these errors through the democratic process. Unfortunately, when nation states are increasingly stripped of their power and influence – having vested them in political institutions like the European Union and monetary unions like the Euro – this is no longer possible. Suddenly, millions of people in far-flung places have a vested interest in decisions taken in one small country, and the democratic will of any one member state is only one consideration among many others competing for consideration.
This is the Greek debt crisis in a nutshell. Since it was first foisted on the people without any popular mandate, citizens of the European Union member states have been told that first political union and then monetary union were possible without any real dilution of national democracy. Never mind the glaring red flags which warned otherwise – parliament buildings in Brussels and Strasbourg, a court of justice, an official flag and an anthem. These were all harmless trappings of European unity, we were told. Nothing to worry about.
The unfolding Greek drama proves once and for all that this was a lie. The European Union and its institutions, supposedly intended to represent the unified will of the people – not that the peoples of Europe have ever been united in anything – have increasingly taken on a life and vested interests of their own. The survival of the multinational institutions now matter more than the well being of any one member state – or at least the fortunes of those smaller countries on the periphery. And if proving the ongoing viability of European monetary union means sacrificing Greece and condemning the Greek people to another lost decade of economic depression, so be it.
In public, most EU leaders have tried to maintain a veneer of concern for the plight of Greece and the ordinary people suffering unemployment and all the lost opportunities of an economy in permanent recession. But behind closed doors, the institutions and bureaucrats holding Greece by the scruff of the neck are snarling and vindictive, telling the elected prime minister to shut up and going through the government’s proposals – detailed plans for how the democratically elected government will run the country – with a red veto pen.
We now know that the EU and other institutions were never negotiating in good faith, because they withdrew their final offer as soon as Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras announced that they were putting it to the Greek people in a referendum – a pure act of spite from unaccountable and egotistical people not used to being questioned or challenged in any way.
Iain Martin concurs in his latest column:
But surely the real madmen here are not the Greek Marxists at all. The real madmen are those who created the euro, this cock-eyed construct, who thought political dreams and vanity could trump economic sense and cultural and national differences, by creating a currency union on a vast continent without the necessary safeguards.
Yet instead of facing these realities, and accepting that the EU model as currently constituted has had it, the Europhile leaders intone pompously about European Union values being agelessly sacrosanct. It is as though these men and women believe themselves to be functionaries of the Holy Roman Empire, rather than representatives of a modern botched-together political experiment that was only created in its latest form when German and French politicians misdiagnosed the consequences of the end of the Cold War as recently as 1989 and prescribed the euro.
And so the EU (and especially the eurozone) remains determined to continue on their current course of explicit political integration, without any real mandate to do so from the people of the various member states. But monetary union is only possible if wealthier regions within the union (like Germany and France) are willing to make enormous transfer payments to poorer regions (like Greece). And public tolerance for such wealth transfers can only exist within the structure and confines of a nation state.
The citizens of New York and California are willing to see their tax revenues effectively subsidise states like Alabama and Mississippi because the people share a common American bond – they all bleed red, white and blue. But this is simply not the case in the European Union. The comfortably prosperous middle class German taxpayer sees little reason why he should underwrite inefficiencies and corruption in the Greek economy, and when push comes to shove he will likely sit back and watch the Greek economy implode, because there is not enough common bond between the two peoples. No matter the wishful thinking of the EU elite, there is no common European identity.
In the case of the EU, the structures and symbols of a nation state have been established despite there being no sense of common European identity superseding or even level with the distinct national identities. Greeks feel Greek first and foremost, and Germans feel German above all – or at least their willingness to view other people as sharing a common European identity is contingent upon those people operating according to German customs of industriousness and thrift. And so when monetary union requires the richer countries to subsidise the poorer ones, it is only ever done exceedingly grudgingly – and in the case of the Greek bailout programme, with so many growth-smothering conditions in place that the assistance offered is politically toxic to the debtor state.
So yes, Greece is far from blameless in this crisis – successive Greek governments are to blame for failing to get a grip with that country’s corruption, inefficiency and political denialism, and the people themselves for failing to do any due diligence when selecting their leaders, believing that they could exist within the eurozone without accepting painful reforms.
But democracy means having the right to make mistakes and then to take independent action to remedy these errors where necessary – or even to exacerbate them. It is not for the unelected technocrats of the IMF, the ECB and the Eurogroup to force a growth-sapping political settlement on the Greek economy against the will of the people, or to agitate and manoeuvre for Greek regime change whenever a democratically elected government does not behave in the collegial, give-and-take manner expected by the EU elite.
If the euro is to survive as a currency and the European Union as an institution, wealthy creditor countries like Germany must accept that the price of their longed-for ever-closer political union is an onerous long-term obligation to subsidise and prop up the poorer and less developed economies of other member states such as Greece. It is as simple as that.
But this reality is proving slow to sink in. The last few weeks and months have been no less than a screaming, foot-stamping collective hissy fit by the supposedly mature, dispassionate guardians of our technocratic world order – and all because one small country, feeling bullied and led to sacrificial slaughter, decided to say “no more”.
Alexis Tsipras and his Syriza-led coalition government may not have the right answers – quite often they live in a left-wing alternate universe – but any mistakes and subsequent consequences are for the Greek people alone to make. The European and global financial institutions are already suffering from a huge crisis of legitimacy and a yawning democratic deficit. They will make nothing better by continuing to play hardball with a government and people who feel cornered, victimised and singled out for disproportionately harsh treatment.
Furthermore, the sovereign countries most exposed to Greek government debt should have known that despite the overarching umbrella of the euro, they were still investing in Greece – a less developed and less efficient economy with all the added risk that such investments entail. To now demand that Greece – which is now running a primary budget surplus when debt repayments are factored out – should effectively socialise the losses of these (mostly eurozone) creditor countries is selfish and narrow-minded, not to mention extremely short-termist when one considers the risks and costs of wider contagion and the potential fragmentation of the Eurozone.
By holding a referendum and potentially rejecting the most recent offer from the troika, Greece may well be going to her Armageddon. But that choice is for the Greek people alone, not for unelected technocrats from remote institutions far removed from the day-to-day suffering of the people. By forcing a depression-weary government and people into this corner, the sharp-suited members of the IMF, ECB and Eurozone could well be ushering in virtual Armageddon for thousand if not millions of people outside Greece – all in the service of trying to extract maximum returns on a crushing sovereign debt which all intelligent people recognise can never be repaid. And these unelected bureaucrats have absolutely no popular mandate to do this.
Greek popular democracy with all its flaws, or the EU’s remote and elitist technocracy: though the birthplace of democracy is no more sinned against than sinning, it is Greece which stands on the right side of this argument, and on the right side of history.
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