At this point, one of the most important things we can do is try to draw lessons from the Greek experience.
- Perhaps one of the most obvious lessons is that visions of a more
humane Europe are not real. European leaders were more than willing to
pursue the complete collapse of the Greek economy in order to break
SYRIZA and the movement that gave it power for fear of the demonstration
effect a successful SYRIZA might have had on broader European politics.
Using the lever of a European Central Bank cut off of funding for
Greek banks, the Troika pressed SYRIZA to the wall.
Here is how a Guardian blog post described the nature of the discussions leading up to the final Greek surrender:
Alexis Tsipras was given a very rough ride in his meeting with Donald Tusk, Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande, our Europe editor Ian Traynor reports.
was told that Greece will either become an effective “ward” of the
eurozone, by agreeing to immediately implement swift reforms this week.
Or, it leaves the euro area and watches its banks collapse.
One official dubbed it “extensive mental waterboarding”, in an attempt to make the Greek PM fall into line.
An unpleasant image that highlights just how far we have now fallen from those European standards of solidarity and unity.
- Second, the vicious nature of the European response to the Greek
government’s initial offer of moderate austerity, symbolised by the
stance of its dominant power Germany, reflects more than ignorance or
petty mindedness on the part of European leaders. It reflects the
increasingly exploitive nature of contemporary capitalism everywhere.
Capitalists, pursuing profits in an increasingly competitive and
unstable global system, demand ever greater power to intensify the
exploitation of workers everywhere and that is how dominant states
approach social policy in their respective countries and international
- Third, class interests dominate so-called “economic rationality”. A case in point:
in the period before the July 5 referendum we learned that IMF staff
believed that Greece would be unable to pay its debts under the best of
conditions and that therefore any agreement with Greece had to include
debt relief while at the very same time the head of the IMF was
aggressively joining with European leaders to reject Greek government
pleas for just such relief.
- Fourth, since dominant powers will do everything in their power to
block meaningful social transformation, those seeking to lead it must
prepare people as best they can for the expected class struggle and
opposition. In this case SYRIZA can and should be faulted for not
engaging people about the difficulty of achieving both an end to
austerity and Eurozone membership under current conditions and doing its
best to develop the technical and political capacities necessary for a
break from the Euro on its own terms if and when the situation called
Greeks elected a progressive government, voting SYRIZA into
power in January 2015, on the basis of the party’s commitment to both
anti-austerity and continuing Eurozone membership. The leadership of
SYRIZA never wavered from encouraging Greeks to believe that both were
possible and most Greeks, for many reasons, were eager to believe that
this was true. Although the results of the July 5 referendum showed
that the Greek working class has a strong fighting spirit, polling also
revealed that most of those who voted No hoped that their vote against
the European austerity plan would lead to a better deal from Europe, not
a break from the Eurozone. They no doubt felt this way because of
For example, below are the results of polling done the day before the referendum:
immediately after the vote the Greek government surprised everyone by
returning to negotiations with the Troika with an offer to accept an
austerity program much like the one that had been originally placed
before the people and rejected. The only meaningful addition was that
it included the long held Greek proposal for debt relief. This decision
was a serious mistake for two reasons—it generated serious confusion on
the part of the Greek population and perhaps even more importantly
convinced the Troika that the Greek government was not prepared to use
its new domestic support to challenge the status quo. This only
emboldened the Troika to proclaim that the referendum had changed
everything and now that trust had been lost between the Troika and
SYRIZA leaders, the austerity demands had to be intensified.
fact, we have learned that SYRIZA’s leaders did not expect to win the
referendum and were prepared to and in fact perhaps hoped to be able to
resign and let more conservative forces negotiate and approve a new
austerity package. Here is part of an interview with James K. Galbraith, a strong SYRIZA supporter:
The recent Ambrose Evans Pritchard piece is very much on the mark (”Europe is blowing itself apart over Greece – and nobody seems able to stop it").
The Greek government, and particularly the circle around Alexis, were
worn down by this process. They saw that the other side does, in fact,
have the power to destroy the Greek economy and the Greek society —
which it is doing — in a very brutal, very sadistic way, because the
burden falls particularly heavily on pensions. They were in some
respects expecting that the yes would prevail, and even to some degree
thinking that that was the best way to get out of this. The voters would
speak and they would acquiesce. They would leave office and there would
be a general election.
It all went downhill from there. In
short, SYRIZA leadership had no plan B. The Troika knew that SYRIZA was
unwilling to pursue its own break from the Eurozone, which meant that
its leadership would do anything to remain in the Eurozone. The
following is from an interview
with Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister, that provides
insight into the somewhat self-inflicted weakness in SYRIZA’s
The referendum of July 5 has also been rapidly
forgotten. It was preemptively dismissed by the Eurozone, and many
people saw it as a farce – a sideshow that offered a false choice and
created false hope, and was only going to ruin Tsipras when he later
signed the deal he was campaigning against. As Schäuble supposedly said,
elections cannot be allowed to change anything. But Varoufakis believes
that it could have changed everything. On the night of the referendum
he had a plan, Tsipras just never quite agreed to it.
can dictate terms to Greece because it is no longer fearful of a
Grexit. It is convinced that its banks are now protected if Greek banks
default. But Varoufakis thought that he still had some leverage: once
the ECB forced Greece’s banks to close, he could act unilaterally.
said he spent the past month warning the Greek cabinet that the ECB
would close Greece’s banks to force a deal. When they did, he was
prepared to do three things: issue euro-denominated IOUs; apply a
“haircut” to the bonds Greek issued to the ECB in 2012, reducing
Greece’s debt; and seize control of the Bank of Greece from the ECB.
of the moves would constitute a Grexit but they would have threatened
it. Varoufakis was confident that Greece could not be expelled by the
Eurogroup; there is no legal provision for such a move. But only by
making Grexit possible could Greece win a better deal. And Varoufakis
thought the referendum offered SYRIZA the mandate they needed to strike
with such bold moves – or at least to announce them.
He hinted at
this plan on the eve of the referendum, and reports later suggested this
was what cost him his job. He offered a clearer explanation.
the crowds were celebrating on Sunday night in Syntagma Square, SYRIZA’s
six-strong inner cabinet held a critical vote. By four votes to two,
Varoufakis failed to win support for his plan, and couldn’t convince
Tsipras. He had wanted to enact his “triptych” of measures earlier in
the week, when the ECB first forced Greek banks to shut. Sunday night
was his final attempt. When he lost his departure was inevitable.
very night the government decided that the will of the people, this
resounding ‘No’, should not be what energised the energetic approach
[his plan]. Instead it should lead to major concessions to the other
side: the meeting of the council of political leaders, with our Prime
Minister accepting the premise that whatever happens, whatever the other
side does, we will never respond in any way that challenges them. And
essentially that means folding. … You cease to negotiate.”
course, it is easy to call for a break with the Eurozone but in reality
such a break would not be a walk in the park. For example, Varoufakis
makes clear that there were no certainties for what would happen if the
government decided on a break:
“He [Tsipras] wasn’t clear back
then what his views were, on the drachma versus the euro, on the causes
of the crises, and I had very, well shall I say, ‘set views’ on what was
going on. A dialogue begun … I believe that I helped shape his views of
what should be done.”
And yet Tsipras diverged from him at the
last. He understands why. Varoufakis could not guarantee that a Grexit
would work. After SYRIZA took power in January, a small team had, “in
theory, on paper,” been thinking through how it might. But he said that,
“I’m not sure we would manage it, because managing the collapse of a
monetary union takes a great deal of expertise, and I’m not sure we have
it here in Greece without the help of outsiders.” More years of
austerity lie ahead, but he knows Tsipras has an obligation to “not let
this country become a failed state”.
To be a bit more specific, a
break from the Eurozone would require nationalisation of the banks—an
act that would immediately draw the country into a serious legal test
with Europe since the banks are technically under the control of the
European Central Bank. It would require the government to quickly issue
new script as it prepared a new currency, and aggressively engage in an
expanded public works program. At the same time it was unclear whether
the new script would be accepted and whether the country would have
sufficient foreign exchange to maintain minimum purchases of key import
items such as food and medicine. Moreover, many businesses, holding
debts denominated in euros, would likely be forced into bankruptcy
necessitating government takeover. And, all this would take place in a
relatively hostile international environment. No doubt some countries
would offer words of solidarity, but it appears unlikely that any would
or could offer meaningful financial or technical assistance. Still,
with proper preparation the possibilities for success could have been
Strikingly, Varoufakis mentioned that SYRIZA had
established a small team to think about what a break would mean shortly
after their January 2015 election, a team that no doubt was kept small
because the government wanted to keep the planning secret. But that was
a mistake. Planning should have happened on a large scale and in a
visible way. Discussions should have been held with international legal
experts as well as with the Brics countries concerning possible use of
their new lending and investment facilities. There was no need to keep
this planning quiet, quite the opposite—Eurozone leaders should have
been made aware that SYRIZA was seriously studying its alternatives.
And the population should have been brought along—that the government
would do all in its power to stay in the eurozone as long as this was
consistent with an end to austerity.
As it was, Tsprias went back
into negotiations unarmed, desperate for a bailout. Once the ECB
tightened its support for Greece’s banking system it should have been
clear, if not before then, that a German-led Europe was only interested
in total surrender on the part of Greece. And as far as I can tell
total surrender is what they got.
Greece has agreed to austerity program that is far worse than any previously rejected. Here is the Guardian summary of what was agreed:
Greek assets transfer
to €50bn (£35bn) worth of Greek assets will be transferred to a new
fund, which will contribute to the recapitalisation of the country’s
banks. The fund will be based in Athens, not Luxembourg as Germany had
The location of the fund was a key sticking
point in the marathon overnight talks. Transferring the assets out of
Greece would have meant “liquidity asphyxiation”, Tsipras said.
the statement puts it: “Valuable Greek assets will be transferred to an
independent fund that will monetise the assets through privatisations
and other means.”
The “valuable assets” are likely to include things such as planes, airports, infrastructure and banks, analysts say.
of the fund will be used to recapitalise banks and decrease debt, but
analysts are sceptical about how much money there will really be to work
“Given the experience of the last few years’ privatisation
programme, these targets appear overtly optimistic, serving as a
signalling mechanism of Greek government commitment to privatisation
rather than a meaningful source of financing for bank recapitalisation,
growth and debt reduction,” said George Saravelos, a strategist at
Greece has been told that it needs to pass measures to “improve long-term sustainability of the pension system” by 15 July.
country’s pensions system, and its perceived generosity relative to
other eurozone states, has been a key sticking point in the past five
months of negotiations with creditors.
The so-called troika of
lenders believes that Athens can save 0.25% to 0.5% of GDP in 2015 and
1% of GDP in 2016 by reforming pensions.
Greece had wanted to draw
out reform of early retirement rules, starting in October and running
until 2025, when everyone would retire at 67. The EU wants the process
to start immediately, by imposing huge costs on those who want to retire
early to discourage them from doing so. The lenders also say Athens
must bring forward the reform programme so it completes in 2022.
VAT and other taxes
source of contention in the months of failed negotiations that preceded
Monday’s tentative deal, VAT is now also on the block for immediate
The latest agreement demands measures, again by 15 July,
for “the streamlining of the VAT system and the broadening of the tax
base to increase revenue”.
One of the key objections from Greece’s
creditors to its VAT system is a 30% discount for the Greek islands.
Athens proposed a compromise on 10 July under which the exemptions for
the big tourist islands – where the revenue opportunities are greatest –
would end first, with the more remote islands following later.
onus on Greece to “increase revenue” is likely to mean more items will
be covered by the top VAT rate of 23%, including restaurant bills,
something that had until recently been a red line for Tsipras.
demand for legislation by 15 July is on “the safeguarding of the full
legal independence of ELSTAT”, the Greek statistics office.
Balancing the books
has been told it must legislate by 15 July to introduce
“quasi-automatic spending cuts” if it deviates from primary surplus
targets. In other words, if it cannot cut enough to balance the books,
it should cut some more.
In the past, the troika has demanded that Greece commit to a budget surplus of 1% in 2015, rising to 3.5% by 2018.
will begin immediately on bridging finance to avert the collapse of
Greece’s banking system and help cover its debt repayments this summer.
Greece must repay more than €7bn to the European Central Bank (ECB) in
July and August, before any bailout cash can be handed over.
has been promised discussions on restructuring its debts. A statement
from Sunday night also ruled out any “haircuts”, leaving the €240bn
Greece owes to Brussels, the ECB and the International Monetary Fund
(IMF) on the books.
Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, said the
Eurogroup was ready to consider extending the maturity on Greek loans.
She argues that a delay in loan repayments and a lower interest rate act
in the same way as a write-off, which is why many analysts point out
that the Greek debt mountain is worth the equivalent of 90% of GDP in
real terms and not the 180% commonly quoted. Merkel said that for this
reason there was no need for a Plan B.
Tsipras pledged to implement radical reforms to
ensure the Greek oligarchy finally makes a fair contribution. The
agreement thrashed out overnight would allow Greece to stand on its feet
again, he said.
Implementation of the reforms would be tough, he
said, but “we fought hard abroad, we must now fight at home against
He added: “The measures are recessionary, but
we hope that putting Grexit to bed means inward investment can begin to
flow, negating them.”
Liberalising the economy
new deal also calls for “more ambitious product market reforms” that
will include liberalising the economy with measures ranging from
bringing in Sunday trading hours to opening up closed professions.
labour markets must also be liberalised, the other eurozone leaders
say. Notably, they are demanding Athens “undertake rigourous reviews and
modernisation” of collective bargaining and industrial action.
ownership, the designation of bakeries and the marketing of milk are
also up for reform, all as recommended in a “toolkit” from the
Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
statement from the euro summit stipulates that Greece will request
continued IMF support from March 2016. This is another loss for Tsipras,
who had reportedly resisted further IMF involvement in Greece’s rescue.
Greece has been told to get on with privatising its energy transmission network operator (ADMIE).
has been told to strengthen its financial sector, including taking
“decisive action on non-performing loans” and eliminating political
Shrinking the state
Athens has been told to depoliticise the Greek administration and to continue cutting the costs of public administration.
The Guardian highlights one of the hidden landmines in the agreement:
Our economics editor Larry Elliott has been going through the details of this morning’s deal and
concludes it will deepen the country’s recession, make its debt
position less sustainable and that it “virtually guarantees that its
problems come bubbling back to the surface before too long.”
line in the seven-page euro summit statement sums up the thinking
behind this act of folly, the one that talks about “quasi-automatic
spending cuts in case of deviations from ambitious primary surplus
Translated into everyday English, what this means is
that leaving to one side the interest payments on its debt, Greece will
have to raise more in revenues than the government spends each and every
year. If the performance of the economy is not strong enough to meet
these targets, the “quasi-automatic” spending cuts will kick in.
If Greece is in a hole, the rest of the euro zone will hand it a spade
and tell it to keep digging.
This approach to the public finances
went out of fashion during the 1930s but is now back. Most modern
governments operate what are known as “automatic stabilisers”, under
which they run bigger deficits (or smaller surpluses) in bad times
because it is accepted that raising taxes or cutting spending during a
recession reduces demand and so makes the recession worse.
least according to press reports, Tsprias put up his greatest fight over
inclusion of the IMF in monitoring the agreement and privatisation.
The IMF is definitely in. As for privatisation or what the Guardian
calls “Asset Transfer,” gains were minimal. One can question in fact
whether at least the latter area is one where Tsprias should have tried
to draw lines. At least on the face of it, it would seem that it would
have made more sense to fight the demand to “liberalise” labour markets.
A victory here would have given the state freedom to encourage the
development of a strong labour movement, regardless of ownership.
as noted in the summary, Greece is still not guaranteed new loans or
debt relief. Its parliament has to pass all of the above and then the
government gets to start negotiations again.
As the Guardian reports:
leaders lined up to say Grexit has been averted, but this snappy
soundbite glides over the fact the eurozone has simply agreed to open
negotiations on an €86bn (£62bn) bailout. Although this is a step to
shoring-up confidence in the euro, it is only a promise to have more
talks with no guarantee of success.
Talks on the bailout plan are
forecast to last around four weeks. “We know time is critical for
Greece, but there are no shortcuts,” said Klaus Regling, the official in
charge of the the European Stability Mechanism, the eurozone’s
permanent bailout fund that Greece hopes to tap.
But these formal
talks can only begin, if eurozone leaders avoid several political and
financial tripwires. The Greek government has until the end of Wednesday
to ensure that sweeping reforms to its pension system and VAT rates are
written into law. If Greek lawmakers meet this eurozone-imposed
deadline, the baton will pass to the creditors. At least five countries,
including Germany, the Netherlands and Finland, will have to put the
idea of opening negotiations on a bailout to a parliamentary vote.
could be overtaken by financial deadlines. Athens faces demands to
repay €7bn of debts in July, including €3.5bn due to the European
Central Bank on Monday (20 July).
Eurozone officials are working
round the clock to come up with emergency funds that will help Greece
bridge the gap before a permanent bailout kicks in. “It’s not going to
be easy,” said Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the hawkish Dutch politician, who
was re-elected chair of the eurozone group of finance ministers on
Monday. Several options were being discussed on bridge finance, but no
one had found “the golden key to solve the problem”, he said, although
he hopes to see progress by Wednesday.
The ECB will also continue
to maintain a choke hold on the Greek economy perhaps for months,
tightening if any deviations take place.
They told clients tonight that the European Central Bank is unlikely to cut Greece much slack until the third bailout is agreed.
We suspect the ECB will stall an ELA decision until Greece begins to legislate the new deal later this week.
would still face a tight ELA cap, however. We expect the ELA cap will
remain carefully calibrated and controlled at least until the new ESM
loan is fully in place. Access to banks could be fully normalised only
in the fall.
It is hard to see this agreement as anything but
failure. Clearly the main responsibility for this disaster rests with
the leaders of Germany and the European Union. They showed that they
had no interest in meaningful, honest negotiations, fearing that they
would likely lead to a real challenge to their power.
SYRIZA’s leadership did not make the best of the bad hand they were
dealt. They needed to talk more truthfully to the population about the
political/class nature of and reasons for the difficult challenges they
faced and do the maximum possible to strengthen their negotiating
position and prepare the population for the failure that they thought
Hopefully, the Greek people will find the time and space
necessary to digest and learn the lessons from this struggle and
successfully regroup. We all must.
[Martin Hart-Landsberg is professor of economics at Lewis and Clark College, Portland, Oregon; adjunct researcher at the Institute for Social Sciences, Gyeongsang National University, South Korea; and adjunct professor in the Labor Studies Program at Simon Fraser University, Canada. His areas of teaching and research include political economy, economic development, international economics, and the political economy of East Asia. He is a member of the board of directors of the Korea Policy Institute and the steering committee of the Alliance of Scholars Concerned About Korea, a co-editor of Critical Asian Studies and has served as consultant for the Korea program of the American Friends Service Committee. He is also a member of the Workers’ Rights Board (Portland, Oregon).]