We must stand with Greece for a Social Europe

Over the last month Europeans have watched with increasing consternation as the crisis between Greece and the Eurozone seemed to cascade and tumble from one emergency summit to another. The outcome that emerged came as a shock to those who hoped the negotiations may lead to a departure from asphyxiating austerity for Greece.

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I was in Thessaloniki in mid-June meeting students, academics, cultural heritage experts, tourism chiefs, small-scale agri-business', local politicians and youth organisations. All were anxious about the increasingly recriminatory tone of the negotiations regarding a bailout solution, but not one of them wanted Greece to leave the EU. All identified strongly as Europeans and were thankful that European investment had contribute to the development of the regional economy and had given young people in particular opportunities to travel and study elsewhere, bringing back new knowledge and confidence, championing their own home universities at the same time. The Greeks are proud of their heritage but they see it as inseparable with the rest of Europe for they gave us that wider vision, seeing beyond borders by means of an ancient and illustrious sea-faring people for whom dialogue, debate and democracy was paramount.

I have been contacted by many concerned constituents, and have heard voices on the Left calling out against the deal, and even against the European Union as a whole. Indeed, this deal represents a severe blow by the neo-liberal corporate right-wing against the Left in Europe, and an equally severe blow against the principle of European democracy. However, Euroscepticism on the Left in deeply misguided.

It is exactly now that progressive Europeans must rally together to fight for a social Europe, to take a united stand across the continent against a dangerous wave of puritanical neo-liberalism and narrow xenophobia. If we do not, that deluge may tear us apart. If progressives and social-democrats are shocked by the deal, they should see it as a call to arms.

We must remember that like a municipal local council or a national government, the European Union is a forum for political decision-making. It may seem distant or dauntingly complex to citizens at time, but that is a matter of presentation. The same political forces that shape our national governments, also shape European policy.

Social democrats need a strong and united democratic Europe. It is only through working together that we will be able to reinforce our social economic models in the 21st century, and exert political pressure for a fairer society, environmental sustainability and human rights. Without it, Europe risks fragmentation and irrelevance, in a world dominated by large rising powers. In a world of strong global forces, citizens in small fragmented states have less democratic control, and are certainly vulnerable to global economic forces. This Europe seems to have been hijacked by the Right for now, but it does not have to be so. If progressives mobilise, we could have a social Europe, but in order to do this the left must speak out and shape the narrative, not turn inwards, away from a position of determined and defiant solidarity.

I am no expert economist, and the debate around the Greek dilemma is complex. However, when one sees the formidable array of prominent and Nobel Prize laureate economists (Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman, Jeffery Sachs, Thomas Picketty, James Galbraith, among others), and now also the IMF and US Treasury, who are lining up on Syritza’s side, or otherwise calling for debt relief, it is hard to argue against them. In the meantime, any compelling intellectual or evidence-based case for austerity, apart from bitterly stubborn laconic statements by the German government, is conspicuously absent from the debate.

It is true, that over decades, successive Greek governments, dominated by a political elite, ran inefficient clientalist public services and national industries. When Greece joined the Euro and international credit became readily available, Greek governments borrowed irresponsibly and let public debts balloon unsustainably. European Commission officials were aware of this, and were complicit in brushing it aside. International investors, and European banks made reckless loans to Greece. It was a private risk they chose to take. Now, once again, the private interests of the financial sector are being prioritised over the needs of Greek and European citizens.

In 1953, in a remarkable act of international and European solidarity, Germany saw half of the debts it had accumulated over two World Wars written off by creditors, and its repayments set at 3% of annual export growth. That deal allowed Germany to grow and rebuild, and for Europe to integrate and prosper. There is no doubt that the vast social and economic progress that was made as a result, if only in terms of pure material gain, far outweighs the value of the debts that were owed.

A similar policy of long-term solidarity should have been applied to Greece long ago. It is in need of massive private and public investment for growth. Austerity policies exacerbated the original crisis, turning it into a full-blown Great Depression, increasing the public debt ratio even further, and making debt repayment ever more unlikely. More of the same, as has been now forced on Greece, and will only make things worse. Increasing VAT on medicine and slashing pensions for those under the poverty line will not help the Greek economy grow. We can only hope that the real investment the Commission has promised to make in the Greek economy will have some effect. The condition which requires every law that is passed through the Greek Parliament in respect ofthese policies to be approved by European institutions turns Greece into an undemocratic vassal of the EU, which is immoral and unsustainable.

The text of the deal agreed between the European institutions and Greece explicitly and emphatically states that investors must be re-payed in full, but does not even mention the immense toll of human suffering in Greece, increasing poverty, unemployment and the plight of the youth. That is a shocking illustration of the skewed political balance of power at play.

Without a change of direction, we may soon see another Greek crisis, and further fragmentation between North and South in Europe, which may even risk a break-up of the Euro. The stakes for the European Union are now higher than ever.

If there is anything that Europeans should have learnt from the last century of their history, it is that creating these levels of tensions and acrimony among states, pushing peoples to such extremes and pitting them against one another leads to truly catastrophic results. The European Union is first and foremost a peace project, intended to foster understanding, tolerance, dialogue and common prosperity. If we do not talk to each other, and show empathy and solidarity, we will end up fighting one another.

The Left must fight for these values, in Greece and across Europe. We must produce a politics of compassion and mutual understanding, and revert from a dangerous historical path, towards a more promising, brighter future together. It is a tough struggle to embark on, but we must stand up for the social Europe we need and we must do it from our position as elected representatives knowing that the vast majority of constituents feel as we do, that the Greek people deserve better.