by Roberto Savio*
ROME, Jun (IPS) – Only 50 years of Cold War (and the fact that German Chancellor Angela Merkel grew up in East Germany) can possibly explain the strange political power of the United States over Europe.
After a bilateral meeting between Merkel and U.S. President Barack Obama (so much for transparency and participation), the Jun. 7-8 G7 summit opened in Germany and we found out that there had been a trade-off.
Merkel agreed that Europe should continue the sanctions against Russia – and so the other members of the G7 duly agreed – and Obama toned down the U.S. position on Greece.
That position had been forcefully expressed by U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew a few days earlier to European leaders: solve the Greek problem, or this will have a global impact that we cannot afford. This had suddenly accelerated negotiations, with the hope then that everything would be solved before the G7 summit.
But Greece did not accept the plan of the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, which was suspiciously close to International Monetary Fund (IMF) positions.
At the G7 summit, Obama softened the U.S. position on Greece, and even said that “Athens must implement the necessary reforms.”
Obstinacy on sanctions against Russia ignores the fact that, in a very delicate economic moment, Europe has lost a considerable part of its exports because of Russia’s retaliatory block on European imports. It is also difficult to see what advantage there is for Europe in pushing Russia into the arms of China. We will soon be seeing joint naval exercise between the two countries, which will only escalate tensions.
But let us look at Greece given that its tug of war with Europe has now been going on for five years.
Let us recall briefly. Greece had been spending much more than it could by distributing public jobs under any government, by giving easy pensions to everyone, and so on. Then, in 2009, the centre-left Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) won the elections and we found out that the figures Athens had been giving Brussels were false.
The real deficit stood at almost 12.5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), confirmation of what the European Union and its bodies had long suspected but which it had done nothing about.
To avoid going into the agonising details of the continuous negotiations between Greece and the European Union, I jump to the January elections this year which the left-wing Syriza party won and its leader Alexis Tsipras was named Prime Minister on a clear programme: stop the austerity programme imposed by the “Troika” – IMF, EU and the European Central Bank (ECB) – on behalf of the European countries, led by Germany, Netherlands, Austria and Finland.
Greece is on its knees. Officially, unemployment has gone from 11.9 percent in 2010 to 25.5 percent today, but it is widely considered to be around 30 percent. Among young people, it is close to 60 percent. GDP has gone into a 25 percent decline, Greek citizens have lost about 30 percent of their revenues and public spending has been slashed to the point that hospitals have great difficulty in functioning.
Yet, the request (order) of the “Troika” is simple – cut everything the deficit has been eliminated.
So, for example, cut pensions, which have been already been cut twice. In any case, this would reap a paltry 100 million euros but would cripple people who are living on less than 685 euro a month. Or, raise VAT on tourism, from the present 6.5 percent to 13.6 percent, which would be a deadly blow to Greece’s only important source of income.
This is the plan presented by Juncker, whose arrival as head of the European Commission was accompanied by a grandiose Marshall Plan for Europe, a plan which has since disappeared totally from the scene.
In an article a few days ago titled ‘Europe’s Last Act?”, Joseph E. Stiglitz, Nobel laureate in economics, argues that the idea of austerity as a uniform recipe for Europe is missing reality.
“The troika badly misjudged the macroeconomic effects of the program that they imposed. According to their published forecasts, they believed that, by cutting wages and accepting other austerity measures, Greek exports would increase and the economy would quickly return to growth. They also believed that the first debt restructuring would lead to debt sustainability.
“The troika’s forecasts have been wrong, and repeatedly so. And not by a little, but by an enormous amount. Greece’s voters were right to demand a change in course, and their government is right to refuse to sign on to a deeply flawed program.
It is on austerity that the paths of the United States and the European Union divide.
The United States has embarked on investing for growth, despite pressure from the Republican party for austerity, and the U.S. economy is picking up again.
But Europe is now led by Germany and the Germans are convinced that what they did at home is valid everywhere. Together with the countries of northern Europe, they look on the people of southern Europe as unethical, people who want to enjoy life beyond their means. As The Economist put it in an article on the Greek crisis: “In German eyes this crisis is all about profligacy”.
It did not help that another very minor crisis – that of Cyprus between 2012 and 2013 – confirmed Germany’s view about the profligacy of the south of Europe. In the case of Cyprus, the “Troika” settled the crisis at a cost of 10 billion euros.
There is widespread agreement that the crisis of Greece, which represents just two percent of the total European budget, could have been settled at the beginning with a 50-60 billion euro loan. But only since Tsipras became prime minister, and with popular support started to refuse to accept the creditors’ plan, has Greece has become a very important issue.
There is now talk of a “Grexit”, or Greece’s exit from the European Union. This would have a cascade effect, and it would mean the end of Europe as a common dream, of a Europe based on solidarity and communality.
In the G7, Obama has insisted on investments and demand as a way out of the crisis. Merkel has again repeated that Europe does not need stimulus financed by debt, but stimulus coming from the reform of inefficient economies. At this point, perhaps “everything is always about something else”, as the late award-winning Sri Lankan journalist Tarzie Vittachi once told me.
An enlightening comment on the Greek situation has come from Hugo Dixon writing in The New York Times of Jun. 7. The Greek prime minister “will have to choose between saving his country and sticking to a bankrupt far-left ideology. If he is smart, he can secure a few more concessions from creditors and a goodish deal for Greece. If not, he will drag the country into the abyss.”
And then, it is interesting to note that one of the main reasons for being so hard with Syriza is that the citizens of Spain, Portugal and Ireland, who were the first to swallow the bitter pill of austerity, would revolt if they saw a different path for Greece, and it just happens that those countries have conservative governments.
The entire European political system reeled with shock at the victory of Syriza, and again a few days ago at the victories of the left-wing anti-establishment Podemos party in municipal elections in Spain.
For some reason, the very authoritarian and conservative government of Viktor Orbán in Hungary, the victory of the very conservative Andrzej Duda as president in Poland, as well as the rise of Matteo Salvini’s anti-European and anti-immigration Lega Nord party create no panic, not even if Salvini looks to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s right-wing Front National, as figures of reference.
So, the real issue now in the case of Greece is to punish an anti-establishment figure like Tsipras and show that the radical left cannot run a country.
Who really believes that there will masses of citizens in Madrid, Lisbon or Dublin taking to the streets to protest if Europe does a somersault of solidarity and idealism, and lowers its requests or dilutes them over more time? (END/COLUMNIST SERVICE)
*Founder and president emeritus of the Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency and publisher of Other News