Time on whose side?

Submitted by Matthew on 27 March, 2015 - 11:52 Author: Colin Foster

As I write, Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras is heading to Berlin for talks with Angela Merkel (23 March). He has sent a letter saying that the present limits imposed on Greece by eurozone finance ministers and the European Central Bank (ECB) “would make it impossible for any [Greek] government to service its debt”.

He “urges” Merkel to support an easing.

Let’s hope he succeeds. The trouble is that international left and labour-movement solidarity with Syriza is increasingly reduced to hoping that Tsipras does well in talks.

In May 2012 Syriza surged in Greece’s elections, and it looked just possible that it would win in the June re-run elections called because no party had a workable majority in May. In the event it lost only narrowly.

Alexis Tsipras went to speak in Paris and Berlin to rallies organised by the Front de Gauche and Die Linke. It was an effort to build cross-Europe solidarity — not the best one, because it linked Syriza only with “soft left” groups which had, when and where in office, already implemented social cuts in their own countries, but an effort.

Greece’s minister for international economic affairs, Euclid Tsakalotos, has told the media that in Greece’s negotiations with eurozone leaders, “arguments are often not met with arguments, but by them saying that they do not care about arguments, telling us that ‘rules are rules’.”

The eurozone leaders do that because they feel confident, and more pressured from the right than from the left. They know that, for example, the Maastricht Treaty rules about government deficits and debts were broken by Germany all the time from 1998 to 2010, with exceptions only in 2000-1 and 2006-7; by France all the time from 2002 except 2006-7; and by Italy all the time from 2001 except 2007. The EU shrugged and remonstrated. “Rules” became suggestions, or targets.

Whether the “rules” will be bent similarly for Greece depends on the balance of forces.

Yet even in its first energetic days, which won wide support for Syriza within Greece and across Europe, the Syriza-led government’s international efforts were visits by finance minister Yanis Varoufakis to governments across Europe.

The media gasped at his breezy manner and the way he so flustered Dutch finance minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem into telling Varoufakis (inaccurately, sad to say) that “you have just killed the [EU-ECB-IMF] Troika” (30 January). But, apart from a 100,000 strong rally in Madrid on 31 January organised by Podemos, demonstrations across Europe in support of Syriza were small, and not even the Madrid one had a Syriza leader speaking.

Since then, opinion-poll support for Podemos (and also for the longer-standing leftish electoral force in Spain, IU) has sagged.

On 2 February Germany’s trade union leaders put out a statement opposing blackmail of and imposition of previous “rules” on the new Greek government.

Now Germany’s Social Democratic Party, politically close to the union leaders, is saying: “Germany is losing patience with Greece... [we] want to know at last if Greece will actually implement reforms or not” (Thomas Oppermann, chair of the SPD parliamentary group, 22 March).

Socialists everywhere in Europe should work to turn this tide and build solidarity, most effectively by pushing struggles against social cuts in our own countries.

The longer the Syriza leaders look to their own negotiating skills rather than to working-class solidarity on the streets and in the workplaces, the harder that will be.

The Syriza-led government is trying to find bits of improvement it can make without being blasted by the EU-ECB-IMF’s ban on “unilateral measures”.

It has introduced legislation to ease the “humanitarian crisis”, with limited aid for the very poorest. Immigration minister Tasia Christodoulopoulou has announced plans for granting citizenship to migrants’ children born and raised in Greece, and for shutting down detention centres.

Mostly its promises are on hold. Euclid Tsakalotos says “everything still lies ahead” but claims that the provisional deal reached with the eurozone finance ministers is good because it gives the government four months, and in those four months “we will be able to exert pressure more actively in creating a pan-European climate against austerity”.

According to the financial press, and Tsipras’s letter to Merkel seems to confirm this, the Syriza-led government will face financial crunches much earlier than in four months. Having forced the Syriza-led government to sign the deal promising no “unilateral steps”, the EU leaders have still released no credits, aside from a €2 billion “humanitarian aid” sop. They want actual implementation of new neo-liberal measures — like “real privatisations”, Spain’s finance minister says — before they will pay out.

In a recent (23 March) article, left-wing Syriza Central Committee member Stathis Kouvelakis warns that “time isn’t on our side”. He argues, rightly, that Syriza must break from the “no unilateral actions” rule and apply pressure with measures such as capital controls and a temporary default on debt payments.

Beyond that, though, his perspective is a reworked version of social-change-through-negotiations. He argues for Syriza to go for a negotiated exit from the eurozone, so that the terms of exit will include “a writing-off of the major part of the debt”.

He does not explain why the eurozone leaders should suddenly switch from their “rules are rules” line to offering a big write-off, especially when they would be let off the hook by knowing that all Greece’s subsequent economic problems would not affect the eurozone.

The left in Greece should demand that Syriza breaks the ban on “unilateral measures”, implements its social reforms, and seeks Europe-wide solidarity.

Syriza should be willing to run the risk of expulsion from the eurozone; but it should appeal for Europe-wide solidarity which demands concessions instead of expulsion, and taxation of the rich all across Europe in place of the regime of social cuts.

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