Is the end in sight for the austerity experiment?

The annual Greek drama ended in June this year with a relatively tidy deal: further austerity in exchange for more emergency loans. It was a less turbulent story than previous years, although not without some bumps. However, the striking thing this year is that the biggest shockwaves came from the international establishment and not from the resistance in Greece. Just prior to this year’s agreement in June, the Governor of the Greek Central Bank proposed a counter-cyclical strategy as an alternative to austerity. This despite the fact that last year when Varoufakis proposed pretty much the same package he sided with the Troika and refused to even look at it. This followed earlier overtures from the likes of the head of the commission, Junkner, who in May made allusions to debt relief being part of the next package. Also in May, the imf, stated

“We do not believe it will be possible to reach a 3.5% of GDP primary surplus [in 2018] by relying on hiking already high taxes levied on a narrow base, cutting excessively discretionary spending and counting on one-off measures as has been proposed in recent weeks.”

So why these sudden signals from the transnational economic dictatorsh-network suggesting they see austerity in Greece as a problem rather than the solution? We are just over one year since the European establishment elite forced a very humiliating defeat on Syriza, so what has changed since then that would bring elements within them to ‘propose’ the same deal that they would not even entertain last year?

The answer is easy to miss because it is so obvious – Syriza has changed since then. It has changed in two ways that the Establishment are acutely aware of. First it is no longer an anti establishment party and secondly, the political space vacated by them is there to be claimed by the fascist right. And the Establishment are also acutely aware that this is a microcosm of Europe more generally. Across Europe we are seeing both electoral success of radical left parties supported by – but still disconnected from – grassroots struggles, and simultaneously a the rise of the far right. As Paul Mason puts it, when the Establishment is being asked for debt-relief they are effectively being asked which side they are on. The answer is neither, but I would put money on it that if forced to choose between the two they would prefer a tamed and impotent left that can contain the hopes of the grassroots and keep them in check, rather than a lunatic fascist right that represents a very real possibility of bringing the EU crashing down.

So having de-fanged Syriza, the timing is perfect to continue the housetraining and reward them and the greek populace with some relief from austerity, which will have the intended effect of signaling to greek voters to stay with this serious party that can deliver results rather than experiment further with any parties on the left or right. Although Varoufakis’ insider leaks would suggest that the Eurogroup and their ilk don’t know shit about macro economics and are blissfully unaware of a fact that the majority of people have grasped from experience, I think a more likely explanation is that they are very much aware of how austerity medicine is one sure-fire way to worsen a crisis and prevent economic recovery – only they don’t care about this as long as their interests are secured. Time and time again cunning politicians will underplay their intelligence in order to avoid giving honest answers to difficult questions, to seem like a ‘man of the people’ and most importantly, because it is much less damaging for journalists and satirists to make fun of their medium-level intelligence than their knowing willingness to commit evil.

And when it comes to cunning and making a sham of democracy there is an absolute master at the helm. I’m still surprised at how after two years, many people mistake the political ideology of the sham-master-J. The widespread notion is that he is a ‘federalist’ – something that dates back to one of the previous times that he and Lagrande have been placed in the same paragraph. Think back to the hissy fit Cameron threw in response to the rise of UKIP as an electoral force in the European elections in 2014. These election had been billed as the most democratic in the history of the EU, because for the first time the european electorate would get to ‘decide’ who heads the commission, a flimsy and exaggerated requirement that aimed to give the unelected and unaccountable Executive, the European Commission, a veneer of democratic legitimacy through making the heads of state ‘take account’ of electoral wishes when appointing a new head of the commission. So when the grouping of European peoples’ parties (christian democrats) won the most seats in the powerless parliament, master-J was expected to be appointed to the commission. But they had another trick to make the appointment seem even more democratic. Apart from the continued dominance of the centre-right, those elections also saw success for many far left and far right groupings, so instead of a straightforward appointment of Junkner the european publics were sold the illusion of a ‘debate’ about whether or not he was too much of a federalist, with Lagrande proposed as an alternative candidate – an illusion that served two purposes: a) by having a public ‘discussion’ the EU could be made to seem more democratic at the time of its most glaring democratic deficit, and b) the question of whether the J-man represents a more or less integrated europe was only a distraction to temporarily hide the real victory for more of the same neoliberal austerity politics.

And two years later, this charade still forms the idea that many people have of the head of the european executive. So it is worth taking a look at what he actually represents. To start with, he became prime minister in Luxembourg in 1995, a position he held onto until 2013 with the help of a very professional and successful election machine. This guy managed to stay in power for 18 odd years, a track record that will humble the most conniving of careerist of politicians. Of course a liberal analysis would conclude that his longevity is a sign of his ability to stay in touch with the concerns of the people and secure their consent, but a more pragmatic approach would be to see this as a very successful manipulator with remarkable consistency in turning unstable variables (people) into preferred outcomes (votes). However, even the most successful brands can’t hold poll position forever (does anybody remember when IBM made computers?), and so the sham-master-J’s tenure did eventually come to an end in 2013 when in a snap-election his christian conservative party failed to deliver a majority-coalition of seats for the first time since forever. Coincidentally, with the european elections just around the corner, this end to an 18 dynasty was just in time to make him available to ‘run’ for the post that he currently holds. (strategically convenient you might say, but are you really that cynical??)

So, what this man represents is not a particular ideology that he will stick to to the end, (although he is clearly on the right of the spectrum), it is instead an expert on how to play the institutions of liberalism. So put yourself in their shoes and ask yourself how would they strategise? The first thing is that contrary to the belief that THEY don’t know that austerity doesn’t solve broken economies, – as I argued above, we may be dealing with devious monsters, but not idiots – they know well that the austerity assault has to come to an end sometime. Already with 8 years of it THEY have achieved a lot of neoliberal restructuring. What June 2015’s Syriza-Eurogroup drama represented was the culmination of 7 years grassroots struggle against austerity-capitalism, channeled into institutional structures and language, and for the first time coming face to face with the Establishment. The Establishment rallied to this battle which they could not afford to lose lest it serve as inspiration and the message gets out that ‘WE’ can defeat austerity. No. Instead Syriza’s capitulation drove the message across Europe that there is no possibility to defeat it on ‘our’ terms. One year later however, the space vacated by Syriza and by the equivalent inspirations in other countries is now ripe for the picking. Many countries are experiencing electoral instability, as one set of establishment parties follow another in failing to implement the will of electorates. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a defender of representative democracy as being democratic, but as a system it needs stability, which actually prevents political differences, and any time it becomes unstable, the concentrated power and violence of the state becomes ripe pickings for the extreme right. And the extreme right has only grown over the last year both with xenophobic anti-refugee rhetoric, and because voters have less and less parties to jump to (aside from ditching voting altogether and organising instead) as one after another parties on the left capitulate.

So actually, THEY are extremely well placed to capitalise on all this. THEY know austerity-neoliberal restructuring cannot continue indefinitely and have already got a lot out of this ‘experiment’: austerity-capitalism has become the ‘common-sense’ response to economic crisis when the lunacy of the pre-2008 era should have left capitalism with no legitimacy; they have lowered living- and labour- standards in Greece to make it ‘competitive’ with emerging economies, all while proportionally increasing returns the capitalist class expect on their investments; and they have learned just how far they can subvert democracy without a revolution. And hey will no doubt be looking forward to taking these lessons out of the laboratory and generalising them across the continent. But at this moment, having symbolically defeated the left-wing last year, political calculus would show that there is a chance to kill three birds with one stone in the coming six to 18 months. If they grant debt relief and a change in strategy now, they will simultaneously pre-emptively undercut the support building of the fascist right, they will discredit the extra-parliamentary left who say that change will not come from existing institutions, and to crown it all they will themselves appear as the heroes who deliver salvation and paste a thick layer of veneer over the perceived crisis of legitimacy of the EU.

But then, I could be all wrong about it and the bastards might be willing to let fascism take over europe again.

Best of June 2016

June was the month where Muhammad Ali passed away. There was a lot of stuff in the media but this piece here is a nice and unique perspective. It was also the month of the Orlando massacre, the forty year anniversary of the Soweto uprisings, and things started to kick off in Oaxaca again. Try these pieces on: erasure of gay and trans people of colour, particularly radical activists, in how the Stonewall riots are remembered; how only 20 years after overthrowing a totalitarian police state South Africa under the ANC is in many ways reverting to the old logic of control; and this shocking piece about the new teachers’ strikes in Oaxaca, ten years after the rebellion, and the appalling response from the state. (incidentally, yesterdays Guardian shamefully chose to run this Reuters article which portrays the Mexican army very favourably, focussing on their plans to deliver food aid to remote regions who are running out of food supplies because of the teachers’ blockades. It euphemistically refers to the attack on the protests and murder as “eight people died last month in clashes between police and the protesting teachers”).

The refugee crisis continues as does Europe’s shameful response. Here is an interview with an asylum seeker which touches on the conditions in which asylum seekers are forced to live in Ireland and a revolution of sorts against the management in one of the residential centres and efforts to build a wider asylum seeker movement.

A data-supported critique of continued austerity policies in Greece, by Varoufakis, plus proposals for restructuring of debt. Preaching to the converted here – we all know austerity doesn’t work – but still a good resource when arguing with the unconverted or wilfully ignorant. And something you probably didn’t already know so much about, how investor-state dispute arbitration systems screw over countries to be benefit of profits of powerful private corporations and their corporate lawyers in this enraging article in the New Internationalist.

But finishing on an also angry but more hopeful note, a very interesting piece about student rent strikes in the UK and how they get at a financial system that distributes wealth from students in general to super-elite private schools which serve to reproduce britain’s almost feudal class structure. It also connects well with another piece – written in May, but anyhow – also at Novara about staff strikes at the same university and possibilities for some sort of class alliance between student rent strikers and precarious staff strikes to challenge the neoliberal university.

About POSTS OF THE MONTH: Consider this a Twitter feed on a timescale suitable for those of us who still have a life outside of the internet. Brief synopsis of blog posts and articles I found particularly good during the month but which I didnt have time to engage properly with.

The EU is awful – But I still would ask UK-based leftists to vote against leaving

One of the many voices clammoring to be heard about the Brexit referendum in June. First of all, let me say that this post is not addressed to UK ‘people’. As in, I’m not appealling to UK ‘interests’ or trying to argue that the UK would be better or worse in or out of the EU. How can a group of 60 million people have a common interest and be uniformly better or worse off with a single decision? And let me say secondly that this is also not a defense of EU – you don’t need to convince me of how undemocratic and right-wing the whole institution is. Instead this is aimed at progressives, activists and general lefties who have the opportunity to vote on whether or not the UK should remain part of the EU.

Far be it from me to tell people how to vote, but I saw a video recently on Novara arguing for the left to vote for Brexit, which gives me a bit of concern that some parts of the UK left might fall into the trap of thinking in an us-versus-them logic when the real need is for solidarity. In a nutshell, the video gives four reasons for a Brexit vote, which amount to:

  1. the EU is undemocratic and is aggressively eroding democracy in Member States

  2. Laws and treaties such as TTIP will make socialist changes illegal

  3. the EU forces countries from the global south to accept free trade deals and open their weak markets to the brute force of western competition

  4. it has replaced internal national borders with massive external borders.

All this criticism is entirely accurate, but my question would be is the UK any better on any of these counts? Any debate about Brexit that only looks at one side and not the other is only half the story. What happened to all the debate about the nature of the UK state that was thrown up by the Scotland referendum last year?

But anyway, in writing this I want to avoid getting caught in the trap of talking about this in terms of what is good for UK people, even if we are talking about the UK left. Like it or not, we are in a European crisis-management-regime, and the outcomes of the UK referendum will be felt by the left Europe-wide. In taking this broader viewpoint, there are a few points that Bastiani makes about EU democracy which, while completely correct, need to be looked at closer. There are effectively 3 ways that enfranchised european citizens can influence the content and personnel of EU institutions – a) the European Parliament elections; b) national elections, with elected governments appointing commissioners to the European Commission and sitting on the European Council and other committees; and c) through referenda. Aside from referenda, the other two mechanisms are completely flawed. As Bastiani says, the Parliament is indeed only a symbol. The real power sits with Commission and Council. Which brings up a contradiction: the public debates surrounding national elections are not usually Europe focussed, whereas the Parliament elections are the only time that european issues are publicly debated, all of which results in that the real EU power is ‘elected’ in a context of domestic-centred debate, while those elections which are conducted amid Europe-centred debate are to a body which has no power.

When it comes to referenda, though, these instruments do indeed have the potential for people to throw a spanner in the works of an otherwise unaccountable machinery moving in directions that diverge with popular will. Witness how the Dutch and French citizenry delayed the ratification of the EU constitution for 6 years until it was eventually renamed as the Lisbon Treaty, rejected by the Irish first time but then passed at the second asking. And it must be remembered that the elites succeeded in winning this second time of asking only because the referendum was characterised by a bullish Sarkozy who completely rejected the right of voters to vote NO, and where voters were in the grips of economic terrorism after their first rejection in 2008 was quickly rewarded with an assault on the country’s financial and banking sector. Considering all this, referenda are one instrument where populations can hold the institutions to account most effectively and directly. There should be a referendum in every member state on all major decisions. Critics would no doubt say this would render the EU unworkable, but if you ask me, I think if an institution cannot be held to democratic account then unworkable is the best way for it.

But there are are problems with referenda as an instrument, and this has a central bearing on the Brexit vote. Despite opening up debate on core EU issues before a vote, all that NO votes can do really is throw spanners in the works. The exact interpretation of the direction of that spanner can easily be manipulated or more often simply ignored. In the aftermath of both the Nice treaty rejection in Ireland in 2001 and the Lisbon Treaty in 2008 the establishment were quick to paint both rejections as a misunderstanding of the issues, and a narrow concern with Irish neutrality, along with various straw men that they burned with fanfare. In other words, they spinned it as ‘well they didn’t really reject it, and if they did reject it was only because of this one issue which happens to be inoffensive and we can get a declaration about it’. That happened twice, in a context in which all the establishment parties campaigned for yes votes and still WE couldn’t control the message of our own spanner. Now think about what would happen if left-wing voters brought about a NO vote in the Brexit referendum. Unlike the irish situations, in this case there are establishment parties, – conservative and far-right ones at that – campaigning against the EU and I can guarantee that they will be the ones claiming ownership and filling the spanner with a very right-wing meaning.

But this focus on formal democracy kind of leaves a lot of things off the table. If you are asking about how democratic the EU is, the very reform package is a testament to how non-democratic it is. An economically powerful country with a rightist government has blackmailed the union into conceeding reforms, after 5 years during which said government has been one of the stronger voices (though admittedly not the strongest) against granting any concessions to countries such as Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Italy and giving consent to blackmailing and economically terrorising them into implementing austerity meassures against the wishes of is people. That for me is the biggest reason why I ask UK left-wing voters to reject Brexit. After years of stiffling any leftward democratic expression, the right-wing UK government is now blackmailing the rest of the union for a rightward anti-democratic change. So, I ask that when you enage in discussing this referendum, please reject the ‘is this good for Britain?’ nationalist trap and instead stand in solidarity with Europe-wide activists who have been pushed around too long.

Press release from Greenpeace NL on leaking the TTIP docs

A great coup by Greenpeace, vindicating what the Stop TTIP campaign has been saying all along. My only fear now is that the establishment media with their love of balanced journalism surpress the main issue and  turn this into, well is this deal bad for Europe or is it actually good. Renewed pressure is needed to get the message out that the fact that it was negotiated in secret makes it democratically illegitimate and the whole thing needs to be scrapped. Here is the press release from Greenpeace Netherlands, posted originally at greenpeace.org. Share far and wide and join in your nearest Stop TTIP campaign if you haven’t already.

Greenpeace Netherlands releases TTIP documents

Press release – 2 May, 2016

Amsterdam, 2 May 2016 – http://www.ttip-leaks.org Today Greenpeace Netherlands releases secret documents of the EU-US TTIP negotiations. On http://www.ttip-leaks.org the documents will be made available for everyone to read, because democracy needs transparency.

“These documents make clear the scale and scope of the trade citizens of the United States and the European Union are being asked to make in pursuit of corporate profits. It is time for the negotiations to stop, and the debate to begin.

Should we be able to act when we have reasonable grounds to believe our health and wellbeing is at risk, or must we wait until the damage is done?

Were our governments serious in Paris when they said they would do what was necessary to protect the planet, and keep climate change under 1.5 degrees?

Environmental protection should not be seen as a barrier to trade, but as a safeguard for our health, and the health of future generations.

We call on citizens, civil society, politicians and businesses to engage in this debate openly and without fear. We call on the negotiators to release the latest, complete text to facilitate that discussion, and we ask that the negotiations be stopped until these questions, and many more have been answered. Until we can fully engage in a debate about the standards we and our planet need and want” – Sylvia Borren, Executive Director Greenpeace Netherlands.

Which documents are we releasing?

The documents that Greenpeace Netherlands has released comprise about half of the draft text as of April 2016, prior to the start of the 13th round of TTIP negotiations between the EU and the US (New York, 25-29 April 2016). As far as we know the final document will consist of 25 to 30 chapters and many extensive annexes. The EU Commission published an overview stating that they have now 17 consolidated texts. This means the documents released by Greenpeace Netherlands encompass 3/4 of the existing consolidated texts.[1]

Consolidated texts are those where the EU and US positions on issues are shown side by side. This step in the negotiation process allows us to see the areas where the EU and US are close to agreement, and where compromises and concessions would still need to be made. Of the documents released by Greenpeace Netherlands, in total 248 pages, 13 chapters offer for the first time the position of the US.

How have the documents been handled?

The documents we received had clearly been treated to make it possible to identify individual copies. Prior to release they have been retyped and identifying features removed. We have not altered content of the documents and have preserved the layout. For this reason we are not offering access to the original documents.

How do you know the documents are genuine?

After receiving the documents both Greenpeace Netherlands and Rechercheverbund NDR, WDR und Süddeutsche Zeitung, a renowned German investigative research partnership have analysed them and compared them to existing documents. The Rechercheverbund, which consists of different German media outlets, has covered, amongst other big stories, the Snowden leaks and the recent Volkswagen emissions scandals.

What are the first conclusions from the documents?

From an environmental and consumer protection point of view four aspects are of serious concern.

Long standing environmental protections appear to be dropped

None of the chapters we have seen reference the General Exceptions rule. This nearly 70-year-old rule enshrined in the GATT agreement of the World Trade Organization (WTO), allows nations to regulate trade “to protect human, animal and plant life or health” or for “the conservation of exhaustible natural resources” [2]. The omission of this regulation suggests both sides are creating a regime that places profit ahead of human, animal and plant life and health.

Climate protection will be harder under TTIP

The Paris Climate Agreement makes one point clear: We must keep temperature increase under 1.5 degrees to avoid a climate crisis with effects on billions of people worldwide. Trade should not be excluded from climate action. But nothing indicating climate protection can be found in the obtained texts. Even worse, the scope for mitigation measures is limited by provisions of the chapters on Regulatory Cooperation or Market Access for Industrial Goods. [3] As an example these proposals would rule out regulating the import of CO2 intensive fuels such as oil from Tar Sands.

The end of the precautionary principle

The precautionary principle, enshrined in the EU Treaty[4], is not mentioned in the chapter on Regulatory Cooperation, nor in any other of the obtained 12 chapters. On the other hand the US demand for a ‘risk based’ approach that aims to manage hazardous substances rather than avoid them, finds its way into various chapters. This approach undermines the ability of regulators to take preventive measures, for example regarding controversial substances like hormone disrupting chemicals.

Opening the door for corporate takeover

While the proposals threaten environmental and consumer protection, big business gets what it wants. Opportunities to participate in decision making are granted to corporations to intervene at the earliest stages of the decision making process.

While civil society has had little access to the negotiations, there are many instances where the papers show that industry has been granted a privileged voice in important decisions. [5] The leaked documents indicate that the EU has not been open about the high degree of industry influence. The EU’s recent public report [6] has only one minor mention of industry input, whereas the leaked documents repeatedly talk about the need for further consultations with industry and explicitly mention how industry input has been collected.

END

Notes

[1] The documents we are releasing are

[chapter 1.1.] National Treatment and Market Access for Goods

This chapter addresses trade in goods between EU and US.

[chapter 1.2.] Agriculture

This chapter deals with trade in agricultural products and illustrates EU-US disagreements on matters such as genetically modified organisms.

[chapter 1.3.] Cross-Border Trade in Services

This chapter addresses trade in the service industry sector.

[chapter 1.4] Electronic Communications

This chapter addresses Internet and telecommunications issues.

[chapter 1.5.] Government Procurement

This chapter deals with purchases by government entities within the EU and US.

[chapter 1.6.] Annex Government Procurement

The annex of the previous chapter, with additional information about a US-proposed chapter on anti-corruption.

[chapter 1.7.] Customs and Trade and Facilitation

This chapter addresses differences among various customs regulations.

[chapter 1.8.] EU – US revised tariff offers

These are the respective positions regarding tariffs.

[chapter 2.1.] Regulatory Cooperation

In this controversial chapter EU and US aim for joint regulations on products and services, for example for food and cosmetics safety.

[chapter 2.2.] Technical Barriers to Trade

This chapter addresses differences between EU-US regulations and the ways in which they affect trade.

[chapter 2.3.] Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures

This chapter deals with the protection of plant and animal health.

[chapter 3.1.] Competition

This chapter deals with competition between parties.

[chapter 3.2.] Small and Medium-sized Enterprise

This chapter addresses enterprises smaller than multi-national corporations.

[chapter 3.3.] State-owned Enterprise

This chapter addresses nationalised enterprises.

[chapter 4.] Dispute Settlement

This chapter deals with resolving disagreements between the EU and the US.

[chapter 5.] Tactical State of Play

Not intended for public viewing, this document describes EU-US disagreements and shows how much private industry influences the TTIP negotiations.

[2] Most of the WTO’s agreements were the outcome of the 1986-94 Uruguay Round of trade negotiations. Some, including GATT 1994, were revisions of texts that previously existed.

[3] Nothing in the relevant Articles 10 (Import and Export Restrictions) and 12 (Import and Export Licensing) of the Chapter on National Treatment and Market Access for Goods shows that necessary trade related measures to protect the climate would be allowed as a trade restriction under GATT Article XX (see footnote 1).

[4] “The precautionary principle is detailed in Article 191 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (EU). It aims at ensuring a higher level of environmental protection through preventative decision-taking in the case of risk. http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=URISERV%3Al32042

[5] e.g. “While the US showed an interest, it hastened to point out that it would need to consult with its industry regarding some of the products” – Chapter ‘Tactical State of Play’, paragraph 1.1, Agriculture.

[6] ‘The Twelfth Round of Negotiations for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP)’ http://trade.ec.europa.eu/doclib/docs/2016/march/tradoc_154391.pdf

Contacts:

Dutch media please contact Greenpeace Netherlands, +31 (0)6 21 29 68 95, persvoorlichting@greenpeace.nl

Brussels media please contact Greenpeace EU press desk, +32 (0)2 274 1911, pressdesk.eu@greenpeace.org

International media please contact Greenpeace International press desk (24 hours), +31 (0)20 718 2470, pressdesk.int@greenpeace.org