Alan Thornett looks at the developments of the last week and their implications:
The new Greek government, after being threatened and intimidated by the ECB, the IMF, and the EU elites, has accepted a dangerous compromise deal in order to extend its loan facility for 4 months. This deal, if not reversed, will seriously damage the credibility of the government and the anti-austerity alternative that it represents.
The German government was by far the most ruthless in driving the deal through, and wanted to see Greece humiliated. No other government, however, gave any support to Greece, whatsoever, during the process.
These ‘negotiations’ took place against a background deep social crisis in Greece after 5 years of brutal austerity imposed by the EU elites and the previous Greek government and against the ongoing economic and political crisis of the EU itself, and the Eurozone in particular. Greece has been and remains the epicentre of the crisis and has been turned, by the European elites, into a laboratory for austerity policies designed to make the working class pay for the capitalist crisis. Greece has therefore to be sacrificed for Euro-zone stability and survival.
In Northern and Central Europe it has been mainly the right wing and far-right forces have benefited from this crisis. In the peripheral countries of Southern Europe, where the harshest austerity policies have been forced through, the radical left have been making big gains—in Greece and Spain in particular.
The pressure heaped on Greece to accept this deal could hardly have been greater. On February 4th the ECB announced that it had stopped the refinancing of the Greek banks—i.e. it would no longer accept Greek bonds—which sharply accelerated flight of capital out of the country, which was already running at over €2bn a week. By the time of the ‘negotiations’ on February 20th it was questionable whether the Greek banking system—the weakest link of the new government—would have lasted another week without either refinancing or the imposition of capital movement controls by the new government. There were clear echoes of Cyprus in 2013 and Ireland in 2010.
Faced with this the Greek delegation—led by Varoufakis (who comes from a PASOK background and has never been a Syriza member) but with the intervention of Tsipras—accepted the deal—also involved acceptance of Troika oversight that had been previously refused.
The most immediate effect of the deal, however, is to threaten some of the important provisions of the ‘Thessaloniki Programme’—a set of measures designed to start to roll back the austerity imposed under the previous regime and demonstrated the new government’s break with the previous government and its support for the Memorandum. This had been adopted before the election but announced again immediately afterwards as a governmental statement of intent.
Tsipras and Varoufakis claimed that they had achieved some wriggle-room with the wording of the deal and some of it will still be possible, but only time will tell. They are hoping to start to legislate some of the Thessaloniki proposals included the re-establishment of workplace rights, the re-hiring of laid-off public sector workers, the re-connection of electricity for households cut off, the re-establishment of the ERT (public radio and TV) and (very important) the automatic provision of Greek citizenship to the children of migrants in Greece quite soon, so we will see how this goes. Other measures such as raising the minimum wage and establishing pensions are going to be more difficult and are more vulnerable to the terms of the deal.
A serious setback
All this is a very serious setback for the left and for the anti-austerity movement in Greece, but it is far from the end of the story. It is the first round in what is likely to be a long and battle, both inside Syriza and amongst its supporters, and in the wider workers movement. This is shown by the remarkable level of popular support that continues for the new government despite the deal. Polls the day after the deal was struck showed 40% support for the way the government had conducted the negotiations and a thumping 87% approval rating for Tsipras himself.
The new government is not seen, despite the deal, as class collaborationists or betrayers. People feel that they have got rid of the old corrupt gangs and have regained their dignity—which is not a small thing. The new government is seen—unlike social democratic parties who politically adopt the neo-liberal agenda—as an anti-austerity government faced with (or presented with) impossible (or near impossible) odds by the EU elites and forced into a deal they did not want. This could change quite quickly of course, but it is strong at the moment.
It is, however, and here is the rub, also a government that had not prepared either itself or its supporters (most of whom baulk at leaving the Euro or the EU) for the harsh realities of confrontation with the EU when it came. It therefore baulked at deploying the only real alternative to the deal available to it, the so-called ‘nuclear option’, which was to stand firm, refuse the deal, and challenge the elites to either provide a no-strings loan or throw Greece out of the Eurozone and face the consequences.
Tsipras and Varoufakis seemed to have thought that the EU elites would be swayed by their massive electoral mandate to reverse austerity and give them some leeway as a result. This was never going to happen, if the elites could possible avoid it. A democratic mandate meant nothing to them. In fact it was ridiculed by Wolfgang Schaeuble, the German finance minister, who appeared not to even understand the concept. He welcomed Syriza ‘to the realities of power’ and wished them luck in explaining their about face to their voters.
Yet the ‘nuclear option’ was a real option and a huge threat to the Eurozone, had it been deployed. The elites knew this full well and had (had) being preparing the ground for such an eventuality for some time. They had started to suggest that maybe contagion could be contained after all, and that it might even be a good thing if Greece went its own way and left the Euro or even the EU. It was cynical spin, of course. A Greek exit would have engendered (and would still engender) a huge crisis in the EU, but it was an effective ploy.
The fact is that Eurozone is locked into a deflationary crisis that is not about to go away. The Euro is fragile and the possibility of it surviving a Greek default and exit from the Euro without contagion spreading in particular to Spain but also to Portugal Ireland and Italy was and is slim.
The ‘nuclear option’, of course, could only have been deployed with the intention to carry it through and would have meant, if the elites refused to move, the rapid imposition of capital movement controls, measures to control the banks, and preparation for Eurozone exit. It might also have meant a new mandate from the electorate.
But the need for a plan B will not go away, since the deal resolves nothing. It might give the Greek government a bit more time, but time to do what? New ultimatums will come. There will be another in four months time when this deal runs out. In fact each time a crisis point is reached, in terms of the Greek economy, the elites will threaten banking collapse in order to force the Greek government to accept their terms. Each time the question of a plan B will be posed. Eventually their bluff will have to be called or a setback will turn into a defeat.
The January 25th victory
None of this invalidates Syriza’s remarkable victory on January 25—, which was (and is) historic event for the European working class, the lessons of which will not be lost. For the first time in Europe, in the post-war period at least, a party of the radical left (well to the left of social democracy) won an election and formed a government with a mass popular support.
In the course of this victory Syriza politically defeated PASOK, one of the strongest social democratic parties in Europe, and reduced it to an electoral irrelevance. In 2009 PASOK won 44% of the vote and 160 seats now it won just 4.7% of the votes. George Papandreou, who became Pasok prime minister in 2009, formed a breakaway party for these elections, and won only 2.5% of the vote.
It was (and is) victory that gives new hope right across Europe, in terms of an alternative to austerity. Suddenly there was an alternative and it existed at governmental level. It put radical left challenges at the level of government firmly on the agenda, which has already found a powerful echo in Spain with Podemos.
The victory was not the product of an election campaign, or of the Tsipras leadership, but of a remarkable period of class struggle in Greece (the highest in Europe by far in the course of this crisis) since the introduction of austerity in 2009. The Greek population were faced with rising unemployment, particularly amongst young people, dramatically falling wage levels, a collapsing healthcare system and escalating homelessness. In response there were 32 general strikes, hundreds of smaller strikes, demonstrations, occupations of city and town squares, mass social movements and student mobilisations.
When this struggle reached an impasse by 2012—i.e. when even this level of struggle had failed to stop a single austerity measure being forced in—it became increasing clear that there had to be a political/governmental dimension to the struggle if a breakthrough was to be made. It was this harsh reality that led Syriza to launch its call for a government of the anti-austerity left—the call that caught the mass mood and led to Syriza rising from single figures in the polls to 27% in the June 2012 election.
It was a strategically important proposal that has important lessons for the European left and those struggling against austerity. It was also one, however, that was rejected, after approaches by Syriza, by the other two significant sections of the left, the KKE, traditionally by far the most powerful, and Antarsya, which includes sections of the far left. Both were marginalised at the polls by this decision.
Opposition breaks out
It could hardly be clearer that the most effective place for any section of the Greek left to be, particularly since its call for the a government of the anti-austerity left, is either in Syriza or in solidarity with it.
In fact the battle for the future direction of Syriza, and of the government, has already opened up and it is inside Syriza itself. It is a battle that is possible because Syriza is a democratically constructed party with a large organised Left Platform within it that was winning 30% of the vote in conferences before the election. Such a democratic structure (with the rights of minorities) is a crucial factor in such a situation.
First there has been a sharp debate amongst Syriza MPs with a large number expressing criticism of the agreement and the strategy followed by the government. This includes the Left Platform MPs but goes far beyond them. Second World War resistance hero Manolis Glezos has also denounced the deal in blistering terms.
Then came the first meeting of Syriza’s Central Committee after the deal, which met last weekend. This was deeply split over the deal with the Left Platform opposing it and significantly extended its support in the process. According to a report by CC member Stathis Kouvelakis an amendment opposing the deal got a remarkable 41% of the vote. The amendment said the following:
“We express our disagreement with the agreement with the list of reforms agreed with the Eurogroup. Both texts represent an undesirable compromise for our country and move in directions and orientations, which, in their essential points, move away or are in plain contrast with the programmatic commitments of Syriza”.
“In the immediate future, Syriza, despite the agreements with the Eurogroup, should take the initiative of implementing steadily and as a matter of priority its commitments and the content of its programmatic governmental statement”.
“To go down that road, we have to rely on workers’ and popular struggles, to contribute to their revitalisation, and to the continuous expansion of popular support in order to resist to any form of blackmail and promote the perspective of an alternative plan promoting the full realization of our radical objectives.”
It is clear that a decisive debate has opened up inside and Syriza around the way forward for the government and that this will extend to its mass base as well. The practical expression of this debate has to be the defence of the Thessaloniki Programme and opposition to every concession made in terms of the implementation of the deal. This is the way that Syriza’s mass base will be included in such a debate.
This debate is important since in today’s context in Greece rejection of the Memorandum is a transitional demand. It is the most popular demand amongst the mass of the working class and the most unacceptable to the elites. It is more important in many ways than even the cancellation of the debt since it embodies the social price being demanded in the name of the debt.
The role of the EU
This debate will need (crucially) to include the role of the EU and the Euro and the policy of Syriza towards these institutions.
The position of Syriza towards the Euro, since before the 2012 election, has been that whilst it does not call for exit from the Euro, it will ‘make no sacrifices for the Euro’: i.e. it will not accept austerity in order to stay in—and if that means expulsion from the Euro, so be it.
This was the correct policy because it took into account the fact that the vast majority of the Greek people, and indeed of Syriza supporters, did not (and still do not) want to leave the Eurozone. It meant that that the main task was to fight austerity, whatever the consequences, not campaign to leave the Eurozone. The consequence of calling for immediate (first principle) exit from the Eurozone has been demonstrated in the votes received by the KKE and Antarsya.
The problem is that the Syriza leadership has not stuck to this policy (in fact it departed dramatically from it in the negotiations) it and appears to be in confusion as to the nature of the EU and its relationship to it. In fact the Greece delegation showed no sign that they were prepared to contemplate a break with the Eurozone, a stance that handed the initiative to the elites.
It is true that Syriza does not have an electoral mandate for exit from the Euro. It is clear, however, that its strongest mandate by far is to break from austerity. It could hardly have been clearer. It was the driving force of its popularity and of its election campaign. It was why it was elected. No one said during the campaign said: ‘break with austerity providing it does not interfere with our Eurozone membership and if it does accept austerity’. It would never have won the election on that basis.
In any case the idea that Greece could break with austerity and avoid confrontation with the EU elites was never a realistic option. The EU is totally wedded to the neo-liberal monetarist agenda at every level—it is institutionalised into its DNA. The elites were never going to concede anything against this agenda unless they were forced to do so.
In fact by their ruthless imposition of neoliberal policies irrespective of the level of social crisis they create and the economic and social destruction of whole countries the EU elites have shown their true anti-working class colours.
Does acceptance of this deal by the Tsipras leadership mean that we no longer support Syriza or that we abandon building solidarity with it? Absolutely not.
Syriza was not the creation the Tsipras leadership, anyway, and is even less the property of it. It was the product of many years of bitter struggle—on the streets, in the workplaces, in the squares and in the social movements—and it is the political expression of those struggles. It is therefore the property of the movement itself and of the whole of the membership of Syriza—including those members who are today opposed to the retreat that has been made.
It is important, therefore that we continue to build solidarity with the Greek working class and also with Syriza as a party. Such solidarity must remain at the top of the agenda for the European left. We look forward to Syriza not only re-establishing its anti-austerity orientation but to its taking its place in the leadership of the anti-austerity struggle across Europe and beyond.
In doing so we will continue to participate in the debate in the way forward for Syriza in Greece as well as the way forward for Podemos and other sections of the European left.
If Syriza fails it will not just be a huge setback for the European left. Claims today by the KKE and Antarsya that the deal Syriza has accepted vindicates the sectarian stance they have taken makes absolutely no sense. Nor does the idea that if Syriza fails its mass support will transfer to them. More likely that the right wing will be waiting in the wings hoping to capitalise on the situation, either in the shape of Golden Dawn or a regroupment of the centre right.