How does Greece shape our opinion on the EU?
Events in Greece last year coloured left wing attitudes towards the European Union in a way previously unseen. A generation of young activists saw the extent to which the institutions held democracy in contempt.
And yet, one man at the centre of it all – Yanis Varoufakis – has launched a political movement called Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25) whose sole purpose is to campaign for the democratisation of the EU. He has even made an explicit call for the UK to stay in the EU, but reject David Cameron’s renegotiations.
While his optimism must be appreciated, we can’t help feeling like he’s being led down a blind alley. The same alley that shapes the opinion of the European Union as a hub for social rights such as maternity pay and reasonable working hours (a subject we will return to in some depth).
To quote Lord Owen recently, “The European Union is beyond reform”. In terms of actually bringing about real change instead of furniture rearrangement, David Cameron’s own experience confirms this.
What makes Varoufakis’ opinon all the harder is that his own experience, as finance minister of Greece, confirms this fact as well.
It won’t have gone unnoticed that as austerity was pushed on Greece by the European institutions to meet bailout demands, unemployment in the country rose 28 per cent, with 60 per cent of young people without jobs. Incomes were dragged down, public and private debt soared, and the economy shrunk by 25 per cent from 2007-2014. The aggressive way in which the European Institutions obliged Greece to organise its finances in a way the EU decided – closing its ears to the Greek electorate – resulted in more depression for the country.
Zoe Konstantopoulou, the former Greek speaker of the Parliament, has illustrated just how that depression played out on the lives of normal Greek people. It’s worth quoting her at length:
"There have been gross misrepresentations of the Greek crisis in order to justify the crisis to the Greek youth and the next generations.
The Greek people were asked to make sacrifices for an economy ruined over 36 years by Pasok and New Democracy.
Unemployment stood at 9% in 2009, and it is 27% in 2015. 72% of the unemployment is among young women. There is a suicide epidemic in the country. 300,000 households are left without electricity, numerous deaths by suffocation have been recorded of young children and the elderly due to self-made heating appliances.
Half of the country’s children live below the poverty line, pupils faint while they are at school because they are hungry.
There is only one nurse to every four patients in hospitals.
44.8% of pensioners have pensions that are below the poverty line [below €665].
Hundreds of thousands of small and medium sized businesses have disappeared.
Hundreds of thousands of young people emigrate each year.
25% of the economy has shrunk since 2010.
We have seen unconstitutional and illegal activities take place and the willful transformation of private debt into public debt, affecting the Greek people who were then subsequently attacked.
French and German banks got rid of their Greek bonds before the massive haircut. And in that haircut, only Greek private banks were saved.
Every baby born in Greece was in debt to the tune of €32,500 before the third memorandum. Now, for every baby born there is €41,000 debt."
The European Communities began with a membership of the ‘Inner Six’: Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, and West Germany. Since then it has absorbed twenty-eight countries, and one of the benefits of that has been the relocation, and subsequent dominance, of large banks from countries like France and Germany.
That benefit played a very big part of the Greek economic crisis, as Konstantopoulou points out.
When it came to engaging the Greek electorate about this issue, namely in the form of bailout conditions for the third Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) more than 61% of Greeks voted “no” – they rejected the EU’s conditions and expected to be listened to.
But they were not. The Third Greek MoU is now enshrined in Greek Law.
As Costas Lapavitsas, who was elected as a Syriza MP in 2015, has previously said:
“There is an alternative path for Greece, and it would include leaving the eurozone. Exit would free the country from the trap of the common currency, allowing it to implement policies that could revive both economy and society. It would open a feasible path that could offer fresh hope, even if it entailed significant difficulties of adjustment during the initial period.”
The EU wasn’t listening to Greece, and the Greeks, and it left the country to ruin. The EU doesn’t want to listen to Greece because its government has formerly espoused plans contrary to its own – and that doesn’t fly for the institutions.
When left wingers from the UK go to vote in the EU referendum, we should remember this period for Greece. We should remember what cold reception received left wing policies. We should remember the scorn poured on a left wing economic programme. We should remember this because it affects us, too.