It is difficult to imagine the impact of austerity in Greece from here in the UK. Aside from the stark imagery of pensioners eating from bins, students forced into prostitution and children being abandoned in increasing numbers, the statistics make for uncomfortable reading. In February The Guardian reported that planned 15% wage cuts – on top of 30% already suffered – would still not be enough for EU officials. In recent days there have been reports that staff at the Finance Ministry itself have had a 60% cut in their total pay. Unemployment is currently at 22%, while for 15-24 year olds it stands at 54% with both figures still growing. GDP has contracted by 20% since 2008.
The attacks on living standards they face are being replicated across Europe, including here in the UK, but they are on the frontline and suffering more than anyone. After repeated mass protests and waves of strike action, they shocked the European establishment on the 6th May, however, and voted against austerity and dumped the governing parties out of office.
As they go to vote this weekend, the Greek people face two starkly different choices – continuation of poverty and privatisation demanded by the EU, European Central Bank and IMF Troika via the conservative New Democracy, or Syriza’s economic plan.
Having lost the last election on the issue of austerity, New Democracy and the European establishment has sought to recast this weekend’s election and sought to establish a false debate on single currency membership and therefore force Greek people to accept the continuing attacks on their livelihoods. Seeking to blackmail them, David Cameron, said, ‘you can either vote to stay in the euro, with all the commitments you’ve made, or if you vote another way, you’re effectively voting to leave.’
Those ‘commitments’, already rejected in the last election, include wholesale privatisation of major sections of the economy along with the attacks on wages and employment.
The alternative is posed by Tsipras who, writing in the Financial Times today said, ‘The people of Greece want to replace the failed old memorandum of understanding with a ‘national plan for reconstruction and growth‘. He has pledged his support to the Euro, talked about the need for investment to grow the economy, and will nationalise the recapitalied banks to deliver it. Another spokesperson for Syriza has said ‘our primary target is to ease the burden on the 35 percent of households whose income hovers around or below the poverty line’.
Rather than exacting punishment whilst supposedly bailing out the Greek economy, Europe needs to back the plan proposed by Syriza. Europe needs are mechanisms that will assist different sectors of the continent’s economy in times of need. An analogy can be drawn from the US and its Federal Reserve which ensures the weaker sections of the US economy are supported – not punished.
Alexis Tsipras has been inspiring in his refusal to bend to Cameron and Merkel and with his support still growing, there is now also the suggestion that the Greek left is following him. Pasok are warming to some of his ideas, particularly with their co-ordinated call with the Democratic Left for re-negotiations of the most onerous terms of the bailout and cancelling cuts in the minimum wage they had previously implemented.
A coalition is likely but the best chance they have of them being implemented is the strongest possible vote for Syriza. As progressives, we need to offer our support in the battle that Greek working people, students and the unemployed have been thrown into. We need to challenge policies that will see finance provided only on that condition that there is a fire sale of Greek state assets and the country entrenched as a low-wage nation with ordinary people’s living standards decimated.
One concrete suggestion we should raise is for whole sections of Greek debt to be written off – just as the Jubilee Debt campaign demanded for many countries a decade ago – allowing the Greek economy to begin to grow again
Who will win on Sunday is not clear but in the last poll, Syriza was on 30% when only two years ago they only won 4%. It is clear a consistent message is winning support. The election should mark an upswing in the continent’s opposition to austerity – a Europe-wide response to a Europe-wide problem. Good luck to them.
- Jeremy Corbyn reports back from his visit to Greece at Challenging Austerity: Lessons from Greece at 7pm, Monday 18th June, in Portcullis House.