THERE is no excuse for Greece. Since it joined the European Union in 1981, successive governments of left and right have treated the EU like a witless sugar daddy. They trusted their fellow members to be so hopelessly infatuated with this sun-drenched cradle of democracy that the wallet would always be open, the numerous peccadilloes would always be winked at, and the answer would always be yes.
The civil service was packed with political clients, newspapers with tiny circulations were kept going through state advertising — as long as they supported the government in power — and workers in the public sector could retire at 50 on reasonably good pensions, sometimes even earlier.
It is no more than justice that harder-faced politicians from Northern Europe are now telling Greek prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, that the show cannot go on.
Other profligate states — Ireland, Italy, Portugal, and Spain — have taken the medicine and are emerging from the worst of the austerity fever wards. Citizens of the former communist states to the east — who have not all attained the median living standards of Greece — are against more gifts to Greeks.
Such is the mood facing Tsipras and his comrades in Syriza, the main governing party. His one card, that the EU will do anything to keep Greece in, now threatens to be trumped by a eurozone bloc that says: “You want what we won’t give: so go (and have a nice, sun-drenched day).”
The Greek government is showing every sign of desperation. It’s plan to delay repayment of €1.6bn until a July 5 referendum on the terms shifts the responsibility back to the public that elected Syriza to get a better deal.
On Saturday, the EU finance ministers rejected a stay of execution, and it will now be difficult for the European Central Bank to continue financing the insolvent Greek banks whose resources are being drained by frightened clients. The ECB’s rules prohibit throwing good money after bad.
And there is a hard limit on how much the EU can give. Give Greece too much and those in the south who have swallowed the medicine of austerity, and those in the east who are struggling to ready their economies for the euro, will revolt.
That would be a far larger problem than Greece. Either Tsipras sells to his party, and to his country, conditions that he has described for months as intolerable, or it’s forward to the past currency. Drachma, how we’ve missed you!
But there’s another current running, with which Tsipras is more in tune. As another “last last” meeting failed in Brussels this weekend, some very rich people will convene a quite separate meeting, in London, to discuss how capitalism can be made responsible.
The attendees include representatives from banks and other institutions which control $28tn (€25tn), one third of the world’s investable assets. The idea was conceived by Alan Mendoza, of the UK’s Henry Jackson Society, and picked up by Lynn de Rothschild, wife of Evelyn de Rothschild and CEO of the holding company, E L Rothschild.
The co-chair of the Inclusive Capitalism taskforce, McKinsey managing director, Dominic Barton, said “there is growing concern that if the fundamental issues revealed in the crisis remain unaddressed and the system fails again, the social contract between the capitalist system and the citizenry may truly rupture, with unpredictable, but severely damaging, results”.
In the most successful capitalist states, the disquiet about capitalism is growing, even as the effects of the 2008 crash are moderating and growth returning. Both a reviving far left, and a revived far right, are pointing at high unemployment figures, especially among the young; low wages; and, above all, gross inequalities.
The social contract of which Barton speaks is, for these groups and their followers, already ruptured: they are encouraged by the far left/right parties in the view that they are capitalism’s forgotten people, a growing army of workless, wealth-less, and insecure and with no other choice but to protest.
At Europe’s borders, the very, very poor, utterly insecure and truly forgotten (till now) migrants do anything — brave arrest, beatings and drowning — to get into Europe.
The EU, which has liked to present itself as a caring and sharing institution, is now impelled by a pitiless public to keep them out. Fences, border checks, and mass arrests are everywhere.
Kindly non-governmental organisations that offer help to the thousands of migrants in Italy and Greece are cursed by citizens who see them as encouraging the inward flood. There are 20m refugees in the world. Every day last year, for a better life, some 43,000 left their homes, and the wars, persecutions, and hunger that made them do so haven’t abated.
The EU leaders have agreed on a deal to take 60,000 migrants: but it’s voluntary, there are no quotas for each nation, and time and political calculation may whittle that number down.
The quaking noises from Western capitalism, and the gathering force of the parties on the extremes, shine a different light on Greece’s government.
For Syriza, the determination not to cut pensions, not to provoke more job losses, and to increase taxes on companies and the wealthier citizens are measures designed to cut against the prevailing consensus that higher taxes can only deter companies from investing and creating more jobs, and that “over-generous” welfare and pension payments must be reined in.
For Tsipras, and his party and supporters, the defiance of the EU and the International Monetary Fund is a blow against a capitalism which has already failed.
The socialism in which Syriza believes and which it seeks to foster, and the support it still has in Greece, has collided against an EU that stands or falls by the health of the capitalist system.
That neither Syriza, nor anyone else, has thought of a way to make real socialism work is, for the moment, beside the point for increasing numbers of Europeans.
The concerned capitalists in London next weekend had better come up with measures that really are inclusive: otherwise their concern could turn to fear, and the specter of socialism again stalk Europe.
John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford