Open Letter to Angela Merkel: Greece shackled to a Corpse

 

Dear Frau Merkel

 

I am an ordinary British Citizen who voted in favour of British entry to what was still then the European Common Market in the British referendum of 1975. I did so because I believed that the European project was a progressive attempt not only to do the big and obvious things right, like eliminating the risk of future European wars, but also had the potential to change the political culture of Europe which underlay our woeful history, and in particular that of both our two countries which had a history of arrogance expressed through the force of arms. In Britain’s case this had an additional patina of superiority, of a residual imperialist manifest destiny, which was in essence little more than soft racism, embedded in a paternalistic ruling class but echoed in popular discourse. “The ‘wogs’ (a term of soft racist abuse) begin at Calais” was a well-used phrase in my petty-bourgeois childhood.

 

I was young, and although I was no doubt naive in thinking that all this historical currency would be washed away on a tide of imports of cheap good red French wine in favour of “ever closer union between the peoples of Europe”, these ambitions were not bad ones for the time. Europe had no further place for imperialism, either within or beyond the continent, I thought, and could celebrate the values of the Enlightenment, which was Europe’s longer term legacy, above all from France. At the time, a person of the left but never marxist, I was worried about the United States, Western Europe’s then recent saviour yet too raw and ambitious a power, poised between admirable republican and dubious imperial values. The US was still apparently enmeshed in the violence and racism of its creation and, as Eisenhower had warned, with a military-industrial complex at its heart (I was one of that generation in Europe who demonstrated against the Vietnam war). The future Europe I envisaged at the time of the UK accession, would be an antidote to that, compassionate, open and tolerant, a helpmate to the developing world, and if not quite an ‘Athens to the US Rome’, at least a voice for moderation in its councils. It was to be a Europe based on common values of liberty, tolerance, equality and solidarity.

 

For a while some things went well. We made haltering progress towards a single market, the European Parliament gained some more power, but no great legitimacy and the European Council still was the only effective counterweight to an unelected Commission. This democratic deficit at the centre of the European project was to become a defining fault of the EU, together with its relative neglect of economic inequality, either within or between member States. Against this must be set the admirable EU record on aid to the developing world.

 

The mixed picture continued. It was good that the collapse of the Soviet Union led to German reunification and opportunities for Europe to develop to the east, but there were Western insensitivities to the possibility of a wider Europe, at least in its strategic defence and security aspects, which if not embracing Russia, at least took account of its sensitivities (sensitivities which were to be most grossly ignored in the later EU adventurism in the Ukraine). To the newly democratising countries of central Europe EU and NATO membership were allowed to be seen as part of an inevitable package deal. There was little political thought, as to what, in the absence of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, Europe could become – how those original core values could be expressed across the continent. Strategically, Europe continued to be defined by opposition to a vanished Warsaw Pact, in negative terms, by something it was not. The clearest indication that the process of political translation into the new circumstances had failed was that when war broke out on the borders of Europe, in the Balkans, courageous European action based on our supposed common values was nowhere to be seen.

 

Ideology it turned out, was not dead, but was to be pursued by other means. The EU has always been an economic project, although the free movement of goods, capital and labour originally symbolised something more. The introduction of a current currency might have been seen as a logical next step but from the first it smacked of too much hubris. At the level of objectives, economic integration was mistakenly allowed to get ahead of political convergence; at the level of tactics, the political heart – the perceived overwhelming priority of the single currency – was allowed to override the economic head. Political rather than economic criteria were used to determine not only that Greece had achieved the necessary convergence to join the euro but also that the UK hadn’t. The statistical fictions in the Greek case were something else; yet if these were lies, they were open lies. The reason that they were both open and tolerated is because it wasn’t economic convergence that the stronger European economies like Germany needed to make the Euro work for them; it was just enough economic divergence to suppress the euro exchange rate to a point where the richer countries’ exports were competitive, without the eurozone actually falling apart.

 

But fall apart it did, and rather than acknowledge the failure the eurozone – the European project with no exit route – continued to treat the failure with more lies and denial. Even today the only real objective analysis of the state of the Greek economy comes from outside Europe, from the IMF. The saddest part of this whole crisis would seem to be that for both the European institutions within the Troika and for Greece, keeping Greece inside the Eurozone seems to have become paramount. For the ECB and the Commission the super-symbolism of the euro makes some sense – above all, they want to believe that they can avoid bad debts; for Greece, the birthplace of European ideas, to see the euro as its symbol of European identity is more of mystery to me, or perhaps an indication as to how little I know contemporary Greece.

 

Greece has indeed been badly run for a long time: clientalist politics which limited accountability, simplified public debate and appeared to swallow European structural funds; poor tax takes; little national return from the country’s super-rich; an over-expanded military; and social benefits which may have been overgenerous in relation to northern European countries – that doesn’t seem a simple matter from what I’ve read – but were certainly unaffordable in the light of the rest of the above. Syriza, for all its populist posturing, was not part of the system that led to this mess, and the suggestion that much of the problem arose in the six months since they came to power lacks all proportion. The extreme reaction to Syriza seems to be that they resist austerity.

 

Austerity has been a key part of the neo-liberal orthodox prescription for dealing with the fiscal deficits caused by the Western banking crisis. Neo-liberalism, and especially the weak regulation that went with it, were of course at the heart of the banking crisis, and became arguably more entrenched in my country than yours, but its adoption has been a pan-European convenience who do not want to ask the difficult questions or face uncomfortable truths. It can do this because it is an economic doctrine that substitutes for political choice, for that consideration as to where the core European project, and its core values, are going. Our absurd subjugation to the gods of the market are of course going to be institutionalised by TTIP, which arguably will lose us for ever the political space to question the fundamental instruments and objectives of power in our system of governance. In these aspects at least (and we can expect progressively in many more over time) Europe will be affectively merged with the United States.

 

Greece’s experience can best be understood as is a national sacrifice to those neoliberal principles, and to the extreme symbolic importance accorded to the euro. It should have left the euro at the beginning of the first crisis when it was already clear that its debt was unsustainable. It would have gone through much misery, as it has on the alternative route, but to some purpose, with some hope. Like all sacrificial victims Greece has served as a lighting rod for much other hatred. As Suzanne Moore wrote in the Guardian newspaper this week, if Europe is a family, it is a dysfunctional, abusive one. I have to say that German arrogance in particular in these weeks has been chilling – a case of doctor, first cure thyself.

 

So where does this leave this then 33 year old, forty years on from the EU referendum decision to join what became the EU? Seeing extreme nationalism of the right strengthened everywhere, to be sure, in the light of the demonstrable weakness at the European centre but also an interesting debate in Britain emerging about ‘Leftxit’ – about whether any progressive forces for change are possible in the EU whose shallow motives and crudity of operation have been so sharply demonstrated over Greece and whether the broad left should vote for British exit in the referendum due before 2017. It’s possible for me now for the first time in 40 years.

 

By this ‘deal’ Greece has been left in a situation of permanent pain without hope of progress or the possibility of any meaningful democratic change, locked into a EU which has stripped itself of the values which give any polity life: Greece shackled to a corpse.

 

Yours sincerely

 

Peter Healey