Europe divided over Greece: Popular voices demand democracy, elite push austerity

July 1, 2015
Thousands rally in Athens to back a 'no' vote in the July 5 referendum.

The message from the mainstream media and parties across Europe is Greece is to blame for its own predicament. But a growing grass-roots movement across the continent is pushing for an alternative approach that demands democracy, not austerity.

In a speech to the Belgian parliament on June 10, conservative Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel declared that “the end of the Greek holiday has sounded.”

In response, Raoul Hedebouw, a member of parliament for the Workers Party of Belgium clarified for Michel that this “holiday” involved two suicides per day, cuts in pensions by 45%, salaries by 40%, and upwards of 60% youth unemployment. Such figures demonstrate the depth of Greece's ongoing social catastrophe.

This exchange reflects the two narratives being counter-posed across Europe to explain the situation in Greece.

The dominant narrative pedalled by the mainstream media and politicians both of the centre-right and centre-left parties says the Greeks are to blame for their predicament for having been too lazy and unwilling to “reform” their overly generous system.

But after five years of austerity programs enforced by Greece's creditors in the “Troika” of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), European Central Bank and European Union, the country is in a far worse situation.

About 90% of the bailout funds from the Troika have gone to paying back debts. Very little has made its way into the real economy.

An independent commission established by the Greek parliament to audit the debt found that the debt infringes on the human rights of the Greek people and is “illegal, illegitimate, and odious”.

Yet when Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras announced plans on June 27 to hold a referendum on whether to accept or reject the Troika's proposals for further austerity, German finance minister Wolfgang Schauble responded: “Greece is in a difficult situation, but purely because of the behaviour of the Greek government …

“Seeking the blame outside Greece might be helpful in Greece, but it has nothing to do with reality.”

Leader of France's centre-right party UMP, Nicolas Sarkozy, declared on July 1 that Greece has effectively “suspended its membership of the EU” due to the decision to call the referendum.

The mainstream narrative runs that not only were the Greeks to blame for the debt and social crisis in their country, but the Greek government is to blame for the talks breaking down.

This is despite the fact that the debt ballooned under previous governments - following Troika diktats - and that the creditors have rejected every proposal from Greece in recent negotiations.

The Troika and Europe's elites have been angered by the actions of Greece's SYRIZA government, elected in January on an anti-austerity program, in seeking to negotiate according to the its electoral mandate.

Spain’s right-wing Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy openly backed regime change in Greece, saying it would be “a good thing” if Greece had a different government - evidently one more pliable to the interests of the Troika and the European banking sector.

On June 24, leading members of Greece’s opposition parties To Potami and New Democracy met with EU officials in Brussels, providing a hint that Rajoy’s statement was not idle chatter.

European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker ominously declared after SYRIZA was elected that, “there can be no democratic choice against the European treaties”.

Yet this mainstream narrative is being increasingly challenged across Europe by grass-roots mobilisations called by progressive forces in solidarity with Greece. Europe is now into its third wave of international demonstrations in as many weeks.

Tsipras’s decision to hold a referendum turbo-charged this campaign of solidarity. The demonstrations are generally still relatively small, but growing in size and breadth.

Australians to rally for Greece -- details of solidarity actions

Along with petitions, open letters and statements by public figures, and reports from alternative media, these mobilisations are mounting pressure on the Troika to give ground to Greece’s demands.

From Dublin to Madrid, from Brussels to Paris, Berlin, Naples and many large and small cities across the continent, the general message has increasingly crystallised around the slogan: “Yes to democracy, no to austerity.”

This slogan perfectly captures the fact that the struggle in Greece – and Europe in general - is not just economic, but political. The path to a Europe based on social justice can only come via a deep renewal of democratic structures across the EU and breaking the power of the Troika.

At a demonstration in Madrid in solidarity with Greece, the leader of Spain's new anti-austerity party Podemos, Pablo Iglesias, told the crowd: “In my opinion the problem isn't Greece, the problem is Europe.

“Germany and the IMF are destroying the political project of Europe. The IMF and the German government are attacking democracy.”

Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party that nearly won a clean sweep of Scottish seats in Britain's general elections in May, said that the proposals from the Troika “feel too much like the straightforward imposition of more of the austerity economics which have so palpably failed to solve the country’s problems” .

Trade unions and other social forces have also come out in support of Greece. French unions joined a rally in Paris on July 2, with the general Confederation of Workers (CGT) declaring: “The Greek people have been suffering since January an intolerable pressure and blackmail from the part of the European institutions, the governments of the Eurozone and the IMF.

“The Troika refuses to accept the verdict of the urns and the democratic government who proposes credible alternatives to the politics of austerity imposed by the world of finance.”

In a July 1 statement, Podemos said: “There are two contradictory fields in Europe: austerity and democracy, the government of the people or the government of the market and its unelected powers.

“We stand firm on the side of democracy. We stand firm with the Greek people.”

Europe is locked in a struggle between these two interpretations and visions. While support for Greece grows in some places, a recent poll found that 70% of Germans believe that “the EU should not make further concessions to Greece”.

The argument the Greek debt is not the fault of the Greek people - and that democracy and international solidarity are the solution – remains to be won across the continent.

[Visit here for details of Australian rallies for Greece.]

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