There is a stereotypical image of an abusive husband, who batters his wife and then beats her even more mercilessly if she dares to protest. Such violent behaviour usually reflects a failed relationship, unlikely to be resolved through superficial bandaging of wounds. It is stomach-churningly hard to watch such bullies in action. But the world has been watching the negotiations in Europe over the fate of Greece with the same sickening sense of horror and disbelief, as leaders of Germany and some other countries behave in similar fashion.
The extent of the aggression, the deeply punitive conditions being imposed for a very ungenerous bailout and the terrible pain being forced upon the Greeks are hard to explain in purely economic or even political terms. It seems to reflect some deep, visceral anger that has been awakened in the EU leadership — at the effrontery of a government that dared to consult its people before bowing to their commands; at the Greek people, who dared to vote against a bailout package that offers more austerity and little hope, just so that their country can continue to pay the foreign debts that everyone (even the IMF) knows are unpayable.
As punishment for this resistance, the Greeks are being made to accept the most appalling and humiliating terms that have been seen in a non-war situation for any European nation, for the increasingly dubious advantage of staying in the eurozone.
Greece would become an economic protectorate, little more than a colony of Germany within the eurozone. It will have no control over its fiscal policies, be forced to sell valuable public assets just to keep trying to pay its creditors. It will have to reverse decisions to preserve some public employment (cleaning workers and security guards will have to be fired again). It will have to further cut pensions of elderly people who have already seen their incomes fall by 40 per cent. It will have to increase indirect taxes, hitting the poor the most. It will have to accept the constant presence of the external rulers, in the form of an IMF team that will monitor the budget and activities of the Greek government. The result of all this austerity will be more depression after five years of downward spiral, encouraging the rise of rightwing xenophobic movements. Such a prolonged Greek tragedy has no clear end in sight.
EU leaders point to Ireland, Spain and even Latvia as supposed austerity “success stories” because their governments took the bitter medicine and their economies are now recovering. This is nonsense. None of them has suffered the extreme austerity imposed on Greece. Their “recoveries” show tiny increases on very depressed levels of income that are much lower than five years ago. Unemployment rates remain high, even after many young and bright people have emigrated. They are being presented as successes only to promote a finance-driven approach to economic policy and camouflage the greater failure of the eurozone to come out of stagnation.
The loudest European voices about how this is a betrayal of the people’s will and how the current EU is incompatible with democracy come from extreme rightwing parties like the National Front in France, the UK Independence Party, along with Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy. Centre-left parties are too bound up in the flawed European project to protest, and more progressive movements like Podemos in Spain are in shock. Indeed, the desire to prevent the rise of such progressive movements is probably a major force determining the bellicose stance of the EU towards Syriza.
But this drama is not over. The humiliation of Greece today will come back to torment European leaders tomorrow. The ideal of a united Europe is demolished, and the reality of the project is laid bare — it is in the interests of finance capital, enforced by the German state, and fundamentally antagonistic to democracy and social justice.
This unhappy European marriage cannot last. The only questions now are: How long will it take before the breakdown becomes explicit? How much more pain and violence will be forced on people across Europe before that final break? And how long will the German government’s bullying in the interests of finance capital be tolerated by the people of Europe and ultimately by the people of Germany themselves?
The writer is professor of economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi