Christine Lagarde's "tough love" is an insult to Greece

By urging Greeks to pay up without whingeing the IMF chief has revealed her deep historical and cult.

You are crossing the road, a little absent-minded. About two-thirds of the way, you become aware of oncoming traffic. And right then, in that moment of panic, instead of speeding up to the safety of the near pavement, you freeze. Or, even worse, you try to turn and go back to where you came.

It is an illogical reaction to a simple, urgent problem. We’ve all done it. But when the head of the International Monetary Fund behaves in such a way, faced with the oncoming juggernaut of economic crisis, it is a source of deep concern.

In an interview for the Guardian, Christine Lagarde did exactly that. She chose to tell Greece it was payback time. “That’s right”, she said calmly, “Yeah.” She chose to talk about starving babies in sub-Saharan Africa to strengthen her call to Greece to stop whingeing and pay up. She chose to pinpoint tax evasion by a fraction of the population of a country which accounts for less than 0.5% of the world’s GDP as the sole source of the world’s economic woes. She chose to bury her head in the sand.

But, while her argument has been loudly lauded as “tough love” in many a luxurious Northern European dinner-party, over a glass of cheeky Beaujolais Nouveau, the most rudimentary scrutiny reveals it to be strategically, economically and intellectually flawed.

Her stance shows a complete misunderstanding of the psychology of a nation which has suffered nearly five years of recession and the severest of austerity cuts; a nation which is increasingly and vocally rejecting foreign interference and which is being pushed to political extremes in the upcoming election.

What was the idea, strategically, behind such a statement? If anyone seriously believed that having a representative of the IMF – the Grand Protector of the financial status quo – tell Greece to put up and shut up, would have the effect of encouraging people to vote for centrist pro-austerity parties, then they understand the mood there even less than I thought.

There are very few ways one could make such a move even more cack-handed. One could choose, as the vessel of such sentiments, an ex-Finance Minister of a Eurozone country; perhaps someone who left France with its highest deficit in 60 years. One could choose someone currently under investigation for not just one but two cases of fraud in shady financial deals. One could even accompany this interview with a pictorial which showed her dispensing thrift advice, while displaying a deep tropical tan, heavy jewellery and expensively tailored clothes.

And from such a throne of non-credibility, came the attractively packaged but intellectually hollow arguments.

First, the insidious idea that the misery engulfing the people of any nation is to be ignored, on the basis that there is even worse misery elsewhere. That in some way helping Greece – a member of the European Union for thirty years – is a direct alternative to helping “little kids from a school in a little village in Niger”. There is no such proposed programme to help little kids in Niger, you understand. This is a fictional programme, part of the IMF’s varied portfolio of fictional charitable work, that could, possibly, maybe happen, if only Greeks stopped being so selfish.

The hollow nonsense continued to flow freely. Faced with the question of women without access to a midwife when they give birth, patients dying without access to drugs, the elderly dying alone for lack of care and children starving, Lagarde’s response is simply to say that it is very easy for them to help themselves. How? "By all paying their tax. Yeah."

That’s right. Because, plainly, it is the same mothers without access to midwives, the elderly without care, the sick who cannot afford the newly introduced €5 hospital admission fee, the children without food, who have hoards of taxable income and are busily trying to send it to banks in Switzerland, while starving. Greece as one homogenous, tax-dodging mass responsible for its own downfall.

Which all enforces the grand illusion that all this is nothing to do with a global financial crisis, brought about by the very interests that the IMF represents. Instead, it was a Greek time-bomb waiting to explode. This, however, creates some difficulty in explaining the IMF’s assessment of Greece in May 2008. It boasted headlines like; “The Greek economy has been buoyant for several years and growth is expected to remain robust for some time”; “The Greek banking sector appears to be sound and has thus far remained largely unaffected by the financial market turmoil”; and “in view of Greece’s membership in the EMU, the availability of financing for the external deficit is not a concern”.

Presumably, what is implicit in Lagarde’s comments is: We got it wrong then, but you should take our advice now. We’re definitely, definitely right this time. The IMF is, after all, the forensic scientist of the world’s financial woes. “It's not either austerity or growth, that's just a false debate”, Lagarde explains. “Nobody could argue against growth. And no one could argue against having to repay your debts. The question and the difficulty is how do you reconcile the two, and in which order do you take them? I would argue that you do it on a country by country case.”

I invite Christine Lagarde to name one example, one country, one case where the IMF decided that repaying a debt came second to growth.

It certainly was not Malawi – ordered by the IMF to sell its grain reserves in 2001 to private companies in order to repay a debt with 56% interest (which it had been advised to take by the IMF); a move which directly caused hundreds of people to die the next year.

It certainly was not Argentina which, having been the busty centrefold of IMF policies throughout the 1990′s sticking religiously to all IMF advice – privatising everything but their anthem, liberalising industries, lowering corporation taxes while tightening public spending, suffered one of the most catastrophic economic collapses in 2001. The IMF demanded it got paid first and actively lobbied against discounts to creditors.

As a matter of fact, there appears to be not a single example of the IMF’s Structural Adjustment policies applied to a crisis situation where they haven’t brought more misery and stagnation. Its obsession with austerity has recently been described as “dangerous” for European recovery, by the OECD.

Nobel-winning Joseph Stiglitz, put it at its bluntest: “When the IMF arrives in a country, they are interested in only one thing. How do we make sure the banks and financial institutions are paid?... It is the IMF that keeps the speculators in business. They’re not interested in development, or what helps a country to get out of poverty.”

So, should we simply discount Christine Lagarde’s noisy drivel? Should we ignore the IMF’s advice altogether? That would be a mistake. This is, for instance, what they said about the UK economy: “The financial sector is strong and well supervised with a principle-based approach. The fiscal framework is good, and the mission focused on how to build fiscal cushions needed to respond to adverse shocks.”

They said this in 2007, a year before the entire house of cards collapsed on our heads – a collapse for which our children’s children will be paying, for many decades to come. The conclusion, therefore, must be that one should never ignore the IMF’s advice. One should study carefully what is being advocated, then do precisely the opposite.

Many Greek voters certainly plan to. That’s right. Yeah.

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

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What Brussels can learn from the Italian referendum

Matteo Renzi's proposed reforms would have made it easier for eurosceptic forces within Italy to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

The Austrian presidential elections can justifiably be claimed as a victory for supporters of the European Union. But the Italian referendum is not the triumph for euroscepticism some have claimed.

In Austria, the victorious candidate Alexander van der Bellen ruthlessly put the EU centre stage in his campaign. “From the beginning I fought and argued for a pro-European Austria,” he said after a campaign that saw posters warning against “Öxit”.

Austrians have traditionally been eurosceptic, only joining the bloc in 1995, but Brexit changed all that.  Austrian voters saw the instability in the UK and support for EU membership soared. An overwhelming majority now back continued membership.

Van der Bellen’s opponent Norbert Hofer was at an immediate disadvantage. His far right Freedom Party has long pushed for an Öxit referendum.

The Freedom Party has claimed to have undergone a Damascene conversion but voters were not fooled.  They even blamed Nigel Farage for harming their chances with an interview he gave to Fox News claiming that the party would push to leave the EU.

The European Commission, as one would expect, hailed the result. “Europe was central in the campaign that led to the election of a new president and the final result speaks for itself,” chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas said today in Brussels.

“We think the referendum in Italy was about a change to the Italian constitution and not about Europe,” Schinas added.

Brussels has a history of sticking its head in the sand when it gets political results it doesn’t like.

When asked what lessons the Commission could learn from Brexit, Schinas had said the lessons to be learnt were for the government that called the referendum.

But in this case, the commission is right. The EU was a peripheral issue compared to domestic politics in the Italian referendum.

Alberto Alemanno is Jean Monnet Professor of EU Law and an Italian. He said the reforms would have been vital to modernise Italy but rejected any idea it would lead to an Italian Brexit.

“While anti-establishment and eurosceptic actors are likely to emerge emboldened from the vote, interpreting the outcome of the Italian referendum as the next stage of Europe’s populist, anti-establishment movement – as many mainstream journalists have done – is not only factually wrong, but also far-fetched.”

Renzi was very popular in Brussels after coming to power in a palace coup in February 2014. He was a pro-EU reformer, who seemed keen to engage in European politics.

After the Brexit vote, he was photographed with Merkel and Hollande on the Italian island of Ventotene, where a landmark manifesto by the EU’s founding fathers was written.

This staged communion with the past was swiftly forgotten as Renzi indulged in increasingly virulent Brussels-bashing over EU budget flexibility in a bid to shore up his plummeting popularity. 

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker even publicly reprimanded Renzi for demonising the EU.

Renzi’s vow to resign personalised the referendum. He gave voters a chance to give him a bloody nose when his popularity was at an all-time low.

Some of the reforms he wanted were marked “to be confirmed”.  The referendum question was astonishingly verbose and complex. He was asking for a blank cheque from the voters.

Ironically Renzi’s reforms to the constitution and senate would have made it easier for the eurosceptic Five Star Movement to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

For reasons best known to themselves, they campaigned against the changes to their own disadvantage.

Thanks to the reforms, a Five Star government would have found it far easier to push through a “Quitaly” referendum, which now seems very distant.  

As things stand, Five Star has said it would push for an advisory vote on membership of the euro but not necessarily the EU.

The Italian constitution bans the overruling of international treaties by popular vote, so Five Star would need to amend the constitution. That would require a two thirds majority in both houses of parliament and then another referendum on euro membership. Even that could be blocked by one of the country’s supreme courts.

The Italian referendum was closely watched in Brussels. It was hailed as another triumph for euroscepticism by the likes of Farage and Marine Le Pen. But Italians are far more likely to be concerned about the possibility of financial turbulence, which has so far been mildly volatile, than any prospect of leaving the EU in the near future.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv.com.