The dust settles on Greece, but where does it go from here?

New Democracy must now form a coalition, and the EU has a contradiction to resolve

The New Democracy party has won the Greek legislative elections with 29.7 per cent on the vote, narrowly beating the radical left-wing party SYRIZA, which earned 26.9 per cent, in what is widely seen as a referendum on the Greek people's acceptance of the EU-imposed austerity package.

Under Greek electoral law, ND is awarded an extra 50 parliamentary seats for coming in first place, which means it has 129 seats overall. A viable coalition requires at least 150, however, so it will still have to find a coalition partner. It is most likely to join forces with the centre-left party, PASOK, previously its major opponent in fights for the centre-ground of Greek politics but now an uneasy bedfellow as implementing the European memorandum (which ties the Greek government to large spending cuts) takes priority.

A PASOK-ND coalition would have 162 seats, and appears likely to be topped up with another 17 from the Democratic Left party (DIMAR), formed of ex-PASOK and SYRIZA MPs. There are several hurdles to be overcome before this coalition can be put in place, not least of which is the self-serving nature of PASOK itself.

Reports from Greece indicate that PASOK's leaders are only too aware that being in charge of a second round of crippling spending cuts could destroy their electoral base, particularly when they have such a viable contender for the left's votes in the form of SYRIZA. As a result, senior figures at PASOK are suggesting that they won't join a coalition unless SYRIZA joins as well - something which the radical left is unlikely to countenance.

While it seems likely that PASOK are only making such a demand out of a desire not to seem too eager to run into the arms of their former enemies, it highlights the difficulty this coalition will have in doing anything not related to the near-state of emergency that Greece is currently experiencing. Many of the more pessamistic analysts and commentators are predicting a breakdown in relations before the end of the year, leading to a third set of elections – one which SYRIZA would almost certainly win.

Even if the full ND-PASOK-DIMAR coalition comes about, all Greece has achieved today is a return to the status quo of earlier this year. Greece remains in the euro for the foreseeable future, but the root of its problems with the EU are no closer to being addressed. The austerity which the coalition will impose will keep Germany and the ECB happy, which will keep money flowing into the country for the time being (an undoubtedly good thing, since reports had suggested that Greece was likely to run out of money to pay its public sector around mid-July without more European funds), but eventually that spigot will have to be turned off.

In addition, the bank jog which could see Greece being mechanically ejected from the single currency won't stop just because SYRIZA came in second place. Deposits have been steadily flowing out of Greek banks since 2009, and if too many euro end up in German banks, the Greek banking sector could fail in one go. 

Even the surface level negotiations – the ones which don't solve the underlying contradictions, but merely provide the funding and credibility for Greece to carry on as it has – could go in any number of directions. The troika (the European Central Bank, the European Commission, and the IMF) is likely to head to the country as soon as there is someone to negotiate with, and there have been reports that they are likely to give the Greek people a "reward" for being co-operative. German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle suggested that the coutnry may be given more time to repay its debts, and the Financial Times last week claimed that the EU was preparing to offer Greece discounted loans if New Democracy won the elections.

When the dust settles, the European Union will find that it has to decide whether it heads down the road of ever deeper fiscal integration, turning Greece into 

New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.