Golden Dawn fascists are not just Greece's problem

Europe will turn to angry nationalisms unless an alternative to austerity is found.

It was an unwelcome echo of Europe’s past: as black-clad henchmen barked instructions at journalists, ejecting those who refused to show “respect” by standing up, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, the greying leader of Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, hailed his party’s unprecedented entry into parliament. Waving his fists like a practiced demagogue, he threatened retribution “for those who betray this homeland”. Then came a promise: “The Europe of the nations returns. Greece is only the beginning.”

The sudden emergence of Golden Dawn – an obscure fringe party only a year ago but which won 21 seats in Sunday's general election – is the latest symptom of political turmoil to hit Greece as it struggles to cope with EU-imposed austerity. Mainstream parties have fallen like dominoes as Greek voters, angry at being punished by a fiscal compact that protects northern Europe’s wealthier economies, look for politicians that have not been tarnished by compromise with the Brussels elite. Many have turned left, but 7 per cent of voters chose Golden Dawn, which promises to “clean” Greece of immigrants and boasts a swastika-like emblem on its flag. In the words of one Greek Jewish leader, “They don’t deny the Holocaust – they desire it.”

The spectacle has made outside observers shudder, while the millions of Greeks who did not vote for Golden Dawn are justifiably revolted. Greece has not suddenly turned to fascism – and although Michaloliakos was a supporter of the military junta that ruled the country from 1967 to 1974, there is no special darkness within the Greek psyche that lends itself to extremist politics. Golden Dawn’s gains, which can be reversed, were achieved with techniques employed by the far right in other countries. It stood “ordinary” candidates – members of the public who had been drawn to the party in recent months – for election, and it won some support  by imposing vigilante patrols in urban neighbourhoods. As in other countries, they have been challenged every step of the way by Greek anti-racists.

Golden Dawn's scapegoating of immigrants is widely shared, too. Across Europe, the financial crisis has inflamed tensions between a global market, a multinational EU, and nation states that still count on patriotism as a social glue. Migrants have thus become a lightning rod for all manner of anxieties. The difference is that Greece feels these more acutely, battered by five continuous years of recession and sitting on the EU’s porous border with Turkey. Frequently, migrants are sent back to Greece from other EU countries to rot in poorly maintained detention centres or left destitute in a country where one in five is unemployed. The fate of 200 African migrants left to drown in the Mediterranean last year by Nato forces – possibly including a British helicopter – suggests we are all capable of such callousness. This is not Greece’s dirty secret: it is all of ours.

The success of Golden Dawn is a tragedy for migrants and a painful dead end for their voters who will find them a quack cure for their country’s ills. There’s a grain of truth in Golden Dawn’s call for Greece to be freed from “the slavery of the bailout agreement” and voters will continue to seize on it until a viable alternative is found.

Left-wing parties are now struggling to find enough common ground to form a government and fresh elections may have to be held next month. The challenge is to find a solution that brings stability while fulfilling the egalitarian principles the EU project aspires to. Otherwise, the future is one of angry, reactionary nationalisms – and, perhaps, if groups like Golden Dawn are allowed to keep a foothold in democratic politics, something even more vicious.

Members of the Greek neo-Nazi Golden Dawn Party celebrate out of their office in Thessaloniki on 6 May, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.