Papandreou's choice: Scylla or Charybdis

And yet the Greeks remain pro-European.

When we thought we had seen it all, as the latest EU summit had produced a deal that was supposed to draw a line under the debt crisis in parts of the eurozone and set the foundations for a healthy future for the single currency the unexpected happened. The Greek PM called a referendum and shocked the whole world as much as he shocked his own government.

European Union leaders are left speechless in disbelief, the markets fell in an existential depression and the Greeks are trying to make peace with the idea they will have to chose between Scylla and Charybdis.

George Papandreou's decision has been described, in equal measure, as blackmail, madness, suicide, even treason? He has obviously run out of political capital. His EU partners do not trust him. At home, many within his own party seem prepared to vote against the new bailout plan (and the new austerity measures that come with it).

So in a moment of desperation he has decided to pose the most impossible of questions to the Greek people. Punishing austerity or certain bankruptcy, humiliating poverty or real starvation, a place in the EU or relegations to the margins of Europe? His hope is that they will support the new bailout plan, offering him political legitimacy to continue implementing the measures imposed by Greece's international creditors in return for loans, financial guarantees and a reduction in the overall size of its debt.

But there lies the problem. The reason why we are still here after two years is that the IMF programme has failed. The remedy used requires violent reduction in the size of the state, deep cuts in spending on public services and relentless privatisation, despite how depressed the value of national assets is.

But those measures have led to the suffocation of economic activity. Unemployment has gone up dramatically, those who still have a job have seen their wages cut significantly, consumers' purchasing power has fallen exponentially, confidence in the economy has disappeared and higher taxes have wiped out what was left.

As a result Greece has been locked in a recessionary vicious circle with no credible plan for growth. If you couple that with a strong sense of injustice among the Greek people who see the political and business elites go unpunished for administrative incompetence, corruption and tax evasion, then we have an explosive mix. As a result there is no guessing when Greek society will explode.

So with a population at the verge of suicide, the outcome of any plebiscite is unpredictable, to put it mildly.

The irony is that the Greeks remain pro-European. They would chose to stay part of the eurozone everyday of the week. What they have come to resent is not so much the EU but the political and economic orthodoxy that is currently in power across Europe. They have been confronted with a set of neo-liberal economic policies that are religiously obsessed with austerity.

As economic growth in Europe is stalling the effects of this ideologically driven economic model are becoming obvious. The European south is stagnating, even big economies that enjoy the confidence of the markets (and have been allowed by them to print money at will) find it difficult to achieve and maintain even the most anaemic levels of growth.

And because the European economy is very interconnected and depends on intra-EU trade as much as it does on extra-EU trade the effects of that stagnation are starting to be felt even in the most affluent, and fiscally healthy, parts of the EU as well.

There is a solution though and it is based on an alternative economic model. Austerity must be replaced by investment. Not just at the national but at the European level as well. There are economies of scale to be achieved, there is added value in spending at the EU level and there is huge need for investment across the continent.

Furthermore, indebted countries must be given more time and better terms to repay their debts and balance their books. That balancing act needs to happen across the EU. In a single market the existence of deficit countries has a direct relation with the existence of surplus countries. If we are to have a common market, with a single currency we also need an integrated economic policy that evens out imbalances, reducing the distance between surpluses and deficits. In addition, the banking sector needs to be cleared out.

European banks are in effect global banks so IMF funds should go into re-capitalising these global banks and ridding them of bad debts, imposing loses on investors that make bad investments. EU funds should be invested in the real economy, in education, research and development, green technologies, telecommunication and energy infrastructure that will help the EU deliver growth and jobs.

Last but not least, efforts to restructure the architecture of the eurozone must be redoubled, with emphasis on economic convergence and common governance via supranational and directly elected institutions. A common currency deserves a common government, one elected by the people and for the people.

The Greeks have been asked a question. But as they are deliberating their answer they pose an even more important question to the EU as a whole. After two years of failed economic policies it is time the EU considered a different plan. One that invests in its people, in its social economic model, in its future as an unified continent.

The stakes could not be higher, not just for the Greeks. But for the EU as a whole.

Petros Fassoulas is the Chairman of the European Movement UK.

Petros Fassoulas is the chairman of European Movement UK

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.