Europe wobbles…

Italy, Spain and Cyprus all strike fear into the hearts of economists.

The Eurozone is heating up again, as the realisation dawns that previous settlements were merely uneasy hiatuses.

The immediate problem is Cyprus, which finds itself on the verge of default due to contamination from Greece. The country, a small island nation in the Mediterranean, has close historical and financial links with crisis-stricken Athens, and was forced to seek aid from the EU last year. Last month, the Wall Street Journal's Stephen Filder received confirmation in Davos from Olli Rehn, the EU's economics commissioner, a rescue program for the country will require "substantially reducing government and bank debt" — in other words, a default.

Such a default will be problematic, because Cyprus, more so than most troubled Eurozone countries to date, operates as an off-shore banker for many of the world's super-rich — particularly, in this case, Russians. The country is likely to find itself stuck between two unpalatable options: either safeguarding its banking sector from losses by imposing huge burdens on its populace, or risking a run on the banks from overseas as foreign depositors try to get their money out.

There had been hope that the country may be able to get a bailout from the EU without causing too much damage to its domestic banking operation, but over the weekend, that became less likely. The SPD, the German opposition party, pushed for the country to be forced to consolidate its banks before any bailout would be agreed. According to Reuters, Merkel needs the support of the SPD to pass any bailout through the Bundestag (and of course, the EU needs the support of Germany before any bailout can go ahead) so this objection carries real weight.

The Cypriot problem is nasty, but largely internal; the country is too small to have any real contagion effects. The same cannot be said of Italy and Spain, both of which are sources of increased uncertainty.

In Italy, Silvio's back! The former prime minister — who, if he were anyone else, would surely be the "disgraced" former prime minister — is running for office on a platform of tax cuts (€4bn of them) over austerity. His coalition is in second place right now to the centre-left grouping, but its standing is improving — and the markets appear to be getting jumpy at that fact.

Berlusconi is being hampered by the fact that he no longer controls Italian media in the way he used to, but even so, a win for him is still alarmingly possible. (Regardless of the effect of deficit-funded tax-cuts on national economies, Berlusconi is unlikely to plough a viable economic course for Italy).

And in Spain, prime minister Mariano Rajoy has been accused of running an illegal slush fund. Yesterday afternoon, Rajoy issued a not-entirely-convincing rebuttal, telling a joint press conference with Angela Merkel that:

I repeat what I said Saturday: everything that has been said about me and my colleagues in the party is untrue, except for some things that have been published by some media outlets.

Merkel, "visibly upset", was also asked about the corruption allegations, and emphasised that "what is important is the relationship between the two governments".

Whatever happens to Rajoy, Berloscuni, and even Cyprus, the flurry of attention and fear generated by what ought to be business as usual for politics (except, maybe, the Cyprus problem) demonstrates how uneasy the situation in Europe remains. While we haven't heard a huge amount about the crisis recently, as the big minds in economics get distracted by talk of robots (not that the potential problems there aren't huge either), the situation is by no means fixed. The continent remains in much the same straits as Britain, but with the added straightjacket of a unified currency and intransigent Germany dampening hope.

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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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.