Why it’s misguided to treat the eurozone crisis as a morality tale about “lazy” southerners

As southern European countries rack up record debts, Helmut Kohl has told friends “Merkel is destroying my Europe”.

On 1 December, a 13-year-old girl died after inhaling carbon mon­oxide fumes in the Greek city of Thessaloniki. She and her un­employed mother had been trying to use a makeshift stove to heat their freezing flat, having had their electricity cut off several months earlier. In Greece, austerity continues to kill.

The Greeks have few friends in our part of Europe, however, as I discovered at a recent Intelligence Squared debate on Germany and austerity at Cadogan Hall in London. “Why should hard-working northern Europeans pay for the Greeks?” asked a Dutch member of the audience. “The Greek railway is so inefficient that it would be cheaper to move everybody by taxi,” sneered a German. There is a sense in southern Europe, suggested another audience member, that “money just grows on trees”.

Isn’t it odd that there is always money available to bail out banks but not people? As my fellow panellist Euclid Tsakalotos, a Greek economist and member of parliament for the left-wing Syriza party, put it to me afterwards: “Public debate has suffered a dumbing-down process.” How, he asked, could “a world economic crisis of such proportions that has affected so many economies ... be put down to differential work efforts”?

Work, or jobs, is what Greece lacks. One in four Greeks is unemployed; more than half of the country’s youth cannot find work. Suicides are up; the birth rate is down. On a visit to Athens in 2012, I met Nikitas Kanakis, the chairman of the Greek branch of the charity Doctors of the World. “If the people cannot survive with dignity,” he told me, “we cannot have a future.”

It is dangerous, misguided and mendacious, as countless economists from the New York Times columnist Paul Krugman to the Financial Times commentator Martin Wolf have pointed out, to treat the eurozone’s ongoing debt crisis as a modern-day morality tale. It isn’t.

Record debts were caused by post-crash bank bailouts and a crisis-induced collapse in tax revenues. Take Spain. That country’s downturn was the result not of excessive government spending or public debt but of the explosion of private debt, particularly in the real estate and banking sectors. Because of the crash, Spain’s public-debt-to-GDP ratio morphed from being one of the lowest in the eurozone to one of the highest.

Overspending didn’t cause the crisis but underspending is exacerbating it. Austerity isn’t working. Don’t take my word for it: a paper published in October by the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Economic and Financial Affairs revealed how the cumulative cost of fiscal self-flagellation across the eurozone was 6 per cent of GDP between 2011 and 2013. Crucially, the paper also pointed out that the catastrophically contractionary consequences of austerity in the southern debtor countries were “aggravated” by Germany and other northern creditor countries simultaneously cutting spending and raising taxes.

Another reason why we shouldn’t moralise about debt is to avoid the charge of rank hypocrisy. After all, why pick on the Greeks, rather than the Germans? In the years before the crash – for example, from 2003 to 2004 – Germany persistently breached the budget deficit rules laid down in the EU’s growth and stability pact; the then chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, demanded that his country be exempted from any penalties. In 2006, while Spain and Ireland were running budget surpluses, Germany was in deficit.

Then there’s the German private sector. In 2008, as an investigation by Bloomberg subsequently revealed, over-leveraged German banks and financial institutions received secret loans from the US Federal Reserve.

Now go back 60 years. In 1953, Germany’s postwar debt trap was lifted in London, at a conference of creditors in which the enormous amount of money the country owed was cut in half and the repayment period spread out over 30 years. One of those creditor countries was ... Greece.

Few historians would dispute that the astounding growth of the postwar German economy and the ascent of Germany to world economic power status wouldn’t have happened without the London Debt Agreement. So why such a different attitude now? Why the mocking, demonising and punishing of debtor countries such as Greece, Spain and Portugal? Why the pretence that debt forgiveness isn’t effective or doable or that it is without precedent?

It is perhaps because such a strategy would require bold and far-sighted leaders. What Europe needs right now is a Konrad Adenauer or a Charles de Gaulle, but the leaders it has to make do with are Angela Merkel and François Hollande.

Writing in these pages in June 2012, I attracted the ire of Germanophiles and deficit hawks alike by accusing Merkel, who was elected for a third term as chancellor in September this year, of “destroying the European project, pauperising Germany’s neighbours and risking a new global depression”.

But this isn’t merely the prejudice of a nasty British journalist picking on poor, defenceless Mutti. Listen to the former German chancellor, Helmut Kohl, who, according to Der Spiegel, has told friends: “She [Merkel] is destroying my Europe.”

A break-up of the eurozone may be where we are headed if spending cuts take precedence over debt defaults and if the financial crisis continues to be cynically portrayed as a morality play. What the continent needs is a debt jubilee and a halt to austerity. Oh, and some solidarity. Otherwise, a second Great Depression beckons.

To borrow a line from the US economist Michael Hudson: “Debts that can’t be repaid won’t be repaid.”

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the political director of the Huffington Post UK, where this column is cross-posted

Members of the public relax in Athens in 2012. Photo: Getty.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 04 December 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Burnout Britain

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.