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

Photo: Getty
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

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

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