Pro-euro protesters hold European Union flags during a demonstration in front of the parliament in Athens on June 30, 2015. Photo: Aris Messinis/AFP
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Owen Jones: The elites are determined to end the revolt against austerity in Greece

Europe's great powers won't be satisfied until they break Syriza, and stop an anti-austerity movement spreading across the continent.

Contagion: this word sums up how the Greek disaster has been allowed to descend into catastrophe. Not economic contagion, or any real fear that Greece is a Hellenic Lehman Brothers-in-the-making, whose implosion will send dominoes toppling from Berlin to Lisbon, but political contagion. An attempt is being made to suppress the contagion of its anti-austerity movement. In a eurozone where more than 11 per cent of the citizens are without work, including half of all young Spaniards, the social devastation endured by the poor has been sustained by a simple doctrine: “There is no alternative.” If Greece threatens that narrative, it has to be punished.

After France’s François Hollande abandoned his left-wing mandate almost as soon as he marched into the Élysée Palace, Syriza’s dramatic triumph in January represented the first time Europe’s anti-austerity movement had seized power in a national election. Since then, Europe’s great powers – the European Union, the eurozone’s unaccountable Central Bank, the IMF, the German government – have all conspired to make an example out of the party. Greece is a rebellious eurozone province, and if its democratically elected insurgents are allowed to succeed, the doctrine of “There is no alternative” will be shattered and a growing populist left will be emboldened. Why wouldn’t Spain’s austerity-weary voters give a decisive mandate to the radical left Podemos in a general election due by December? And why not then Ireland, Portugal, Italy, the Netherlands and so on?

Syriza has to be broken, or so the EU great powers decided long before it was even elected. But how? First: compel it to impose another dose of disastrous austerity, in violation of the party’s clear electoral mandate. This would inflict on it the same fate as the Greek social-democratic party Pasok, which so alienated its support base that its vote plummeted from 44 per cent in 2009 to 4.7 per cent by 2015. A second possible strategy: strangle Greece’s economy until the people decide that the lesser catastrophe would be to resign themselves to endless austerity within the eurozone. This is the current course of action.

The third strategy: force a default and drive Greece out. However, this might expose the eurozone’s Achilles heel. A precedent would be set: the eurozone would no longer be an indivisible currency union, but a club that weaker members can leave or from which they can be de facto ejected. Italy, say, could find itself the subject of extreme market speculation.

And there is another danger for the elite: although defaults are invariably followed by the ejection of the ruling government – so, goodbye, Syriza – what if a temporarily hobbled post-euro Greece enjoyed a recovery comparable with Argentina’s after the default of 2002? Other countries locked in economic misery would have an example to emulate. For these reasons, a Greek default will have to be as painful as possible, pour encourager les autres.

Syriza’s fate will also be used to hammer opponents of austerity. Resisting the prevailing economic common sense of our time (it will be claimed) is demonstrably futile and self-defeating. Greece’s woes are the product of overspending, and so on. That the likes of Goldman Sachs helped to massage Greece’s books to allow it to enter the eurozone in the first place will be forgotten. The irresponsible lending of German and French banks will be forgotten, too.

The global financial crisis is generally not blamed on low-paid Americans for accepting sub-prime mortgages, but on those who lent to them irresponsibly. The same should apply to Greece: greedy banks, acting in the short-term interest, which lent money, setting aside risk for the sake of profit. As the Jubilee Debt Campaign has pointed out, it was German and French banks that were bailed out, not the Greek people.

Since then, successive bailouts with ruinous austerity measures attached to them have shored up private-sector institutions while slicing a quarter off the Greek economy. Poverty rates have more than doubled to over 40 per cent, unemployment is now a quarter and debt consumes 177 per cent of the country’s GDP. Greece has been instructed to extend policies that have so far achieved only ruin. Yet such is the pressure being exerted on the Greek people that acceptance of (or rather, resignation to) the creditors’ demands is surely likely.

Whatever happens, opponents of Europe’s disastrous policy must keep calling for an international debt conference; not only for Greece, but other countries, too. This debt is an unpayable accountancy fiction that is strangling growth, and inflicting a terrible human cost. A new strategy – informed by the likes of Nobel Prize-winning economists such as Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman – based on public investment, growth, and quantitative easing aimed at infrastructure and new renewable industries must be championed.

But Syriza is cornered, and so are the embattled Greek people. Any concession to the troika will be used to clobber anti-austerity forces. “The Greek people don’t want to let down the EU,” the Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, has pleaded. Austerity, Greece, the manifest lack of democracy and accountability . . . all are spreading disillusionment about the EU among the left. A pro-EU centre may continue to shrink, chipped away by left and right. Today, we witness hubris: but tomorrow, the EU may meet its nemesis.

Owen Jones discusses the politics of hope with Suzanne Moore and Georgia Gould in an NS event at the Latitude Festival on 16 July.

Owen Jones is a left-wing columnist, author and commentator. He is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and writes a weekly column for the Guardian. He has published two books, Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class and The Establishment and How They Get Away With It.

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Crisis Europe

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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.