Anti-EU graffiti in Athens. Photo: Getty Images
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What Greece needs isn't Grexit, but debt relief

We must learn the lessons from the Jubilee Debt campaign, not heed the calls of a Eurosceptic right and a Trotskyite left, says Richard Howitt MEP.

There's something wrong when the leading Conservative Eurosceptic MEP talks up a 'no' vote in the Greek referendum as "explosive" and a similarly leading UKIP activist in my own region accuses Europe of humiliating the Greek people.

On the day of the Greek referendum, are they really moved by genuine concern about the human suffering caused by the biggest economic contraction in economic history, the slashed wages and pensions, the deepening unemployment?

No. For them, this is not at all about Grexit but Brexit.

Britain's Eurosceptic Right is seizing on this moment because what they want is crisis.

It is the classic Marxist dialectic and - lo and behold - we find the Tory Right quite unashamedly getting in to bed with a leftist party motivated by that very ideology.

Tory politicians who were saying two months ago that Ed Miliband was not trustworthy for British business are suddenly clapping their hands at a Greek Prime Minister who last week called bankers the equivalent of terrorists.

At least Nigel Farage's love affair with Vladimir Putin shields him from the same charge of hypocrisy, when Alexis Tsipras flies off to Moscow and publicly makes excuses for Russian breaches of international law over Ukraine.

But a Tory Party which was prepared to blame Labour in Britain for the entire global financial crisis to secure its own return to power, has another characteristic in common with Syriza in Greece.

Cameron and Tsipras are united that it's always got to be someone else's fault.

So in a week when George Osborne is preparing to announce an austerity budget in Britain with welfare claimants as some of the biggest victims, do not believe the crocodile tears of Tory politicians over Greece this weekend.

How can Labour and our social democratic allies across Europe react, when we are squeezed from the argument by this unholy alliance of extreme left and hard right?

First, that we are the anti-austerity party, not a leftist one based on making excuses for tax evasion and corruption, but one in the mainstream of European social democracy, with an honest prospectus which really is about investment, youth jobs and decent public services.

Second, that we will not use the poor of Greece as pawns in our own political game. Whether Greece ultimately chooses to leave the Euro or not, should surely be determined by what is in the interests of their peoples not ours.

Neither side in Greece says it wants to leave the Euro, and those politicians who try to claim the country may leave the EU altogether are spinning a lie. At best this argument is based on the legalistic interpretation that there is no Treaty provision for leaving the Euro, only the EU itself. But any serious politician understands that a political solution would be found.

Third, we should champion and not be frightened of debt forgiveness. The French economist Thomas Piketty told us at a Progressive Economy Forum in Brussels last week that debt restructuring is now an inevitable part of the solution. The IMF's own leaked report of last Friday said the same.

Many of us were activists in the Jubilee Debt campaign and, although the roots of the current crisis are very different, when debt itself becomes the greater problem, politicians have to be prepared to address greater solutions.

Remember that today Greece does enjoy a current surplus, but that is the country's historic debt which is making the economic situation unsustainable.

Fourth, we should deal directly rather than indirectly with the humanitarian consequences of the current crisis, revising the solidarity grant on low pensions, to ensure protection of the poorest pensioners and their families.

It was deeply shocking that Greek pensioners were not able to withdraw from bank machines this week, but tourists with international bank cards were. Instead surely we should be putting money in?

And fifth, we should nail the lie that this is only about Europe. It is a serious risk that Greece dropping out of the Euro will lead to 'contagion,' with other weaker economies falling over like dominoes.  But if the Eurozone members haven't made equally serious contingency plans to avoid this event by now, then it is they who will be at fault.

But their failure would never be Britain's success. One million British tourists go to Greece every year.  British banks have £7 billion in Greek debt, multiplied many times further by holdings in European banks who have much more. 

Even George Osborne admits a Eurozone collapse would be devastating for Britain - although it's a pity Tory divisions over Europe don't let his colleagues see the same.

For Labour, to our allies in the trade unions, we should ask them to be careful not to romanticise the far left. The choice in the referendum in Greece today is probably one between accepting an austerity package which will doubtless have further catastrophic consequences for jobs and services in the country; or in accelerating a return to the drachma and a consequent devaluation which could inflict just as much misery on the living standards of the Greek people.

And Syriza should never be forgiven for going in to coalition with a far-right, nationalist party, in order to attain power.

There may be a choice on the ballot paper, but there will be no winners in today's referendum.

Finally, there is a further parallel between the global banking collapse and today's Greek crisis. 

Both Alistair Darling in 2008 and European Central Bank President Mario Draghi in 2012 used the explicit words that they were prepared to do "whatever it takes."

What they were referring to was stopping bank collapse.  Today's political debate is still about using public funds to bailout private banks, much more than about aid to Greece or its people.

It is a huge dilemma for democratically elected politicians that banking is an essential prerequisite for a successful economy but that - eight years after Lehman Brothers folded - reforms to banking rules still leave banks themselves 'too big to fail.'

Just as with dodgy American financial derivatives, it was the private banks who chose to lend to Greece and who clearly failed to adequately assess the risk of that lending or the consequences of it failing.

And just as in the global financial crisis, it is ordinary people who are suffering, and those responsible for the crisis who are least suffering its consequences.

So I will be following the results tonight along with everyone else, but new international action on debt and bank reform provide the true answer, not nationalist or Eurosceptic responses from the right.

Photo: Getty
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Germany's political stability could be threatened by automation

The country's resistance to populism may be tested by changes to its manufacturing industry.

Germans head to the polls this Sunday 24 September. With Merkel set to win a fourth term as Chancellor, it has been dubbed a "sleepy" election – particularly compared to the Dutch and French campaigns a few months ago. Populism, while present, has not taken off to the same extent as in Germany’s neighbouring countries.

In a new Legatum Institute report co-authored with Matthew Elliott, we explore in detail why this is the case, evaluating the historical and economic circumstances as well as social, cultural and political attitudes. In short, support for both the populist Left Party (Die Linke/DL) and for the populist right Alternative for Germany (AfD) has so far been concentrated in former East Germany. At the national level, it has therefore been hard for either party to win more than around 10 per cent of the vote.

However, a longer term trend that might disrupt German politics in future election cycles is automation. With manufacturing making up a large proportion of the German economy, a significant amount of jobs are set to shift between occupational groups. According to the OECD, the portion of jobs at high risk of automation in Germany – 12 per cent – is one of the highest among countries measured.

While the elimination of some jobs and occupations does not necessarily mean net job losses – on the contrary, BCG estimates a net increase of 350,000 jobs by 2025 – it does mean upheaval, both in the job market and in the political sphere.

On the job market front, Germany has a shrinking pool of skilled labour. The Association of German Chambers of Commerce and Industry (DIHK) consider this poses the biggest risk to their businesses. The government is acutely aware of the issue – its August 2017 progress report projects 700,000 fewer skilled workers in 2030 than in 2014. Moreover, with an ageing population, the demographics are currently not in Germany’s favour.

Resolving this issue will require big and difficult political changes. On the one hand, it means that more immigration, particularly of young skilled workers, will likely be necessary. Given the backlash to Merkel’s "welcome" policy at the height of the refugee crisis, an anti-immigration sentiment was stirred which was dormant before.

On the other hand, while new jobs will be available, this does not necessarily mean that from one day to another that those working, for example, in manufacturing, will be keen to move into the service industry or another occupation altogether. Nor does it mean they will want to, or even perhaps be capable of, reskilling to carry out new digital roles.

In the UK and the US, we recently witnessed how these labour market changes were one of the big factors associated with support for the protectionist and anti-immigration rhetoric of the Leave campaign for Brexit and Donald Trump for president.

In Germany, the regions most exposed to the effects of automation are in the industrial south and west – parts of the country so far spared from the worst of populism. The potential for populist support to expand at the national level should therefore worry observers. To its credit, the current government has already been thinking about it, as evidenced in the Work 4.0 White Paper.

However, policy choices in the next few years will be crucial for mitigating the future labour market and political shockwaves of automation. If politicians choose to merkeln (do nothing) on the issue, the populist backlash might hit Germany, too.

Claudia Chwalisz is a consultant at Populus and a fellow at the Crick Centre, University of Sheffield. She is the author of The People’s Verdict: Adding Informed Citizen Voices to Public Decision-making (2017) and The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change (2015). Her guide to the German election authored with Matthew Elliott can be downloaded here