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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Empty highs: why throwaway plastic goes hand in hand with bankrupt consumerism

We are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff.

A University of California study revealed this week that mankind has produced more than nine billion tonnes of plastic since the 1950s, with almost all of it ending up in landfill or the ocean. With the terrible effects of our decades-long addiction to throwaway packaging becoming increasingly apparent, it’s clear that a fresh approach is needed.

In April 2010, David Cameron set out his vision for Britain in the Conservative Party’s manifesto. Keen to show that the Tories had turned away from the "I’m Alright Jack" individualism of the 1980s, Cameron sought to fashion a softer, more inclusive brand.

The good society, Cameron argued, embraced much higher levels of personal, professional, civic and corporate responsibility. There was such a thing as society, and we’d all do well to talk to our neighbours a bit more. The Big Society, however, was roundly derided as a smokescreen for an aggressive tightening of the Government purse strings. And on the advice of his 2015 election fixer Lynton Crosby, Cameron later dropped it in favour of well-worn lines about economic security and jobs.   

While most would argue that the Big Society failed to amount to much, Cameron was at least right about one thing. We are happiest when we are part of something bigger than ourselves. No matter how much the credit card companies try to convince us otherwise, mindless individualism won’t make us nearly as contented as we’re led to believe by big conglomerates.

By any measure, we are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff. As a nation, we have run up unsecured debts of more than £350bn, which works out at £13,000 per household. Fuelled by a toxic mix of readily available credit and interest rates at historic lows, we cripple ourselves financially to feel the empty high derived from acquiring yet more stuff.

Purchasing has become a leisure pursuit, ensuring the rate at which we acquire new stuff exceeds the rate at which we can find somewhere to put it. Burdened with ever increasing amounts of stuff, consumers are forced to outsource their storage. The UK didn’t have a self-storage industry 30 years ago, but now it is the largest in Europe.

With the personal debt mountain soaring, we’d all do well to realise that we will never have enough of something we don’t need.

The growth of rampant consumerism has coincided with an explosion in demand for single-use plastic. Like the superfluous possessions we acquire, throwaway plastic packaging helps satisfy our desire to get exactly what we want without having any thought for the long-term consequences. Plastic packaging is easy and convenient, but ultimately, will do us immense harm.

In 1950, close to 1.5 million tonnes of plastic was produced globally. Today, the figure stands at more than 320 million tonnes. The vast majority of our plastic waste either ends up in landfill or the ocean, and our failure to kick the plastic habit has put is in the ludicrous position where there is set to be more plastic than fish in global seas by 2050.

There is also growing evidence that our penchant for endless throwaway plastic might be storing up serious health problems for our children later down the line. According to a University of Ghent study published earlier this year, British seafood eaters risk ingesting up to 11,000 pieces of plastic each year. The report followed UN warnings last year that cancer-causing chemicals from plastic are becoming increasingly present in the food chain.

Something must give. Unsustainable as our reliance on fast credit to finance ever more stuff, our addiction to plastic packaging is storing up serious problems for future generations. The instant gratification society, high on the dopamine rush that fades so quickly after acquiring yet another material asset, is doomed unless decisive action is forthcoming.

So what is to be done? The 2016 US documentary Minimalism points to a smarter way forward. Minimalism follows the lives of ordinary people who have shunned the rat race in favour of a simpler life with less stuff and less stress. The most poignant bit of the film features ex-broker AJ Leon recounting how he chose to forgo the glamour and riches of Wall Street for a simpler life. After a meteoric rise to the top of his profession, Leon decided to jack it all in for a more fulfilling existence.

While challenging the view that to be a citizen is to be a consumer is easier said than done, there are small changes that we can enact today that will make a huge difference. We simply have no choice but to dramatically reduce the amount of plastic that we can consume. If we don’t, we may soon have to contend with the ocean being home to more plastic than fish.

Like plastic, our bloated consumer culture is a disaster waiting to happen. There must be a better way.

Sian Sutherland is co-founder of campaign group A Plastic Planet which is campaigning for a plastic free-aisle in supermarkets.

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