The death of a "freeloader": When will we accept the results of austerity?

As an eighteen year old dies trying to flee a ticket inspector in Athens, police in Britain boast of apprehending a mother shoplifting to feed her two children. All across Europe, people are struggling to survive.

“Let’s not get used to death” reads a poster you see on walls around Athens. It’s a simple message: we should never stop being shocked by the death and suffering caused by the choices of European leaders and the Greek government. From suicides to “accidents”, the list of casualties has names added to it daily. From Dimitris Christoulas, the 77-year-old who, in April last year, took his own life in Syntagma square, to Babakar Diaye, the 39-year-old man from Senegal who fell on the train tracks from a great height and died after being chased by the municipal police in downtown Athens, the end result is always the same: loss of human lives.

But sometimes the going gets too much. Sometimes the morning news reads like a page out of Les Misérables. Last night, an 18-year-old died in the streets of Athens. Caught without a ticket on a trolley bus, he tried to escape the inspector who had just stepped on board by pushing the emergency button and jumping out of the door. He lost his balance and hit his head on the curb. After being taken to the hospital, the doctors pronounced him dead.

The scenes described by an eyewitness make the case sound truly appalling. He speaks of how the boy was trying to explain that both he and his parents were unemployed, and that he simply couldn’t afford the ticket or the fine. He speaks of the inspector physically assaulting him and ripping his shirt, and the bus driver joining in before the victim made a desperate attempt to escape. And he speaks of shocking scenes where the other passengers almost mobbed the inspector, shouting at him: “you just took a kid's life for one euro”.

More shocking is the reaction seen by some using Greek social media - commentators, authors, politicians. “The inspector was only doing his job,” they say. “It’s not his fault if a freeloader decided to jump off the bus”. This was the death of a “freeloader”. Not of an unemployed kid with no future, but of a guy who simply didn’t feel like paying his fare. This mirrors the attitude some government officials have shown in the past, such as the newly appointed Minister of Health, Adonis Georgiadis, who took up the post in December last year. “Those that cannot adapt, die,” he has said.

In a tragic parallel that defies borders, almost at the same time as the incident in Greece hit the news, the Cheetham & Crumpsall (Manchester) police station account tweeted:

I don’t know the specifics of the case, but the tone is what gets me. The seemingly unconnected fact that she was trying to steal baby food with two kids in her arms. Just as in the case of the 18-year-old, the subject is disconnected from the cause. Poverty and the inability to pay for transportation or food, does not get in the way of the law. The haves are not supposed to empathise with the have-nots. So the list of victims gets bigger.

In Britain, the criminalisation of squatting cost lives last winter. Cheap housing is non-existent in London, and unused properties are boarded up to keep unwanted no-goods out, while landlords plot how to squeeze every penny out of the poor. Come next winter, train fares are expected to rise by more than four per cent, making commuting work even harder for those displaced to the suburbs. This same thing happened in Greece, making job-seeking impossible for many, even if there were jobs to be had in the nation's ruined job market. What will it come to in Britain?

It's farcical. The inequalities that triggered the Arab spring - whose unravelling we are witnessing today in Egypt - are being repeated in austerity Europe. The social fabric, the welfare state that held it together, is being torn down. If you become unemployed, the chances of you getting back to work get slimmer and slimmer if you don’t have some sort of back-up. In places like Greece, Spain, Portugal and now Britain, this a new, extreme reality. In this new reality, we could all end up being cast as “freeloaders”. And our deaths, be they the result of cold, persecution or despair, will be labelled as a “failure to adapt”.

A homeless man sleeps on a vent outside a closed metro station in the centre of Athens. Photograph: Getty Images.

Yiannis Baboulias is a Greek investigative journalist. His work on politics, economics and Greece, appears in the New Statesman, Vice UK and others.

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.