The Strange Death of Liberal Europe

John Curran

Image © BrotherMagneto

The Greek electorate have spoken and, borrowing a phrase from former US President Clinton, it is not clear what they have said. Although we have a decision, can it be described as a mandate? New Democracy winning by a mere 3% ahead of anti austerity socialist party Syriza, the majority party automatically gaining fifty extra seats thus placing them in the driving seat of a coalition government.

 As in the UK after the 2010 election, conservative politicians in open necked shirts make electoral agreements with minority parties with phoney liberal credentials. The political horse-trading in Athens was conducted in the Greek language but the narrative is one shaped by London, Berlin, and Brussels.

There has always been a liberal dilemma at the core of the European project. This is evident in the decision making process which is undemocratic and dominated by the Council of Ministers and the Commission. However, since 1979 the Parliament has grown in authority via the ballot box and the Single European Act. Despite this there is a problem in the governance of the EU, a quandary now thought key to understanding the crisis.  A predictable debate has begun with calls to abandon the EU project or establish a Federalist system.

The unprecedented interference from external influences in the Greek election is a worrying intrusion into the democratic workings of a sovereign state, justified by the ‘memorandum of understanding’ made on the cusp of the first Greek election this year. A document that binds future administrations to adhere to cuts of billions of Euros.

The interference in the Greek election are numerous, springing from comments made by European leaders such as Angela Merkel in Germany and George Osborne in the UK. Larry Elliott in the Guardian on 16 of June reported on comments made by Jean-Claude Juncker:

If the radical left wins [in Greece] – which cannot be ruled out – the consequences for the currency union are unforeseeable.

The Greek electorate were told to beware socialists bearing gifts, that they must reject Syriza a radical coalition led by Alexis Tsipras whose party played no role in bringing the country to this crisis. This has not stopped the demonisation of his party even though it is democratic and inclusive. It should not to be compared with the renegade fascist parties; representatives of Syriza are typified by Professor Baltas: benign, reasonable and intelligent and have their country’s best interests at heart.

 A point made by Costa Douzinas and Joanna Bourke in the Guardian on 16th of June:

Syriza is totally committed to the eurozone. Its manifesto promises an immediate repeal of all laws enacted by the Greek government after the bailouts. Some of the measures affecting the private sector were never demanded by the troika – the EU, IMF and the European Central Bank – and were introduced by the establishment parties. After that, negotiations will start for a substantial reduction of the debt, which may be followed by a moratorium on servicing the debt until the economy starts growing again.

This agenda deserved a fair hearing and it should have been left to the Greek electorate to decide its merits.

The irony is that the parties linked to the financial disaster, New Democracy and Pasok (which headed the previous government), are lauded by world leaders even though they are responsible for the economic mess and for the subsequent bail-out negotiations. Political parties linked to economic decline tend not to get re-elected but that orthodoxy is not expected to apply in Greece.

As the BBC World Service (June 16th) reported many in Greece have a dim view of New Democracy considering it neither “new nor democratic.” The Greek electorate were not fooled, hence the subsequent external pressure placed on them promising economic pain unless they submitted to the austerity package.

Such threats seem bizarre and cruel given the current situation in Greece. As Chris Morris reported for the BBC World Service (17th of June):

Huge amounts of cash have been withdrawn from the banks; rumours abound of pharmacists running out of drugs and Ministries running out of money. People stealing from supermarkets because their salaries had been cut and of parents having to pay to get the school toilets cleaned.

The reality of the current Greek situation includes the hording of food and a dramatic rise in mental health problems with a significant increase in the suicide rate. Indeed Matthew Bannister reported on BBC World Service (19th of June) from a Greek psychiatric hospital which was in such a desperate state that it was unable to feed patients on the brink of starvation. The local community completely lacking in resources was only able to offer moral support. In the midst of this London, Brussels, and Berlin advised that the situation would worsen unless austerity accepted.

Again, the Chris Morris broadcast is useful:

Alexis Tsipras is promising the Holy Grail: stay in the euro but take away the most acute pain a complete re-negotiation of the austerity driven bail out regime. His opponents say his plan is a pipe dream that he will turn Greece into an economic wasteland.

 So, the Greek voters were encouraged to hold onto nurse for fear of something worse, a point that was made by Costa Douzina and Joanna Bourke in the Guardian on the 16th of June:

Angela Merkel, the European commission president José Manuel Barroso, and even George Osborne, have ordered the Greeks to vote the right way. This direct intervention into the democratic process of a sovereign state follows a plethora of threats and rumours, secrets and lies, telling people that if they vote for Syriza, the country will be ejected from the euro and untold catastrophes will follow.

However, the European Union is a political as well as an economic amalgamation of states. Throwing Greece out of the EU would have meant the technocrats entering unchartered territory and a legal minefield.

It should be pointed out there is a democratic component to the European project. A prerequisite to joining the EU means prospective states must have a fully functioning political system which is consistent with a liberal democracy. The benevolent effect of EU membership is a thesis associated with Timothy Garton Ash and his view does have merit.  It recognises that the EU has created a liberal union based on the rule of law. Could the EU dominated by such an ethos have thrown Greece to the wolves?

The media circus is now leaving Greece and attention falls on Spain where, on the World Service on the 16th of June, Paul Mason reports that workers are taking to the streets. He explains this is happening on a daily basis. Spanish workers are nipping off during lunch for noisy anti-austerity demonstrations involving the banging of kitchen pots and pans on the floor, implements carried into work from home in case an impromptu demonstration ensues.

If we are witnessing the strange death of liberal Europe then we need to keep a watchful eye on what will be introduced in its place.

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