Greece: Syriza on the rack

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Greece’s newly-elected Syriza government is on the rack. European imperialism is determined to tear it apart. That is the clear message from the agreement that an alliance of eurozone ministers, the European Central Bank (ECB) and the IMF imposed on Syriza on 22 February extending the existing bailout arrangements until the end of June. Syriza had to make the agreement to secure the release of the remaining €7.2bn from the European bail-out fund. Without this money it could not repay €1.6bn to the IMF in March and a further €800m interest in April let alone mitigate the impact of the capital flight that took place during the negotiations. The agreement – a starting point as far as European imperialism is concerned, and in reality a diktat – requires the new government to:

  • Honour existing privatisations and those already out to tender, and review privatisations not yet launched;
  • Organise a spending review of every ministry;
  • Control health expenditure while granting universal access;
  • Link improvements in the minimum wage in a manner that safeguards competitiveness and employment prospects;
  • Address needs arising from the recent rise in absolute poverty through the use of non-fiscal measures like food stamps.

Progress will be monitored at the end of April. In one concession to Syriza there is no explicit demand that it achieves a 4.5% primary budget surplus in the coming financial year, but the agreement severely limits the ability of the government to either meet its principal election promises or do more than ameliorate the most extreme effects of austerity. That, of course, is its purpose, and the imperialists hope thereby to discredit Syriza and undermine its electoral support. In today’s conditions of permanent crisis, even a mildly progressive programme of social reform threatens imperialism’s interests and therefore cannot be realised without an intense class struggle, and, in the final analysis, by a struggle for socialism.

Syriza had little choice but to submit to the imperialists’ terms. It has no allies among European governments: any hope that it might be supported by the likes of the Spain, Portugal or Italy proved without foundation. Its options were further limited by large flows of bank deposits abroad, and by reduced state revenues as home owners withheld payment of a hated property tax. German imperialism, with an exposure of €65bn in Greek loans, was not prepared to compromise with Greek requests for a partial debt write-off; Chancellor Merkel and finance minister Schaueble repeatedly stated that the Greek government must honour the requirements of the draconian memoranda it had inherited whatever the opinion of its electorate. Effectively dismissing the result of the Greek election as an irrelevancy, Eurogroup chair Jeroen Dijsselbloem told the European parliament: ‘There can always be flexibility within a programme, but it cannot be a unilateral decision by any government to say we are no longer committed to those targets. That’s not the way it is going to work.’ Electorates can decide what they like – but imperialism rules. As Lenin commented,

‘Both in foreign policy and home policy imperialism strives towards violations of democracy, towards reaction. In this sense imperialism is indisputably the negation of democracy in general, of all democracy.’

However, the European imperialists are looking nervously over their shoulders at the Spanish general election in November. They calculated that significant concessions to Syriza now would only encourage the anti-austerity Podemos; as it is, the Syriza victory boosted Podemos’s standing in the polls from 21% to 28% and putting it in the lead for the first time. Syriza faces a huge challenge in trying to address the humanitarian crisis caused by austerity, but so does European imperialism: pushing Syriza too hard may force a Greek exit from the eurozone with incalculable financial consequences. Greece’s GDP may be a tiny fraction of the eurozone’s – about 2%, but Spain’s is more than five times the size. Hence Chancellor Merkel headed off German opposition to the agreement and ensured the Bundestag gave it overwhelming endorsement. Other factors will be entering the imperialists’ calculations: the weak position of the euro reflecting near-stagnation in the eurozone, the impact of Russian sanctions and the looming credit crunch in China.

The Syriza government now has a mountain to climb to implement a meaningful and viable anti-austerity programme. In the short term its popularity has soared as it is perceived to be standing up for the mass of the Greek people: a poll on 23 February, a month after the election, gave it over 47% support compared to the 36% it achieved at the election. However, the revenue-raising options it proposed in its agreement – cracking down on state corruption, smuggling, tax evasion and avoidance – will not yield significant results in the short term. It is demanding the payment of €1.9bn profit the ECB has made on the purchase of Greek bonds; the ECB is so far refusing to release this money. Stresses are already appearing within the party: 40% of its central committee voted against the agreement. Although more than 60% of the Greek people support continued membership of the eurozone, that level may fall as the contradiction between fighting austerity and adhering to the euro becomes ever more apparent. This in turn will add to the pressure on the Syriza leadership which is at present determined to avoid a Greek exit. In these conditions, communists in Greece will be pointing out that rolling back austerity will require an immense class struggle on the scale of that taking place in Venezuela. They will be fighting to extend and deepen the autonomous working class structures that have been set up in Greece again along the lines of those in Venezuela. They will also be arguing that the economic problems facing the working class cannot be resolved within capitalism, and that these will exist whether the country is in or out of the eurozone. The conclusion is that the only adequate answer to the humanitarian crisis is to fight for a genuine welfare state – that is, for socialism. Our contribution to the defence of the Greek people must be to build an anti-austerity movement here in Britain.

Robert Clough