Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Greece and Europe

In view of a brief exchange about the loss of idealism in Europe, I want to clear my own relatively uninformed and inexpert mind a little.

 As I understand it the EU consists of three ideas in no particular order of importance:

An arrangement that ensures European powers do not go to war with each other which entails agreement over certain core principles and methods involving representation. Core agreements mean little in law unless they are codified. The various countries of Europe are free to apply to be a member of this union. Once in it they are required to comply.

The sense of this in an ever more globalised world is that Europe may act on a more equal footing with the great continental powers of China, Russia, the United States, and, in due course, India, part of South America and the countries of what used to be colonies in Africa and Asia. It also implies a care for the general wealth and well-being of the people of its member states.

The Common Market and all that that involves including lifting of trade barriers, some pooling of resources which includes financial resources in institutions such as banks and funds. The pooling of those financial resources have led to developments in banking (not in Europe alone) and the establishment of a common currency (in parts of Europe).

People talk about idealism and about betrayal. My own idealism, or rather hope, is entirely invested in (1). It assumes a sharing of most political and cultural values as well as a belief in the best Europe has to offer in those fields, meaning government by some form of democratic representative consensus and agreement on certain values combining the best of the Enlightenment, though not The Enlightenment alone, but any major cultural work embodying the range of European streams of thought and feeling including all that have continually entered and refreshed Europe while remaining within the scope of Europe and continue to do so

As to (2) I assume some of it is necessary to achieve (1) not only in constitutional and cultural but also in security terms.

I am in no position to understand (3) except in terms of certain values implicit in (1) and, to a lesser extent in (2). Neither (2) nor (3) is an object of idealism.


As concerns Greece, the causes of the current crisis seem to be to be complex but the effects are simple enough.  Causes, as I read,

On Greece's part: a long history of corruption since the Colonels in 1970; a long history of tax evasion; extremely generous, possibly unrealistic social packages for people in certain important sections of society; deception about Greece's financial situation at the point of joining the Euro (or was it the EU itself?); over-dependence on one or two key industries.

On the EU's financial part: As with all the banks in the western sphere, the encouragement of endless credit, an encouragement based on an economic model that has been shown to be irresponsible and divisive; the encouragement of the same debt to the advantage of some individuals, corporations and possibly states at the expense of others, certainly at the expense of people outside the corridors and levers of power

Effects are simple. Mass unemployment, danger of financial collapse, sense of helplessness and resentment in Greek people whose responsibility for the condition of the Greek economy is pretty minimal. Like many other people in Europe, the US and other places, they did as the bank advised and spent and borrowed. (I lost count of the number of leaflets we received from the banks exhorting us to borrow more.)

The situation is generally presented as Germany versus Greece, but Germany isn't alone in its demands: Finland, Holland and the Baltic states and others are just as pressing. Some have already undergone spells of severe austerity (more severe than in the UK).They have, as cliché has it,  "tightened belts" and don't see why the Greeks should get away with less.

Except Greeks haven't got away with less. They are in a horrible mess with no hope of repaying what is required of them, and the interest mounts.


If we take the most favourable view of the EU, in view of the record so far, it is not surprising that it is reluctant to take the word of Greek governments without some proof. There is also the fear of setting a precedent that could bring the whole house down some time.

I can't take a favourable view of the activities of the banks or the models on which they have operated because I can't see one. The principle of the virtuous circle whereby debt means spending means consumption means production means employment means investment means borrowing means more debt etc. was brought crashing down in 2008. Promises are just promises and money is just money in the end but  the ever more concentrated ownership of real estate, of resources, of means of production, of art objects-as-investment and the creaming off of vast profits at the exchange point are levers of real despotic power, however subtly phrased or sold.

I am very sympathetic to a Marxist reading of history and to its analysis of economic interests at any time but it seems fairly obvious that socialism and its fair-weather-friend, social liberalism, is on the retreat pretty well everywhere and most people, for now, feel they have to live with things as they are. There is no great revolutionary mood, or at least, not a coherent one, nor an ideology with a programme.

It will be interesting to see how Jeremy Corbyn fares in the Labour leadership election. It will be interesting to see how far the SNP represents a left-leaning body of ideas beyond its nationalism.

In the meantime the desperation and hopelessness of Greeks is a terrible lesson in something we are only just learning.

Europe isn't idealism. It is the sum of what we are and have been.


Poetry Pleases! said...

Dear George

I feel terribly sorry for the Greeks but can see no easy way out of the morass that they now find themselves in. Thank God that John Major managed to secure Britain an opt-out from the euro which actually works rather well for most member states.

Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish

JforJames said...

I think it's a big mistake for the Greeks to be trying to stay in the Euro. No one wants to face the point of no return. But they're there. Time to become a singular, however flawed country, again.

George S said...

The trouble, as I understand it, JforJames, is that the return to the drachma would be a terrible shock to an already desperately weak system. The interim period between the establishment of the new/old currency might empty the banks or fill it with meaningless amounts of paper. The Greeks themselves don't want it.