Commentary — July 16, 2015, 1:00 pm

Greece, Europe, and the United States

“A progressive Europe—the Europe of sustainable growth and social cohesion—would be one thing. The gridlocked, reactionary, petty, and vicious Europe that actually exists is another. It cannot and should not last for very long.”

The full brutality of the European position on Greece emerged last weekend, when Europe’s leaders rejected the Greek surrender document of June 9, and insisted instead on unconditional surrender plus reparations. The new diktat—formally accepted by Greece yesterdayrequires 50 billion euros’ worth of “good assets”–which incidentally do not exist—to be transferred to a privatization fund; all financial legislation passed since SYRIZA took control of parliament in January to be rolled back; and the “troika” (the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund) to return to Athens. From now on, the Greek government must get approval from these institutions before introducing “relevant” legislation—indeed, even before opening that legislation for public comment. In short: as of now, Greece is no longer an independent state.

Comparisons have been drawn to the Treaty of Versailles, which set Europe on the path to Nazism after the end of World War I. But the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, which ended a small country’s brave experiment in policy independence, is almost as good an analogy. In crushing Czechoslovakia, the invasion also destroyed the Soviet Union’s reputation, shattering the illusions that many sympathetic observers still harbored. It thus set the stage for the final collapse of Communism, first among the parties of Western Europe and then in the USSR itself.

Six months ago one could hope that SYRIZA’s electoral victory would spark a larger discussion of austerity’s failure and inspire a continent-wide search for better solutions. But once it became clear that there was no support for this approach from Spain, Portugal, or Ireland; only polite sympathy from Italy and France; and implacable hostility from Germany and points north and east, the party’s goal narrowed. SYRIZA’s objective became carving out space for a policy change in Greece alone. Exit from the Euro was not an option, and the government would not bluff. SYRIZA’s only tool was an appeal to reason, to world opinion, and for help from outside. With these appeals, the Greeks argued forcefully and passionately for five months.

In this way, the leaders of the Greek government placed a moral burden on Europe. Theirs was a challenge based on the vision of “sustainable growth” and “social inclusion” that has been written into every European treaty from Rome to Maastricht—a challenge aimed at the soul of the European project, if it still had a soul. No one in the Greek government entertained illusions on that point; all realized that Greece might arrive at the end of June weakened, broke, and defenseless. But given the narrow margins for maneuver, which were restricted both by SYRIZA’s platform and the Greek people’s attachment to Europe, it was the only play they had.

European creditors responded with surprise, irritation, exasperation, obstinacy, and finally fury. At no time did the logic of the Greek argument—about the obvious failure, over the past five years, of austerity policies to produce the predicted levels of growth—make any dent. Europe did not care about Greece. After resigning as Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis described the negotiation process:

The complete lack of any democratic scruples on behalf of the supposed defenders of Europe’s democracy. The quite clear understanding on the other side that we are on the same page analytically … [And yet] to have very powerful figures look at you in the eye and say “You’re right in what you’re saying, but we’re going to crunch you anyway.”

What Europe’s “leaders” do care about is power. They posture for their own parliaments and domestic polities. There is an eastern bloc, led by Finland, which is right-wing and ultra hard line. There is a model-prisoner group—Spain, Ireland, and Portugal—which is faced with Podemos and Sinn Fein at home and cannot admit that austerity hasn’t worked. There is a soft pair, France and Italy, which would like to dampen the threats from Marine Le Pen and Beppe Grillo. And there is Germany, which, it is now clear, cannot accept debt relief inside the euro zone, because such relief would allow other countries in trouble to make similar demands. Europe’s largest creditor would then face a colossal write-off, and the Germans would face the stunning realization that the vast debts built up to finance their exports over the past fifteen years will never be repaid.

SYRIZA was not some Greek fluke; it was a direct consequence of European policy failure. A coalition of ex-Communists, unionists, Greens, and college professors does not rise to power anywhere except in desperate times. That SYRIZA did rise, overshadowing the Greek Nazis in the Golden Dawn party, was, in its way, a democratic miracle. SYRIZA’s destruction will now lead to a reassessment, everywhere on the continent, of the “European project.” A progressive Europe—the Europe of sustainable growth and social cohesion—would be one thing. The gridlocked, reactionary, petty, and vicious Europe that actually exists is another. It cannot and should not last for very long.

What will become of Europe? Clearly the hopes of the pro-European, reformist left are now over. That will leave the future in the hands of the anti-European parties, including UKIP, the National Front in France, and Golden Dawn in Greece. These are ugly, racist, xenophobic groups; Golden Dawn has proposed concentration camps for immigrants in its platform. The only counter, now, is for progressive and democratic forces to regroup behind the banner of national democratic restoration. Which means that the left in Europe will also now swing against the euro.

As that happens, should the United States continue to support the euro, aligning ourselves with failed policies and crushed democratic protests? Or should we let it be known that we are indifferent about which countries are in or out? Surely the latter represents the sensible choice. After all, Poland, the Czech Republic, Croatia, and Romania (not to mention Denmark and Sweden, or for that matter the United Kingdom) are still out and will likely remain so—yet no one thinks they will fail or drift to Putin because of that. So why should the euro—plainly now a fading dream—be propped up? Why shouldn’t getting out be an option? Independent technical, financial, and moral support for democratic allies seeking exit would, in these conditions, help to stabilize an otherwise dangerous and destructive mood.

James K. Galbraith is the author of The End of Normal. He is a co-author of The Modest Proposal to Resolve the Crisis of the Eurozone and has been in Athens as a friend of Yanis Varoufakis, Greece’s former finance minister. He participated in “How Germany Reconquered Europe,” a Harper’s Forum about the future of the euro that appeared in the February 2014 issue. Read the full article here.

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More from James K. Galbraith:

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How Germany Reconquered Europe

The euro and its discontents

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