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.

Share
Single Page

More from James K. Galbraith:

Context July 16, 2015, 12:59 pm

A Deeply Integrated Europe

The euro and its discontents

Context July 10, 2015, 10:15 am

How Germany Reconquered Europe

The euro and its discontents

From the February 2014 issue

How Germany Reconquered Europe

The euro and its discontents

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

August 2019

A Play with No End

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Call of the Drums

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Brutal from the Beginning

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Alps

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Last Frontier

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Last Frontier·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The San Luis Valley in southern Colorado still looks much as it did one hundred, or even two hundred, years ago. Blanca Peak, at 14,345 feet the fourth-highest summit in the Rockies, overlooks a vast openness. Blanca, named for the snow that covers its summit most of the year, is visible from almost everywhere in the valley and is considered sacred by the Navajo. The range that Blanca presides over, the Sangre de Cristo, forms the valley’s eastern side. Nestled up against the range just north of Blanca is Great Sand Dunes National Park. The park is an amazement: winds from the west and southwest lift grains of sand from the grasses and sagebrush of the valley and deposit the finest ones, creating gigantic dunes. You can climb up these dunes and run back down, as I did as a child on a family road trip and I repeated with my own children fifteen years ago. The valley tapers to a close down in New Mexico, a little north of Taos. It is not hard to picture the indigenous people who carved inscriptions into rocks near the rivers, or the Hispanic people who established Colorado’s oldest town, San Luis, and a still-working system of communal irrigation in the southeastern corner, or a pioneer wagon train. (Feral horses still roam, as do pronghorn antelope and the occasional mountain lion.)

Article
A Play with No End·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

When I caught up with the Gilets Jaunes on March 2, near the Jardin du Ranelagh, they were moving in such a mass through the streets that all traffic had come to a halt. The residents of Passy, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Paris, stood agape and apart and afraid. Many of the shops and businesses along the route of the march, which that day crossed seven and a half miles of the city, were shuttered for the occasion, the proprietors fearful of the volatile crowd, who mostly hailed from outside Paris and were considered a rabble of invaders.

Article
The Call of the Drums·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Great Kurultáj, an event held annually outside the town of Bugac, Hungary, is billed as both the “Tribal Assembly of the Hun-­Turkic Nations” and “Europe’s Largest Equestrian Event.” When I arrived last August, I was fittingly greeted by a variety of riders on horseback: some dressed as Huns, others as Parthian cavalrymen, Scythian archers, Magyar warriors, csikós cowboys, and betyár bandits. In total there were representatives from twenty-­seven “tribes,” all members of the “Hun-­Turkic” fraternity. The festival’s entrance was marked by a sixty-­foot-­tall portrait of Attila himself, wielding an immense broadsword and standing in front of what was either a bonfire or a sky illuminated by the baleful glow of war. He sported a goatee in the style of Steven Seagal and, shorn of his war braids and helmet, might have been someone you could find in a Budapest cellar bar. A slight smirk suggested that great mirth and great violence together mingled in his soul.

Article
Brutal from the Beginning·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Celebrity sightings are a familiar feature of the modern N.B.A., but this year’s playoffs included an appearance unusual even by the standards of America’s most star-­friendly sports league. A few minutes into the first game of the Western Conference semifinals, between the Golden State Warriors and the Houston ­Rockets—the season’s hottest ticket, featuring the reigning M.V.P. on one side and the reigning league champions on the other—­President Paul Kagame of Rwanda arrived with an entourage of about a dozen people, creating what the sports website The Undefeated called “a scene reminiscent of the fashionably late arrivals of Prince, Jay-­Z, Beyoncé and Rihanna.”

Article
The Alps·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Toyota HiAce with piebald paneling, singing suspension, and a reg from the last millennium rolled into the parking lot of the Swinford Gaels football club late on a Friday evening. The HiAce belonged to Rory Hughes, the eldest of the three brothers known as the Alps, and the Alps traveled everywhere together in it. The three stepped out and with a decisive slam of the van’s side door moved off across the moonscape of the parking lot in the order of their conceptions, Rory on point, the middle brother, Eustace, close behind, and the youngest, ­Bimbo, in dawdling tow.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

“What’s the point?” said Senator Tim Scott, who is paid at least $174,000 per year as an elected official, when asked whether he had read the Mueller report.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today