By Nikos Sotirakopoulos
This week’s tear-gassing of pensioners by riot police in Athens exposed rising social tensions in Greece. Twenty-one months after Syriza came to power, alongside the right-wing Independent Greeks, it’s worth taking a step back to examine what has happened in the interim. What we have witnessed is the collapse of two illusions: first, that the radical left has an alternative to austerity; and secondly, that the European Union has any real interest in helping Greece to reform.
Syriza has continued with its policies of increasing taxation and direct cuts to people’s income, including pension cuts. These are the same policies that brought down three governments during the years of Greece’s patronage by the Troika — that is, the EU, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. For most of the self-employed and SME owners — the backbone of the Greek economy — more than 65 per cent of their income now goes on taxes and pensions or insurance payments. The brain drain from Greece now totals more than 400,000 people. Almost 70,000 businesses are in the process of relocating to countries with more welcoming environments, such as Bulgaria and Cyprus. And in the midst of all this, the government boasts about its illiberal clampdown on TV stations, following its introduction of an arbitrary regulation that limits Greece to four TV licences, which means additional TV stations are having to close.
Many view Syriza’s embrace of austerity measures, including its acceptance of a new ‘memorandum’ by the Troika that further devastates rather than reforming the Greek economy, as a U-turn, a political betrayal by prime minister Alexis Tsipras. This is a misreading of what’s happened. Even in the days when the ‘erratic Marxist’ Yanis Varoufakis was finance minister, Syriza’s main plan for the Greek economy was to seek more EU assistance. Tsipras hoped such assistance would come with fewer strings attached, but he soon accepted whatever deal came his way. This touches upon a fundamental deficit in the thinking of the radical left in Greece and across Europe: its utter lack of any economic imagination beyond raising taxes or increased government spending. Decades of growth scepticism on the left, coupled with a distrust in ordinary people’s ability to run their lives for themselves, has made the left almost indistinguishable from the exhausted political centre when it comes to economics.
The other illusion that has been shattered is that the EU is keen to ‘reform’ a supposedly backward Greece. Time and again, the Troika has accepted — with minimal protest by the IMF — that the Greek economy is exhausted. This is clear from its calls for unreasonably high taxation. This shows that what matters most to Brussels is not the restructuring of Greece to improve its economic health, but rather putting Greece on continuous life-support in order to keep it in the Eurozone and avoid further compromising the EU political project. In other parts of the Eurozone, too, it’s come to be accepted that high taxation and low growth are the new norm.
What we have in Greece is political pantomime. The government pretends to negotiate hard while the EU pretends it is reforming and modernising Greece. And who loses out? Hard-working Greeks and pensioners who worked for years and years, who cannot simply leave the country and are now struggling to make ends meet.
**** Nikos Sotirakopoulos is a sociology lecturer at Loughborough University.