For the El Diario site click here. For the original English language version of the interview…
As much as I would like this piece to be forward-looking, it is hard not to start by asking you how different Greece and Europe look like to you today as opposed to this time last year.
The year began with the Greek election electrifying Europe, imparting a sense of possibility that could re-legitimise European politics. By the summer, the old powers of Europe had re-asserted themselves, strangulating the Athens Spring and reinstating a steelier version of the established (dis)order – the combination of authoritarianism and economically non-viable policies that have turned Europe into the ‘sick man’ of global capitalism.
Greek democracy’s early summer suffocation seriously wounded the European Union and reinforced the centrifugal forces pulling it apart. So, when the refugees started streaming in soon after, the ‘not in my backyard’ and ‘what’s in it for me?’ mentality, which the crushing of the Athens Spring had reinforced, dominated. The result was that Europe came close to losing both its integrity and its soul.
On the positive side, the Athens Spring began an unstoppable process that can uniquely challenge Europe’s massive democratic deficit. No European can today pretend that they are not aware of the fact that all the important decisions in the Eurozone are taken in a (legally) non-existent body (the Eurogroup) that operates like a secret society. The Athens Spring occasioned substantial, albeit inconclusive, changes in Portugal and in Spain as well as winds of change throughout Europe. Never before have the demands for genuine democracy and for the fresh air of transparency been so vocal everywhere on our continent. It is crucial that 2016 should be a year of consolidation for these demands.
You have always expressed a sense of History while putting context to Greece’s drama. You underlined strong concerns about the rise of extremism in your country. Today, France, the one power that everyone looks up to when wishing for a change in the direction Europe is taking, has a neo-Nazi party that is everything but anecdotal. Are we losing perspective on what has happened over the past five years in Europe? How is it that not many seem to be connecting the dots between the rise of extremism and the failures of the European project at the Union’s institutions?
It’s called denial. When faced with overwhelming developments, and lacking hope, humans often choose to bury their heads in the sand. Bankers do this, politicians do it, whole societies practise it.
In 2008 a financial sector collapse, beginning in Wall Street, triggered sequential bankruptcies of the banking sectors in surplus countries and, soon after, of state finances in the deficit states. Thus the common currency began to fragment. To keep it together, a combination of unsustainable loans and income-sapping austerity was used in order to shift the crisis’ cost to working people – a combination that I refer to as Ponzi austerity.
Just like in 1929, when a similar financial sector collapse triggered off the fragmentation of the common currency of that era (the Gold Standard), so too now this sequence of events led to hopelessness, depression, fear – all those factors contributing to the re-nationalisation of ambition to the rise of ultra-nationalism, to a resurgence of racism and, ultimately, to the return of neo-Nazis. Meanwhile, as you correctly say, the powers-that-be refuse to connect the dots, preferring the chimera according to which contractionary economic policies will, somehow, yield… growth.
In the Weimar Republic, under Chancellor Heinrich Brüning, the bourgeoisie convinced itself that a transfer of income from the labouring classes to themselves would fix the economy, while the ultra-right kept in check the Left’s growing authority. The result was Adolf Hitler. Today, in a manner too similar for comfort, the Brüning economic policy has been revived, with the Left being kept in check by the Eurogroup’s and the troika’s ‘rules’ while ultra-nationalism, racism and neo-Nazism are given an open field in the depressed town and neighbourhoods where they are given the space to grow into a menace.
Since you left public office, you decided not to give up, but to up the ante to where the battle to change Europe must be taken: Brussels. You speak of a pan European effort to bring democracy to the EU’s institutions; the only way, you claim, for change to take place. What does this mean in practical terms? How exactly does your movement translate into action?
First, we need to establish the movement. This will happen on 9th February, in Berlin. Its purpose is to mobilise Europeans along a simple, common agenda: To democratise the EU’s institutions.
Once this ‘conversation’ begins in the context of an activist movement on what needs to be done (to democratise the EU), a consensus will emerge that must then find its expression in each of the member-states of the EU.
Exactly what electoral and organisational form this expression will take in each country is something that will be decided collectively, organically. In some countries it may take the form of a brand new party. In others our movement may forge an alliance with existing parties. This remains to be debated and decided.
However, what matters above anything else is that our movement will invert the current sequence. Currently, parties begin at the level of the nation-state and then try to forge (flimsy and ineffective) alliances at the European level. Our movement will begin everywhere in Europe first, will be based on radical internationalism, will target the democratic deficit at the heart of the EU and in each of its national jurisdictions, and only then ‘descend’ into the mechanics of national, regional and local electoral processes.
How does a movement without the backing of a member-state change the minds of European authorities if not even the European parliament is able to do so?
Our movement is coming into being in response to the realisation that ruling politicians may be in government but are not in power. Even prime ministers, Presidents and finance ministers of powerful EU states are rather powerless in a Europe that has shifted all crucial decisions away from the political sphere and into a shadowy world of bureaucrats, bankers and unelected officialdom. As for the European Parliament is just a fig leaf hiding Europe’s lack of authentic parliamentary democracy.
To counter this de-politicisation of political decision making, which reinforces the economic crisis and the crisis of legitimacy facing Europe, we need a movement that rises up throughout in Europe, at once, with the same agenda everywhere to re-politicise political decisions and to democratise the decision making process. There is no other means by which to arrest the awful feedback between authoritarianism and failed economic policies – a feedback that, left unchecked, will wreck Europe and help ultra-nationalism triumph.
You were very optimistic about securing an agreement with the Troika last year. What makes you optimistic about the pan European movement approach? Knowing what you are up against, what new ingredients does the new approach bring to the table that increases the chances for success?
When on the road to the battlefield one has a duty to be optimistic while, at the same time, preparing for the worst. That was the spirit in which I entered the Eurogroup and the negotiations with the troika. I am still convinced that we could have won an honourable agreement, had we stuck to the original strategy, instead of beginning to buckle under the pressure a few months into the struggle. But that is something that we must discuss in the future, when writing the history of the strangulation of the Athens Spring. For now what matters is that we learn from that splendid episode and move forward. What makes me optimistic about a pan-European movement? That it will be pan-European! That we shall exert pressure on every Parliament, every government, every head of state at once. That when the troika is squeezing, let’s say the Madrid government, it will know that the electoral process in, say, Germany or France or Portugal will punish any local politician who does the troika’s bidding.
Where does your movement stand today and what is the agenda for 2016?
These are very early days. We are launching the movement on 9th February. 2016 will be the year for laying down roots in every city, every town, every EU member-state. It is a truly utopian undertaking. But, then again, if we fail a terrible dystopia awaits our fragmenting, delegitimised Europe…
Polls begin to suggest a decline in SYRIZA’s popular support, as well as a rise in ND’s. Many in your country felt hope around this time last year. Are you afraid that, like SYRIZA, the Greek people will also capitulate? That they are losing hope?
Is it any wonder that hope was the victim of Syriza’s capitulation? How long could Alexis Tsipras maintain the paradox of asking his members of parliament to vote in favour of the troika’s misanthropic laws while at the same time denouncing them? As I told my comrades at the time I left the government and voted against these laws, the worst aspect of this capitulation is that the masses who will suffer the ill effects of these laws will have no one to turn to politically except Golden Dawn
On a positive note, the Greek people never cease to astonish me. Like they astonished me, pleasantly, on 5th July (with their magnificent 62% NO at the referendum), so too now I get a great deal of encouragement from their courage and capacity to maintain the hope that our Athens Spring can and will be revived. For my part, I trust that this will necessitate taking the spirit of the Athens Spring to every corner of Europe, inspiring all Europeans to demand a democratic Europe, before returning it to Greece to rekindle its flame.
What would you tell those in your country who are in fact losing hope? I am referring to those who now may view politics in a more cynical way and may decide to give up on ballots, or, perhaps worse, may turn to more radical voices. Where is hope?
Once they see Europe standing up against the authoritarianism that crushed us last summer, Greeks will not need to be told. They will rise up again, full of hope and enthusiasm.
You have always proposed that, once part of the single currency, breaking away should be pretty much out of the question. However, you once told me that Greece should not remain a member of the euro zone at any price. What is that price exactly? When do you say, “Enough?”
Currencies are instruments. They are means to other ends, like prosperity. Currency fetishism is worse than a crime – it is a mistake. I do not believe we should fetishise the euro. But I do not believe we should fetishize our national currencies either.
To answer your question directly, I would never volunteer (as a finance minister) to leave the euro, saying “enough!”. At the same time, I would not panic if I were threatened with expulsion from the euro (especially when a mechanism to expel our countries from it does not exist – and would be illegal).
My view, and policy, always was: State our red lines (i.e. that we shall never agree to reduce the minimum pensions yet again) and tell the troika that we choose to ignore their threats of pushing us out of the euro. And if they scandalously shut our banks down (as they did), we shall create a parallel payment system, in euros, and soldier on until a political solution is achieved in Brussels.
None of this is easy. But it is the only way of ending the never-ending cycle of recession and authoritarianism at the hands of an increasingly ruthless troika. It is, indeed, the only way of staying in the Eurozone long term.
Upon resigning, you told me that “size matters in Europe,” and that Spain would have never been treated in the same way as Greece in the European corridors of power. Looking to the future, what lessons should Spain take from Greece?
Three lessons are pertinent:
First, the Eurogroup’s shadowy leadership, that pulls the troika’s strings, does not care about the economic sustainability of the country the troika is sent to negotiate with but, rather, cares about reproducing its own authority. A progressive Spanish government must always keep this in sight.
Secondly, Spain will never recover or made economically sustainable if it stays within the constraints chosen for it by the troika. A progressive Spanish government must prepare for a clash with the troika.
Thirdly, prepare for hefty threats and know that they are non-credible. A progressive Spanish government must call the troika’s bluff, in the knowledge that Spain’s public and private debt cannot be absorbed by the ECB if the troika attempts to treat Madrid the way it treated Athens.
Is France a lost cause, or can a member-state like Spain bring her on board?
No country or person is a lost cause. The people of France can bring her on board. But to do so we need an internationalist, Europeanist movement that binds us together in this pursuit.
You have openly supported Podemos and wished for their playing a role in presenting effective opposition to the Troika. What would be the one piece of advice you’d give Podemos with regards to their facing the powers that be you faced a year ago?
Stick together. United you will make it. Divided you shall fall. Make sure that the leadership team act as one and do not allow the troika to push between your selves the thin edge of a huge wedge that, soon after, will tear you apart.