from both political and corporate influence, address corruption in procurement, reform the judiciary, etc. Their reply was: “No way!” Nothing should be legislated before a “comprehensive review” was complete.
During the Brussels Group negotiations, we would be asked to present our plans for VAT reform. Before we could pin down an agreement on VAT, the troika representatives would shift to pension reforms. They would immediately rubbish our proposals before moving on to, say, labour relations. Once they rejected our proposals on that, they would shift to privatisations. And so on, ensuring that the discussions moved from one topic to another before anything was agreed, without any serious negotiation on any topic, creating a process that resembled a cat chasing its tail. For months the troika representatives stonewalled, insisting that we should talk about everything, which is equivalent to negotiating on nothing at all.
Meanwhile, without having put forward any proposals of their own, and while threatening us with a cessation of talks if we dared publish our proposals, they would leak to the press that our proposals were “weak”, “ill-thought-out” and “not credible”. In the hope that they would, at some point, meet us halfway, we went along with this impossible process.
Perhaps the greatest impediment to a sensible negotiation was the fragmentation of our interlocutors. The IMF was close to us on the importance of debt restructuring but insisted that we should remove any rights that organised labour retained while destroying the surviving protections of middle-class professionals. The Commission was far more sympathetic to us on these social issues, but forbade any talk of a debt restructuring. The ECB had its own agenda. In short, each of the institutions had different red lines, which meant that we were imprisoned in a grid of red lines.
Even worse, we had to deal with our creditors’ “vertical disintegration”, as the bosses of the IMF and Commission had a different agenda from their minions, and the German and Austrian finance ministers had an agenda totally at odds with that of their chancellors.
Perhaps the most dispiriting experience was to be an eyewitness to the humiliation of the Commission and of the few friendly, well-meaning finance ministers. To be told by people holding high office in the Commission and in the French government that “the Commission must defer to the Eurogroup’s president”, or that “France is not what it used to be”, made me almost weep. To hear the German finance minister say, on 8 June, in his office, that he had no advice for me on how to prevent an accident that would be tremendously costly for Europe as a whole, disappointed me.
By the end of June, we had given ground on most of the troika’s demands – with one exception: we insisted on a mild debt restructuring that would involve no haircuts, and smart debt swaps. On 25 June I attended my penultimate Eurogroup meeting where I was presented with the troika’s “take it or leave it” offer. Having met the troika nine tenths of
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the way, we were expecting them to move towards us a little, to allow for something resembling an honourable agreement. Instead, they backtracked in relation to their own, previous position (on VAT). Clearly they were demanding that we capitulate in a manner that demonstrated our humiliation to the whole world, offering us a deal that, if we had accepted it, would have destroyed what was left of Greece’s social economy.
The following day, Prime Minister Tsipras announced that the troika’s ultimatum would be put to the Greek people in a referendum. A day later, on Friday 27 June, I attended my last Eurogroup meeting, which put in train the foretold closure of Greece’s banks – a form of punishment for our audacity in consulting our people.
In that meeting, Dijsselbloem announced that he was about to convene a second meeting later that evening, without me: without Greece being represented. I protested that he could not, of his own accord, exclude the finance minister of a eurozone member state, and I
asked for legal advice.
After a short break, the advice came from the Secretariat: “The Eurogroup does not exist in European law. It is an informal group and, therefore, there are no written rules to constrain its President.” In my mind, that was the epitaph of the Europe that Adenauer, de Gaulle, Brandt, Giscard d’Estaing, Schmidt, Kohl, Mitterrand, etc had worked towards. Of the Europe that I had always thought of, ever since I was a teenager, as my point of reference, my compass.
A week or so later, despite the closed banks and the scaremongering of the corrupt Greek media, the people of Greece delivered a resounding no in the referendum. On the following day the Euro Summit responded by imposing on our prime minister an agreement that can only be described as our government’s terms of surrender. And the weapon of choice? The illegal threat of severing Greece from the eurozone.
Whatever one thinks of our government, this episode will go down in European history as the moment when official Europe, using institutions and methods that no treaty legitimised (the Eurogroup, the Euro Summit, the threat of eviction from the eurozone), dealt a major blow to the ideal of an ever-closer democratic union. Greece capitulated, but it is Europe that was defeated.
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(1) Editor’s note: meeting of the finance ministers of the 19 countries of the eurozone.
will be a reminder of the “Juncker theorem” formulated by the European Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, four days after the Greek left’s electoral victory: “There can be no democratic choice that is counter to European treaties” (6).
One bed is too narrow to accommodate 19 different dreams. It was an almost imperial undertaking to impose the same currency on Austria and Cyprus, Luxembourg and Spain, on peoples who do not have a shared history, political culture or standard of living, the same alliances or languages. How can a state conceive an economic and social policy that is open to debate and democratic negotiation if all the mechanisms of monetary regulation are outside its control? How can peoples who may not even know each other accept a degree of solidarity comparable to the inhabitants of Florida and those of Montana? The whole thing rested on a hypothesis: that federalism at an accelerated pace would bring European peoples together. Yet 15 years after the creation of the euro, animosity has never been greater. So much so that, when Tsipras announced his referendum, he used language like a declaration of war – “a [Eurogroup] proposition in the form of an ultimatum addressed to Greek democracy” – and accused some “partners” of seeking to “humiliate an entire people”. The Greeks massively backed their government and the Germans rallied behind the quite opposite demands of their government. Could their destinies be any more closely linked without risking domestic violence?
But the hostility is no longer just between Greece and Germany. “We do not want to be a German colony,” insisted Pablo Iglesias, leader of Podemos in Spain. Italy’s prime minister Matteo Renzi – whose reticence throughout has been noteworthy – let slip: “I say to Germany: that’s enough. Humiliating a European partner is unthinkable.” According to German sociologist Wolfgang Streeck, “in Mediterranean countries, and to some extent in France, Germany is more hated than at any time since 1945. … Economic and monetary union, which was supposed to consolidate European unity once and for all, now stands a good chance of shattering it” (7).
The Greeks are attracting hostility, too. Junker is said to have told Tsipras: “If the Eurogroup functioned like a parliamentary democracy, you would already be out, because that is what nearly all your partners want” (8). Using a well-known conservative mechanism, now deployed at nation-state level, poor states have been encouraged in their mutual suspicion that others, like the proverbial “welfare chiselers” of Ronald Reagan’s speeches, are living at their expense. The Estonian education minister castigated Greece: “You’ve done too little, too slowly, and much less than Estonia. We have suffered much more than Greece. But we didn’t stop to complain; we just got on with it” (9). The Slovaks were aggrieved at the level of pensions in Greece, which should be “finally declared bankrupt in order to clear the atmosphere,” as the Czech finance minister kindly suggested (10).
Pierre Moscovici, the French Socialist and EU commissioner for economic and financial affairs, eagerly repeated an anecdote to any listening journalist: “At a Eurogroup meeting, a Lithuanian socialist minister told Varoufakis, ‘It’s very nice that you want to raise the minimum wage by 40%, but your minimum wage is already twice ours. And you want to raise it with money you owe us, with debt.’ And that’s a pretty strong argument” (11). A strong argument indeed, especially coming from Moscovici whose party had announced only a year earlier: “We want a Europe which protects its workers. A Europe of social progress, not social roll-back.”
At a European Council meeting on 7 July, several EU leaders conveyed their exasperation to Tsipras: “We can’t take any more. Greece is all we’ve talked about for months. A decision needs to be taken. If you’re incapable of taking it, it will be taken for you” (12). Is that not already a rough and ready brand of federalism? “We must go forward,” Hollande concluded from this. In which direction? The same as always: “economic governance”, “a eurozone budget”, “convergence with Germany”. In Europe, when a medicine severely damages the economic or democratic health of a patient, the dose is doubled. Therefore, since, according Hollande, “the eurozone has been able to reaffirm its cohesion with Greece, the circumstances are leading us to speed up” (13).
To leftwing activists and trade unionists, stopping and thinking seems a better option. Even for those who fear that an exit from the euro would encourage the break-up of the European project and the revival of nationalisms, the Greek crisis demonstrates that a single currency stands against popular sovereignty. Far from containing the far right, such an obvious realisation encourages it, since the far right mocks its enemies’ lectures on democracy. How can anyone imagine that the single currency could one day accommodate a progressive social policy, having seen the plans that the Eurogroup states gave Tsipras to force this leftwing prime minister to implement rigid neoliberalism?
Once Greece raised big, universal questions. Now it has revealed the true face of the Europe we no longer want.
TRANSLATED BY GEORGE MILLER (1) See Frédéric Lordon, La Malfaçon: Monnaie européenne et souveraineté démocratique (Production Defects: the European Currency and Democratic Sovereignty), Les Liens qui Libèrent, Paris, 2014. (2) New Statesman, London, 13 July 2015. (3) See Serge Halimi, “A modest and crazy dream”, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, February 2015. (4) See Serge Halimi, “A Versailles, la guerre a perdu la paix” (At Versailles, the war lost the peace), Manuel d’histoire critique, Editions Le Monde diplomatique, 2014. (5) “Europe reaches rescue deal for Greece”, The Wall Street Journal, New York, 14 July 2015. (6) Le Figaro, Paris, 29 January 2015. (7) Wolfgang Streeck, “Germany can’t solve this alone,” Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, May 2015. (8) Libération, Paris, 11-12 July 2015. (9) The Wall Street Journal, 13 July 2015. (10) Le Figaro, 3 July 2015. (11) France Inter, 1 March 2015. (12) Reported in Le Figaro, 9 July 2015. (13) Le Journal du dimanche, Paris, 19 July 2015.