Take it or leave it

Syriza’s options are rapidly running out, says Eddie Ford. Whether inside or outside the euro, austerity will not go away

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, Athens really is running out of time. The creditors will be knocking, and pretty soon too - on June 30, to be exact. By that date the Greek government has to pay €1.5 billion to the International Monetary Fund (after utilising an obscure clause allowing it to bundle together multiple payments due in the same calendar month: a pretty desperate attempt to avoid the unavoidable). Even if Athens somehow manages to pay the IMF, next month it has to make two more payments totalling €3.5 billion to the European Central Bank - and so on.

Clearly, without a near miraculous last-minute deal that involves some sort of new bailout and/or debt relief, Athens will default and could find itself exiting the euro (and possibly the European Union too). Yes, there is no doubt that Angela Merkel wants to strike a deal that keeps Greece within the euro zone - reinforcing the message that euro membership, like the project as a whole, is irreversible and permanent. But for Berlin any such deal has to be on its own terms, which can only mean the Greek government having to implement austerity. As this paper has consistently argued, any deal that did not involve austerity would pose an enormous political risk for the euro leaders - Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Italy would want the same treatment; or, at the very least, the opposition parties would be demanding such treatment. And there is no way, either politically or economically, that Germany could afford to foot the bill. Therefore Yanis Varoufakis, the Greek finance minister and extremely “erratic Marxist”, was at best being naive when on June 13 he told the BBC’s Today programme that the EU and IMF were bluffing about further austerity measures - no “sensible European bureaucrat or politician will go down that road”, apparently.

With only a few weeks left at the last chance saloon, euro zone finance ministers are due to meet again in Luxembourg on June 18 - no-one expects anything to change. Brussels is still demanding that the Syriza-led government cuts wages and pensions, increases VAT and the primary surplus targets, ‘liberalises’ the labour market, etc. In turn, Alexis Tsipras remains defiant - if anything, his tone has become steadily more militant over the past week. What is there to lose? In a terse statement on June 15 he accused Greece’s creditors of “pillaging” the country and plotting “regime change” - fairly accurate charges. Then a day later in a fiery speech to his MPs, he denounced the IMF for its “criminal responsibility” - the “fixation on cuts”, he declared, is “most likely part of a political plan to humiliate an entire people”. Any agreement between Greece and its lenders, he continued, will have to include debt relief based upon three main conditions: pensioners and workers must not be “burdened further”; any discussion about Grexit must be “put to bed”, and “binding terms” must be adopted for tackling Greece’s profound funding problem. He also reminded his comrades about the “mandate” they got from the Greek people to “end austerity policy”.

Really putting the cat amongst the pigeons, earlier in the day Tsipras reportedly told Stavros Theodorakis - leader of the ‘ultra-centrist’ To Potami - that the Greek government would not be paying the IMF at the end of the month unless a favourable deal was struck. Needless to say, that would be viewed as a default and would obviously beg the question as to whether Athens will meet its upcoming ECB bill - or, indeed, any other bill. Similarly, Varoufakis said he would not be putting any new proposals to the June 18 meeting - take it or leave it - and challenged the entire “legitimacy” of the negotiations. Rumours swirling, the German tabloid Bild carried a story that the Greek government had discovered a way of deferring the IMF payment until the end of the year - perhaps another loophole has been found in the small print. Greek officials, however, denied the story.

Less than impressed, Jean-Claude Juncker, - president of the European Commission - claimed he had “sympathy for the Greek people, but not the Greek government”. Speculation rife about an emergency summit on June 21, senior EU politicians are now openly talking about Grexit. Valdis Dombrovskis, EC vice-president, admitted that euro zone leaders were discussing “less favourable scenarios” for Greece. The German newspaper, Suddeutsche Zeitung, has reported that Greece’s lenders may force it into an ultimatum as soon as this weekend by cutting its access to the European payments system.

Things look bleak for the Greek government. Without an agreement to unlock the last tranche of €7.2 billion in bailout funds and extend the current rescue package, Athens will run out of cash. Rather ominously, Greek 10-year bond yields now stand at 12.7% - way above the 7% danger zone - whilst two-year bonds stand at over 30%. On June 16 the Greek stock market slumped by almost 7% in early trading.


What next? In a rather stupid analogy, the Financial Times has suggested that Alexis Tsipras is facing “nothing less than a 21st century version of Brest-Litovsk” - arguing that Syriza “diehards” are vowing not to submit to the creditors “just like Leon Trotsky … vowed in 1918 never to accept Germany’s punitive peace terms”. In the end though, comments the paper, Trotsky “dropped his resistance” and Lenin “mustered a majority” on the central committee for signing this “Carthaginian peace”, so that he “could carry out a revolution at home” (June 12).

Of course, this is nonsense. Has the state bureaucracy in Greece been overthrown? Have the standing army and the police force been replaced by workers’ militia? Have the assets of the church and capitalists been expropriated? Is the Syriza government part of a continental revolutionary movement or in possession of a revolutionary programme? Lenin signed the Brest-Litovsk treaty for one very simple reason: to provide a breathing space for the Bolshevik regime whilst it waited for the European revolution to come to its rescue - principally Germany. Tragically, thanks to the treachery of the social democrats, they were left isolated and eventually fell to Stalinist counterrevolution within the revolution.

Nevertheless, the FT and others have been agitating for some time for Tsipras to split Syriza by ditching his awkward left and moving to the sensible centre ground - effectively becoming, in other words, a Greek version of Ramsay MacDonald. Under this notion, using the 1931 National Government in Britain as a historical model, Alexis MacDonald sets up a pro-EU national unity government perhaps consisting of To Potami and the rump that is now Pasok - maybe even elements from New Democracy. However, there is no sign that Tsipras is prepared to adopt this approach.

After all, who or what is the ‘centre’ ground - it has almost entirely collapsed. Just take a look at the January general election. The once mighty Pasok received a humiliating 4.7% of the vote, leaving it with only 13 MPs. As for Dimar (Democratic Left), it fell well short of the 3% threshold necessary to enter parliament - it was punished for its participation in the ND-Pasok coalition government (as was the Popular Orthodox Rally, on just 1.3%). George Papandreou’s breakaway Movement of Democratic Socialists only got 2.46%. Meanwhile, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn is the third largest party in the parliament - and the rightwing populists of the Independent Greeks are now in coalition with Syriza, with its leader, Panos Kammenos, the defence minister. And the ‘official’ Communist Party of Greece (KKE) never goes away, of course.

Indeed, Tsipras seems very loyal to his Syriza comrades, whatever wing or faction of the party they come from - quite a commendable quality in many respects. In fact, Syriza has more or less maintained its level of support in opinion polls - ND is way behind. Tsipras himself is a very popular figure - a recent poll conducted for the Avgi newspaper gives him a 78% approval rating, while 63% supported the government’s overall negotiation strategy. Moreover, interestingly, 82% said the government’s stance gave them a feeling of “national pride.”

Another thing that is important to realise is that Tsipras has been successful in shifting the popular perception of who is responsible for austerity - no mean feat. Previously, the common idea had been that the government was the culprit: they were the ones to protest against, whether in the ballot box or on the streets. But now the finger of blame points squarely to the ‘institutions’ and Berlin. This is bound to serve Syriza well in the short to medium term. However frustrating it may be for the FT or the Greek bourgeoisie, Alexis Tsipras will remain a prominent player for some time to come.

Plan B

It is almost impossible to predict what will happen next. Quite rightly, the ECB’s president, Mario Draghi, described the prospect of a Greek default as “uncharted waters”. The various scenarios range from the apocalyptic to the belief that a Grexit would be manageable. For instance, Moritz Kraemer, managing director of sovereign ratings at the Standard & Poor credit agency, said that the financial system is well insulated - the “contagion risks” are “not really that important any more”, as Europe has “much more powerful firewalls” than in 2012, including the new bailout facility of the European Stability Mechanism and the ECB’s new bond-buying vehicle, the Outright Monetary Transactions (under which the bank makes purchases in secondary, sovereign bond markets, under certain conditions, of bonds issued by euro zone member-states).

But things look much more desperate from the point of view of Greece, whose central bank on June 17 warned that the country could be on a “painful course” to euro exit - relegated to just a “poor country in the European south”, a failed state. The danger is that a potentially “manageable debt crisis”, as we have now, could “snowball into an uncontrollable crisis”, as the “ensuing acute exchange rate crisis would send inflation soaring”. The impact on the Greek people, the bank cautioned, would be “desperately severe”: deep recession, a dramatic decline in income levels, an exponential rise in unemployment and the general collapse of the Greek economy. For that reason, the bank said, the risk of a “credit event” (ie, default), must be removed “once and for all”.

The ECB must shortly decide whether to keep providing the emergency liquidity that allows Greek banks to operate, having pumped around €82 billion into the system. If the ECB were to turn off the tap, that would cause an instant financial meltdown and almost certainly force Athens to impose capital controls to stem the outflow from its banks - such as cash machine withdrawal limits, foreign transfer restrictions and physical currency limits imposed at its borders.

If Athens felt compelled to reintroduce the drachma, it would obviously see a rapid drop in value - let alone if the government issued IOUs, which would be the road to almost certain disaster. Under these conditions civil unrest triggered by the secret state is a possibility, as is a military coup backed by the courts, Golden Dawn, the church, etc. Reflecting the growing fears of a Greek default, Günther Oettinger, Germany’s European commissioner, called for a “plan B’” in case no deal was reached - the country could soon be designated an “emergency area”, unable to maintain energy supply, police services, medicines, etc.

In fact, it does not appear that the Syriza leadership has a plan B - just hope beyond hope that its creditors blink at the very last minute, meaning Greece can remain within the euro. But the left of the party certainly does have one - especially the influential Left Platform, which on June 17 called for mass demonstrations against the “destructive agreement” that the institutions are trying to impose on the Greek people. The LP wants a complete “rupture” with the euro zone, with central committee member Stathis Kouvelakis demanding that the government should “counterattack” with a plan based on “pre-electoral pledges” and previous “programmatic announcements” - he said Tsipras should default on the debt as a matter of “priority”.

While communists can sympathise with the militant sentiments put forward by LP, their strategy is hopeless - an isolated government on the margins of Europe would have absolutely no choice but to preside over its own austerity regime. Greece, at the end of the day, is a small and economically weak country that does not have much in terms of industrial production and, if placed under siege, would be unlikely to be able to feed itself. Yes, no doubt, a Syriza-led government carrying out an LP-type programme would try to strike deals with Moscow - it should be noted that Tsipras is meeting Vladimir Putin on June 18. Maybe Greece could become a Mediterranean version of Cuba - though it is a very risky adventure. But from the viewpoint of socialism an impoverished Greece is a total non-starter - it would serve as a giant advert for the folly of electing ‘loony left’ governments. Capitalism cannot be positively overcome by one state acting on its own: the pernicious doctrine of socialism in one country (national socialism). There are objective, material factors that simply cannot be ignored.

For this very reason, we in the CPGB always strongly counselled against Syriza ‘taking the power’ - even though most on the left (at first) thought we were mad for saying so. If we find ourselves in a situation where there is no reasonable prospect of carrying out our full minimum programme - for the smashing of the old bureaucratic bourgeois state and its replacement by a semi-state that marks the beginning of the transition to human freedom - then we should remain a party of extreme opposition.

In our opinion, what Syriza should have done was resist the temptation of government and concentrated instead on building up its own forces, to the point where it had become genuinely hegemonic within Greece - having a clear majority committed to a transition to socialism. Most importantly of all, the Greek left needs to be a key force for principled unity of the working class across Europe - which obviously requires a Communist Party of the European Union if it is going to be meaningful.