Greece, Europe, and the United States


James K. Galbraith in Harper's:

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.

More here.