Tag Archive: Austerity

It´s the emotions, stupid! or the politics of emotions

James Carville will be remembered as the strategist during Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign that gave us what has become the political mantra: “It´s the economy, stupid!” as a reminder of what to focus on. But a generation later, as we enter a new political phase, facts (e.g. the unemployment rate, GDP growth, exports, contribution of immigration, etc.) are no longer so important. Furthermore, expertise, evidence, independent analysis, etc. do not seem to carry as much weight as subjective feelings or emotions. This is the politics of emotions and perhaps it is time for “It´s the emotions, stupid!” to enter the political lexicon.

Post-factual politics / politics of emotions

The Brexit Referendum was the first serious and persistent post-factual political campaign in Britain. This was not necessarily something new but rather a culmination of a process which has been evolving for some time. It was already at an advanced stage of development during the Scottish referendum in 2015, where the emphasis of the campaign was very much on tapping one particular emotion: fear. The campaign was unrelenting in its focus on the negative implications of Scotland leaving the UK.

The fear-based campaign, mainly by those seeking to retain the status quo, did not go entirely according to plan. Despite the British government milking the fear factor for all it was worth, it was not sufficient to persuade the Scottish electorate to remain in the Union. The polls were fairly consistent in showing that despite the unrelenting emphasis on the negative, the majority of adults in Scotland were still tending towards voting in favour of seceding from the UK. It was only in the last few days of the campaign that a shift towards remaining part of the UK occurred, coinciding with the British government changing tack and unashamedly bribing the voters with all manner of concessions. Even so, it just about managed to gain a majority for the Union to remain intact. The highest recorded turnout (85%) in the UK resulted in a narrow vote (55.3%) against Scottish independence.

The recent EU referendum Remain campaign, led by Mr David Cameron and his then heir apparent, Mr David Osborne, clearly failed to learn the lessons of that narrow, last-minute turnaround in the campaign. The key strategy devised by the Remain campaign leading to the ballot on the 23 June 2016 was more of the same, otherwise known as “Project Fear”. All the possible negatives, especially the economic ones, of voting to leave the EU were magnified and pushed for all they were worth by the Remain campaign. Vast amounts of data analysis and facts were deployed with the tradition emphasis on “it´s the economy, stupid!” These arguments were reinforced up by various statesmen, such as Barack Obama, as well as reputable institutions such as the OECD, World Bank, IMF, economists, etc.

George Osborne, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer (Minister of Finance) was tasked with carrying out the economic analysing and publicising the Treasury´s assessment of the implications of Brexit. The basic conclusion was that Brexit would tip the economy into recession, 500,000+ people would lose their jobs and wages would decline, as would house prices. In 15 years, the economy would be 6.2% smaller, resulting in a loss of £4,300 for every household. The expectation was that this would put the fear of god in people and deliver a government victory.

It was plausible, it was fact-based and it preyed on people´s worst economic fears. No effort was made at all to make a case for remaining in the EU; I cannot remember a single discussion or comment or a positive nature that was ever pushed by the Remain campaign. The result is well-known: 52% voted to leave, 48% voted to remain. It was undoubtedly the single most momentous political result of recent times and will affect Britain and the rest of the EU for the foreseeable future.

The lessons of the Scottish Referendum, combined with the post-factual approaches deployed by Donald Trump across the Big Pond, were clearly analysed much more carefully by the Leave Campaign than by the Remainers. They too decided to focus on people´s fears but from a very different angle. It was not based on sophisticated econometric models that almost no one understands to magic a 6.2% reduction in GDP and thus a loss of £4,300 in the next 15 years. The Brexiters’ approach was very simple – it was exaggerated, it was not fact-based and it pandered directly to people´s fears and concerns today. If Remain’s focus was characterised as “Project Fear”, the Brexiters´ approach can be summed up as “Project Lies”. It was underpinned by a determination to dismiss and discredit all government and/or independent analyses, facts and expertise as being somehow biased because they had to be benefiting from EU funds.

The Brexiters concentrated primarily but not exclusively on the fears of the non-working, working and lower middle classes in the UK. Fears of immigrants (from the EU, though they account for less than 50% of all immigration), fears of job losses (though the UK has almost full employment – 4.9%) and stagnating wages (though almost all studies suggest otherwise), fear of losing control over our lives (i.e. the EU / European Parliament / European Commission making laws and regulations instead of the UK Parliament), all combined with a hefty dose of resentment towards the elites (taking more than their fair share of the economic pie). This was all combined with arguments about the NHS (an exaggerated £350m-a-week currently going to the EU which would be ploughed into the NHS instead – not a penny has been redirected so far), the housing crisis (blamed on EU immigrants and wealthy foreigners, though Britain has failed to build adequate housing for many decades), etc.

Emotions / fears / concerns galore

History has shown over and again, that strong emotions / fears / concerns can be exploited by those who offer change in the form of simple but evocative messages; Donald Trump has demonstrated the power of simplistic but populist messages, using Twitter, regardless of grammar or facts. The reason why these emotion-laden messages are so powerful is that they are not at all abstract (such as the Treasury / OECD / IMF / World Bank models) but embedded in people´s biases and/or experiences.

There is plenty of evidence that for decades the non-working, working and lower middle classes in many Western countries have been lost economic ground, while the elites have prospered from the ongoing forces of globalisation, greatly accentuated recently by the austerity drives (see below). Inequality has grown, wages have stagnated, tax policies have favoured the better off, while those dependent on key elements of the welfare state, including the middle classes (child benefit, tax credit, etc.), have systematically lost out as the impact of austerity has spread out. This has not been helped by the privately educated/ elites controlling successive governments, yet failing to recognise or deal with the problems faced by normal individuals and their families.

Referendums may work quite well for specific issues, such as whether to allow abortion or same sex-marriage but they are not at all geared to answering complex issues, such as whether to remain in the EU in the form or a simple “yes / no” answer. So when the opportunity arose to give the government / elites a bloody nose, it was obviously just too good an opportunity to pass-up, despite (or partly because of) the messages being put out by Project Fear.

Having gone through with the referendum, the new Conservative government cannot simply backtrack from the outcome of the vote. Doing so would fatally undermine democracy in Britain and unleash potentially far worse than what we are currently witnessing in the form of the current wave of populism. This populism seeks to take advantage of the fact that many people are no longer interested in facts and figures or weighing-up the pros and cons of different arguments. They are much more minded to follow their instincts or biases, as vented by people such as Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marie le Pen and quite a few others in Italy, Poland, Hungary, etc.

Raw emotions as politics (according to Home Office figures, 1,000 Syrian refugees were resettled under the Vulnerable Persons Relocation scheme in 2015. 1+ million refugees were accepted by Germany)

This strain of post-factual politics of emotions is not predicated on the traditional political dividing lines of left (Socialism/Social Democracy) or right (Conservatism/Republicanism) – it is cross-cutting in nature. The trigger issues are broad and generic yet connected with emotional impulses strong enough to transcend traditional party lines and similar allegiances. This was evident in the Brexit campaign, it was seen in the US Presidential election and strains of it are evident in France and other European countries. It is here to stay.

The emotive themes of the post-factual politics of fear are fairly common, regardless of which country is in question. This includes fear of powerful elites (e.g. Brussels/Washington D.C.), foreigners (EU / Mexicans, refugees, etc.), globalisation (trade deals, China, etc.), terrorism (Al Qaida, IS, etc.), cultural change (Islam, immigrants, refugees, etc.), etc.

No amount of logic, analysis or expertise can counteract the emotional triggers that many people have to such themes. A clear example of this was the deliberate dismissal of “experts” during the Brexit debates. Michael Gove made the situation crystal clear whenever confronted with facts/figures/experts that did not align with the case he was making for Brexit with the following: “People in this country have had enough of experts.” Truth be told, that particular soundbite had the ring of truth about it. People would much rather trust their own experiences / emotions / prejudices than listen to what experts have to say, unless those views conform with their world view and preferably in easily digestible messages (not exactly something that experts excel at).

The main themes include the following:

  • Control of own borders
  • European Union
  • Patriotism/Nationalism
  • Immigration
  • Refugees/asylum
  • Muslim culture
  • Terrorism
  • Trade / Globalisation
  • Elitism / 1%
  • Lower real incomes.

Other themes could have been added to the list, such as same-sex marriage, transgender, abortion, global warming, etc. which are all highly emotive, but the list illustrates the general issues. In the case of Donald Trump, a whole new set of additional issues could have been added such as racism, xenophobia, bigotry, misogyny, narcissism, etc. One can only hope that Trump´s particular strain of post-factual populism is not the future of politics, though I fear it already is.

Variations on a theme

Almost all the themes are negative in nature; they instill anxieties and fears in people. The only exception is nationalism / patriotism which, generally leads to positive feelings such as pride in one´s country. History is replete with examples of how easily both positive and negative feelings can be manipulated, misused and abused. Patriotism is particularly strong in the US, with its melting pot but less so in Britain, with its former empire. The Germans, the culprits of two World Wars, are rather more interested in forging a European identity, though this is has been slowly changing in recent times.

There are clearly variations. The European Union (EU) does not figure large in people´s perceptions in the USA but is something that the UK has been in two minds about since the formation of the EEC in 1958: there has always been an ambivalent relationship involved. The opposite applies to Germany: it has traditionally had an unquestioning stance to the EU where traditionally the French have made the strategic decisions (Marie le Pen would call for a referendum to pull France out of both the EU and the Euro) and the Germans have paid for them. This started changing during Gerhard Schröder´s Chancellorship and accelerated with the Euro crisis, and the advent of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which initially wanted out of the Euro but under new leadership has evolved into an anti-immigrant/refugee/Islam party and could eventually become anti-EU.

The perception in Germany was initially that it was paying for the economic and other economic mistakes of other EU countries, especially the Mediterranean ones. This evolved into concern over the dangers to the Euro risks for Germany itself, followed by a blistering critique of the European Central Bank´s policy of near zero interest rates and quantitative easing. The country is also experiencing angst about its capacity to absorb over 1 million mostly Muslim young men that the other EU countries (with the exception of Austria and Sweden) were completely unwilling to share. More recently, this has transmuted into concern about terrorism and attacks on German soil.

A clear trend is evident: the politics of emotions is tapping into fears and concerns about immigration generally and refugees and asylum seekers specifically. The key immigrants in the USA are the Mexicans, something that the US has a long history of, not all of it proud, such as the forcible deportation of 500,000 – 2 million people during 1929 to 1936. Trump milked this theme to the maximum extent possible with his talk of building a “big beautiful wall”, of making Mexico pay for it and of getting rid of illegal immigrants from day one of his Presidency. None of this was based on fact but it hardly dented his popularity among large segments of the population, including many of Hispanic descent.

The referendum debate on immigration in the UK has verged on the xenophobic and racist, despite the fact that EU immigration involves mostly white European migrants. Immigration was and remains the most vivid expression of people´s concerns. In this respect, Germany is different to other nations by virtue of its role in the past in respect to groups such as Jews, Roma, disabled, etc. For this reason, there is no indication at present of Germany reacting badly to EU migration (but see discussion below about recent influx of refugees), though it is happening on an unprecedented scale which dwarfs the immigration in countries such as the UK (1,13 million in 2015). This may change in time, though the ageing population structure of the country is a countervailing factor.

The ire of the Germans, particularly evident during 2015, was focused on the implications of Germany absorbing it 1.1 million asylum seekers and refugees and the still relatively large numbers expected in future (the forecast is 300,000 in 2016). It all started well, with Germans going out of their way to be welcoming but quickly deteriorated as the cultural and economic strains became apparent. To be fair, the wave of intense concern, particularly notable during the New Year period, has waned as the sheer numbers being received by the country have abated in 2016. A blip was still evident during the summer due to various terrorist and other incidents.

In the UK, known for its open racism during the 1950s to 1970s (recall private landlord adverts: No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish), recent anger towards EU migration started initially with a focus on the Poles and then extend to the Romanians (especially Roma) and pretty much all EU immigrants have implicitly been targeted during and since the referendum in June 2016. Who knows if and when this feeling may be extended to all other migrants, regardless of origin or the length of time they have lived and worked in the UK. The populists of the post-factual era are sure to milk this particular negative sentiment, especially during the drawn-out period of Brexit negotiations that will last at least until 2019. This is all the more likely because the British government still has no plan for Brexit and the other EU nations are highly unlikely to offer Britain a good Brexit deal. The risk of other countries following suit is just too great for this to happen.

Pressing the sore spot

The next two themes are particularly emotive, namely fear of terrorism and the influence on Muslim culture on Western societies. This is a particularly rich vein for post-factual politics, since this is probably where the most intense fears reside. I have shown that people´s perception of the size of the Muslim population is totally out of proportion compared with the reality.  The following illustrates the data for the three countries in question:

Country        Muslim Population % of Population % 2030
Germany 4.1 million 5% 7.1%
UK 2.8 million 4.6% 8.2%
USA 2,6 million 0.8% 1.7%

 

These data refer to 2010 as I could not find more recent comparable information for the three countries. Since 2015, there would have been an increase of approximately 1.1 million Muslims in Germany alone (i.e. 6.3% of the population) and this will continue, albeit at a lower rare. Overall, the Muslim share of EU´s total population was 5% in 2010 and is expected to increase to 8% by 2030. The fact that the Muslim population remains relatively small seems to cut little ice with many people, especially the older age groups. There is intense concern about the possible loss of cultural identity, combined with strong doubts about the willingness of the Muslim communities to integrate. This is and will continue to be a powerful emotion to tap into; many are intent on exploiting it.

Fear of terrorist attacks is at least as powerful, if not more so. The reality is that the chances of dying in a terrorist attack while on a plane is 1 in 25 million and the overall average chances of dying in any kind of terrorist attack worldwide is 1 in 9.3 million. There were at least 155 Americans killed by police officers in the United States in 2011, which means that people are about 10 times more likely to be killed by a law enforcement officer than by a terrorist. Worldwide, people are 517 times more likely to be murdered, 500 times more likely to die in a car accident, 41 times more likely to die in natural disasters and 1.8 million times by more likely to die of heart disease that being killed in a terrorist attack. However, none of this matters because negative emotions Trump facts (pun intended) – every time.

But I am falling again into the trap of talking about data / statistics / evidence in the post-factual political age.

The combination of fear of cultural change as a result of the perceived “Islamification” of Europe and the clear association with terrorism is such a potent mix in people´s minds and there is little antidote to it, other than public education. Unfortunately, not only is this imperfect, it also takes a hell of a long time to permeate minds and influence public perceptions, time which the proponents of post-factual politics will put to use in the pursuit of a simplistic but emotionally charged agenda.

The last set of themes listed above concern an amalgam of globalisation/trade deals/deteriorating incomes/elitism. In this particular case, I can relate to the panoply of emotional pulls what populists in the post-factual era are latching on to.

There is increasing evidence produced by academics such as Thomas Pikkety, who argues that the rate of capital return in developed countries is persistently greater than the rate of economic growth and that this not only causes wealth inequality, but that inequality will also increase in the future unless redistribution occurs through a progressive global tax on wealth.

This is intensifying the “them and us” divide and connects with a range of themes relating to the stresses and strains caused by international trade and globalisation, combined with growing social polarisation / inequality. This is the discourse of the 1% / elites taking a disproportionate bite off the economic pie compared with the non-working/working population (globally speaking, anyone with an income of EUR 30,000 p.a. belongs to the 1%). The lower and middle-income groups have also experienced the brunt of the effects of austerity, combined with the increasing job insecurity, resulting in deteriorating real incomes and state benefits. This led to a pronounced backlash against the elites, including the political and financial professions. These trends more than compensate for the countervailing influence of the remarkably low levels of unemployment (4.9% in USA/UK and 6.1% in Germany, September 2016) which pertain today.

What of the future?

So what does the post-factual, feeling based politics mean for Britain, Germany, Europe and indeed the rest of the world?

It means that are all in for a roller coaster political ride for the foreseeable future.

And it also means that the democracies discussed in this post are in deep trouble, unless the global economy not only starts growing strongly soon, but the resulting economic benefits are much more equally distributed in the future.

But the chances of both happening any time soon are about as high as the likelihood of being caught in a terrorist attack.

 


Brexit has happened: good luck!

And so, the day after the EU Referendum, a small majority of my countrymen and women have voted to leave the European Union (EU). Today is my “D” Day: D for “Disaster”. I always knew that this outcome was a distinct possibility, which is why I have spent time in the last couple of months writing a series of blog posts on difference aspects of the Brexit debate.

My effort has come to nought, hence my personal Disaster Day.

As I stare at the rubble of defeat, I am reminded of a few lines from “If”, by far the most popular poem in Britain, written by an Englishman, Rudyard Kipling. The lines are:

“If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;

If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;

If you can meet with triumph and disaster;

And treat those two imposters just the same…

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!”

So I shall try to treat this disaster in the same way as I would have treated triumph, had the referendum decision been to Remain in the EU.

It has been hard fought and divisive referendum.

But more than 50% of British adults with a vote (I could not vote because of a rule that forbids this after a certain period of time living away from Britain) have made their view clear and it is pretty consistent across almost every region of the UK, except for London, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

It was always going to be a close run race.

I offer congratulations to the winners and commiseration to the losers. The world will not end, nor will it change radically for the better as a result of Brexit.

There may be stormy weather ahead but Britain is strong enough, sufficiently wealthy and well-educated enough to not only withstand the turbulence but hopefully to thrive.

I wish Britain and my fellow Britons a prosperous future, despite what I consider to be the wrong referendum decision.

© Ricardo Pinto, 2016, AngloDeutsch™ Blog, www.AngloDeutsch.EU

 


The Brexiteers vs The Establishment: a very tall tale

And so, with less than a week to go before the EU Referendum scheduled of the 23 June 2016, the Leave (or Brexit for British Exit) campaign took a lead in the opinion polls for the first time, quickly followed by other polls showing that everything is to play for. Such polls are not an exact science: they have not known for their accuracy in the UK. In the last referendum they were predicting that Scotland would choose to divorce from the UK. More recently they did not predict a majority for the Conservatives in the last General Election. Still something is happening which might result in the unimaginable: Britain could soon find itself heading out of the European Union (EU).

A theme which becomes more and more apparent in recent polling is that a shift has occurred and it is connected with particular social groups representing the working population pushing for Brexit. The reason has probably little to do with the EU itself, which is generally not that well known (in itself is an on-going problem and not just in the UK). Rather this seems to reflect be a groundswell of concerns, anxieties and fear which go beyond EU immigration:

“… the EU referendum debate has opened up a Pandora’s box of working-class anger and frustration… I would argue that the referendum debate within working-class communities is not about immigration, despite the rhetoric. It is about precarity and fear … For them, talking about immigration and being afraid of immigration is about the precarity of being working class, when people’s basic needs are no longer secure and they want change. The referendum has opened up a chasm of inequality in the UK and the monsters of a deeply divided and unfair society are crawling out. They will not easily go away no matter what the referendum result.”

This analysis rings true to me and hence my fear that the EU Referendum could swinging towards Brexit, whatever the merits of the Remain case. The Leave campaign has detected and tapped into this sentiment, and is now milk it for all it is worth. By contrast, the utter failure of the Remain campaign to articulate a strong case for remaining, as opposed sketching gloom and doom Brexit scenarios, has an alarmist and thus false ring to it.

Instead, the Brexiteers have positioned themselves to pander to these fears and anxieties, while at the same time offering them a golden opportunity to giving a bloody nose to the toffs representing the British Establishment / Elites that would preserve the status quo (i.e. remain in the EU) at all costs and against the best interests of ordinary Britons.

Austerity has  undoubtedly intensified the sense of precarity in British society and this is being exploited by the Brexiteers. However, the issue is what exactly is the motivation of the leading Brexiteers and their backers? Should Brexit occur, would they prioritise dealing with these legitimate concerns upon Brexit or are the Brexiteers spinning a very long tale?

The Noes

The “Noes” camp is led by Boris Johnson and his band of merry men such as Michael Gove, Iain Duncan Smith, Priti Patel, etc. (all Conservatives). Nigel Farage (UKIP) is ploughing his own furrow. The others consider him to be “toxic” to the Brexit because of his focus on the issue of EU immigration,  most recently demonstrated in UKIP´s intemperate use of the refugee crisis, though in reality the immigration theme is one which the rest of the leading Brexiteers have increasingly latched on to.

They are joined by those well-known supporters of democracy and transparency who only wish Britain well for the future, such as Marine Le Pen, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. All are encouraging Britons to Brexit, thus freeing the UK from the clutches, if not shackles, of the EU.

They all stress the need to regain control of the borders (i.e. stop EU immigration), stop EU benefit tourism, stop EU heath tourism, stop housing being taken up by EU foreigners, stop school places being taken-up by EU migrants´ children,  stop the loss of British sovereignty, stop EU enlargement, stop payments flowing to the EU, etc. (follow the links for an alternative analysis of the causes and the solutions). The grand plan is to stop anything and everything emanating from the EU because it is self-evident (to them) that all of Britain’s problems stem from being in the EU. This has the simplistic ring of pure populism and we all know what that has led to in the past.

The Brexiteers have few ideas about what they would do upon Brexit. The plan is basically to stop the EU, regain full sovereignty, regain control of the borders, reduce immigration through an Austria style points system, sign-up new trade deals and plough Britain´s EU financial contribution into public services. Britain will soon thrive upon Brexit. Apparently.

The possibility that most of the key problems in Britain (housing, health, education, low productivity, infrastructure, massive public and private sector debt, etc.) are the direct result of Britain´s own systemic policy failures and would cost a few zillion pounds more that the EU annual contribution seemingly does not cross their mind.

The EU is to blame for everything and the British Establishment / Elites (i.e. pretty much anyone daring to challenge the Leave arguments, especially experts) with it.

The Ayes

On the other side of the fence is a very long list of those calling for Britain to Remain in the EU because it is in Britain´s present and future interest to do so, including:

  • The majority of the Conservative Party, including the Prime Minister and Chancellor:
  • The majority of the Labour Party, including the leader of the opposition (officially);
  • The Social Democrats;
  • The Scottish National Party;
  • The Greens;
  • Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton;
  • The Treasury;
  • The Institute of Fiscal Affairs;
  • The Federal Reserve;
  • The World Bank;
  • The World Trade Organisation (WTO);
  • The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD);
  • The International Monetary Fund (IMF);
  • The other 27 EU nations;
  • The trades unions;
  • The great majority of established businesses;
  • The great majority of health professionals, NGOs and similar;
  • Almost all economists (since there are almost as many differences of opinion as there are economists, the fact that about 600 have united behind Remain is remarkable).

This is an overwhelming group of institutions that favour Remaining in the EU.

Such an incredible array of opinion would normally sway public opinion.

But the reality is that they are cutting little or no ice with the social groups previously discussed.

Instead, the Brexiteers have gained momentum and could well win the day.

The Anti Establishment Band?

The Brexiteers are putting-up a fight – an increasingly bitter one at that (as was the previous Brexit referendum in 1975).

They stress that they are fighting the British Establishment / Elite, pointedly alluding to the wealthy toffs such as David Cameron and George Osborne.

They emphasise that the Establishment prefers the status quo, rather than what is right for Britain.

They maintain that the Establishment from abroad (USA, Japan, Germany, France, Italy, Canada, Australia, etc.) should butt-off and allow Britons to get on it, as if we are not all interconnected in this globalised world where whatever Britons decided affects all other EU national, as well other countries.

They dismiss international organisations for being stuffed full of overpaid and under-taxed bureaucrats that simply trot out what the EU and the Establishment wants to hear. They do the same with any other experts, Britons or not, for all being in the EU´s pocket.

Since the economic and trade case for Brexit is non-existent, except in their own imagination, they increasingly contrast themselves with the Elites / Establishment, while they uphold the interests of ordinary working class Britons by braving political correctness and speaking out against current EU immigration as well as immigration from future accession countries such as Turkey and Albania.

They point out that, unlike them, the Establishment has lost contact with ordinary, working class voters, who are suffering from the consequences of the EU.

And they insist that they are not racists, they are not nativists, they are not isolationists and they are not Little Englanders. They just want what is in the best long-term best interests of the UK.

There is an element of truth in some of the above; there has to be a veneer of it in order to connect with people.

But there is a very tall tale at the core of it too, which is what I would like to emphasis in this post.

Question: when is the Establishment not the Establishment?

Answer: when you belong to the leading Band of Brexiteers

Maybe it is possible that all the British and other institutions previously listed are not in cahoots in a someMachiavellian national, European and global  conspiracy to get Britons to vote for something that would be detrimental to their own future.

Maybe ending EU membership will not miraculously cure Britain´s structural problems, which are the main reason that the key British public services are in their current state.

Maybe Britain´s austerity, which has nothing to do with the EU, is the driver of all the angst.

Maybe Brexit might actually accentuate the problems, not least the massive and growing public sector deficit, in the short, medium and long-term.

And maybe, just maybe, the Brexiteers are themselves deeply embedded in the very bedrock of the Establishment / Elite which they are so dismissive of.

Consider the following:

  • Boris Johnson: Eton, Oxford University, ex-Mayor of London, Cabinet Member;
  • Michael Gove: Robert Gordon´s School, Oxford University, Cabinet Member
  • Iain Duncan Smith: St. Peter´s RC Secondary School, Sandhurst Royal Military Academy, ex-Cabinet Member;
  • Nigel Farage: Dulwich College, ex-city trader, Member of European Parliament.

Put in these terms, and not even alluding to their likely personal wealth, the band of leading Brexiteers dismissing everyone else for being the British Establishment / Elite could be construed as a good case of “the pot calling the kettle black,” to use a quaint but fitting British saying.

The most prominent Brexiteers did not exactly grow-up in a council housing estate, attend a public school, let alone go around waving a flag of St George or driving a white van, to use some of the usual terminology which the media and politicians now use to denote the white, working class social groups in England (Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland remain solidly for staying in the EU).

I doubt that Boris Johnson and his band of merry Brexiteers are to be regularly found at the local pub, quaffing a celebratory pint of ale after a football match to wash down their bacon butties (unless TV crews are present, of course). I exaggerate, but the point is that all the leading figures of the vote Leave campaign appear to have done rather well out of being an integral part of the British Establishment /Elite. You can be confident that their children and grandchildren are likely to do well out of being part of the same social group.

Therefore, for this set of people to be tapping into the palpable angst among working class Britons in order to further their own political ambitions grates with me. They are seeking to mobilise working class sentiment to achieve an ideological objective which, in the long-term, may very well work against those same voters while, at the same time, propelling BoJo and his band of merry Brexiteers ever further up the greasy pole of British politics and Establishment positions.

The fact is that the leading Brexiteers are not exactly committed to protecting the average person.

In a recent televised debate, Boris Johnson said that the Leave side is determined to protect the workers after Nicola Sturgeon quoted something he once wrote: “The weight of employment regulation is backbreaking. We should get rid of the collective redundancies directive, the workers’ directive, the working time directive and 1,000 more.”

Yet these are the very things which are protecting British employees from having their rights undermined by such British developments as “zero hour contracts”.

Nigel Farage has been widely reported for calling for a move away from a state-funded NHS.

Gove is the architect of educational academies that is not only flawed but may well be damaging education while also increasing inequality.

Iain Duncan Smith is the author-in-chief of the austerity drive which has cut out billions from the welfare state, thus impoverishing the lives of the non-working population of the UK, while also dismantling various parts of social security safety net for low income workers.

The sad fact is that the leading Brexiteers and Brexit, which is definitely on the cards likely, may actually accentuate the fear, insecurity and precarity that is driving the recent trends in voting intentions in relation to the forthcoming EU referendum. When they no longer need to take the EU into consideration, further deregulation and labour market flexibility will lead to even more winners and losers. Your guess about who is likely to be on the losing side is as good as mine: the very people that might vote for Brexit as the outlet of their frustration and anxieties?

The EU Bashers

The band of Brexiteers is far from being alone in the aggressive fight for Brexit.

There is a strong anti-EU bias at the core of the British Establishment. A recent study by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that the British press coverage of the EU Referendum is “heavily skewed in favour of Brexit”. It is not just any newspapers that are anti “Europe” but specifically the ones which just happen to be most influential in terms of the social groups turning towards Brexit, as well as having massive circulation compared with the pro-remain newspapers, as illustrated below.

Pro Leave Circulation Pro Remain Circulation
Sun 1.800,000 Mirror 809,000
Mail 1.700,000 Financial Times 198,000
Telegraph 472,000 Guardian 164,000
Express 408,000 Independent 55,000
Times 404,000
Total 4,784,000 Total 1,226,000

 

In other words, much of the British reporting (printed and online coverage) has a strong anti-EU spin and they are not particularly concerned about such trivialities as balanced argument and truthful reporting. The fact is that the Brexiteers are not exactly in their own: they are strongly and systematically aided and abetted by the most influential newspapers in terms of circulation and readership by social groups which are turning against remaining in the EU. The “drip drip” effect clearly works.

Billionaire Brexit Backers (BBB)

The Brexit backers are not restricted to a few billionaire newspaper tycoons such as Rupert Murdoch, Barclay Brothers, Lord Rothermere, Richard Desmond, etc. A simple internet search of the backers of the UKIP / Leave campaigns reveals that quite a few multi-millionaires / billionaires are bankrolling Brexit. These are mainly financiers of various sorts, as well as property tycoons, ICT and retail magnets.

This is not to suggest that the Remain campaign does not have über-wealthy supporters but to illustrate the sort of people that are funding the Brexit campaigns. If these über-wealthy individuals are not, like the leading Brexiteers, and much of the British media, not part and parcel of the very essence of Elite / Establishment, then I do not know who is. If these sorts of individuals not extremely well-placed to take advantage of the opportunities that might arise post-Brexit, not least from the turmoil that might be caused in the property and financial markets, then I do not know who is.

These are not the sort of individuals who are likely to take much notice of the concerns of working people in relation to jobs, wages, housing, social services, etc. It is a safe bet to suggest that protecting British workers´ rights upon Brexit and thus counteracting the drivers of the recent referendum polling trends is not likely to be at the top of their post-Brexit agenda. Take an illustrative quotation from one of the billionaires bankrolling Brexit. Peter Hargreaves has acknowledged the insecurity that would result from Brexit and stressed that: “It would be the biggest stimulus to get our butts in gear that we have ever had” … “We will get out there and we will be become incredibly successful because we will be insecure again. And insecurity is fantastic.” Maybe a billionaire stockbroker truly believes this but I doubt that the average Briton will see perceive insecurity in quite the same manner. This very insecurity is what is driving part of the trend in the possible Brexit vote.

Picking-up on the earlier quotation, for once BoJo is correct: the fact is that millions of the currently working-class people are actually protected by the common rules applied throughout the EU designed to create a single market. The protections include:

  • Anti-discrimination rights;
  • Written terms and conditions;
  • Maximum 48 hour working week, rest periods/breaks;
  • Paid annual leave;
  • Improved health and safety protection;
  • Maternity rights;
  • Parental leave rights;
  • Equal pay for equal work between men and women;
  • Fair treatment of part time, fixed term and agency workers;
  • Rights for outsourced workers;
  • Collective rights such as human rights, collective bargaining, information and consultation, etc.

Source: UK employment rights and the EU

These are not the sort of things to give-up lightly… unless you are so well-off that you do not need them. The people that are feeling the consequences of austerity most certainly do benefit from these labour market protections.

Wolves in Sheep´s Clothing?

 

Don´t be fooled by the über-rich advocating for Brexit on behalf of the ordinary working (and non-working) class British citizen. The great majority of the journalists / media advocating for Brexit stem from the same privately educated, Oxbridge elites. Whatever they may imply, protecting the average working (and non-working) person in Britain from the angst that plagues many of them is not their beer.

What many of them seek is a future where Britain can continue unimpeded down the path of deregulation and maximum labour market “flexibility” such as zero hour contracts.

A lot of Britons are anxious and angry. They have seen a few do very well indeed while austerity and the poor economic performance since 2007 has taken a chunk off their disposable. They know that we are certainly “not all in it together”. They have seen politicians such as David Cameron saying one thing to them and doing another himself. They have seen public services steadily deteriorating and that the future for people that depend on them is anything but rosy. This the result of decades of lack of investment in public services due to lack of political prioritisation. But during the EU Referendum the media and the Brexiteers point to the EU and EU immigrants and ordinary Britons fear that there will be even greater competition for a perceived smaller share of the social and economic pie.

But Britons are nothing if not fair and sensible: they know that when things appear to be too good or too simple to be true, they usually are. They know that pointing to the EU and EU immigrants (and who else post-Brexit?) is a simplistic solution to a complex set of British problems which will not be solved overnight and may well be accentuated by Brexit, especially if the economy takes a turn for the worse. The EU budget will not make much of a dent on the needs.

I grew-up in a council housing state in inner London.

I went to a low achieving secondary school and I was in the tiny minority that lucky enough to get to university.

I worked my way up my profession without the benefit of old boy networks.

I stumbled into an international career which has taken me throughout the EU member countries, as well as all the Candidate Countries knocking at the EU door.

My friends and family count among the people that are suffering from the angst that afflicts Britons.

So I feel able to say this: by tapping into the anxieties and frustrations of ordinary working Britons, the leading Brexiteers, their Oxbridge educated journalist buddies and their billionaire backers are spinning a very tall tale so as to tap into the legitimate concerns of ordinary Britons.

They are doing this knowingly, manipulatively and without the least intention of doing something about those concerns, should Brexit occur. Quite the opposite: their privileges and advantages are likely to be reinforced once they no longer have to look over their shoulder or deal with the bright glare of the other 27 countries of the EU.

Brexit will undoubtedly lead to winners and losers.

You can be certain of which side the leading Brexiteers, their über-wealthy and well-connected friends funding the campaigns and writing the misleading newspaper articles will be on.

But can you be so certain that your employment rights, wage levels, social benefits, etc. will be protected, let alone improved, upon Brexit?

I´m not. Not in the least.

© Ricardo Pinto, 2016, AngloDeutsch™ Blog, www.AngloDeutsch.EU


#ThisIsaCoup´s Germany Bashing is “Over the Top”

Quite a few people have taken to twitter under hashtag #ThisIsACoup to air their view that Greece has been bullied and coerced into an unjust and undemocratic agreement by the other Eurozone members, with the finger being pointing directly at Germany.

#ThisIsNOTaCoup

At least part of the reason for the popularity of hashtag #ThisIsACoup is that prominent commentators such as Paul Krugman, the Nobel-winning economist, have helped to legitimise it and propel the hashtag #ThisIsACoup to the global audience. Krugman wrote in his New York Times blog“The trending hashtag #ThisIsACoup is exactly right.” This was part of his campaign to encourage Greece to exit the Euro.

 I have shown that hashtag #ThisIsACoup is exactly wrong and on two counts. Firstly, “this is a coup” literally implies a great compliment to the Eurozone countries (a coup), which Krugman and the rest presumably did not mean. What they actually meant is hashtag #ThisIsACoupD’état. But here too they have got it completely wrong because the bailout agreement on offer has none of the defining characteristics of a coup d’état either.

I am not arguing that the Euro summit agreement is all fine and well. It most certainly is not and makes unrealistic demands of Greece given the almost non-existing willingness or capacity to reform. I am simply saying that referring to it as a coup d’état (or indeed comparing the agreement terms to the Versailles Treaty, which some commentators have taken to doing) is emotional claptrap directed at one country rather than the 19 that signed the agreement, Greece included.

 #ButItCertainlyISGermanyBashing

In this post I would like address the content being posted on hashtag #ThisIsACoup. This particular bandwagon is not only ill-informed but it is deteriorating into a full-on Germany bashing movement.

Have a look at a selection of photos on offer to get the general gist of what is going on.

Germany Bashing 1

This is a sub-set of the kinds of images being posted. Some of them are funny but the vast majority are simply misleading or spiteful. The tweets are laced with references to Nazism, Fourth Reich and other stuffpointing towards Germany´s true intentions, namely of subjugating Europe through the back door.

Which planet have these people been living on since 1945?

Germans are entitled to feel offended by what is going on. Make no mistake: this is not restricted to the Twittersphere. A reading of comments posted in many national newspaper articles relating to the Eurozone crisis reveals a rising level of enmity towards Germany and its supposedly true intentions towards Europe via the mechanism of the Euro.

As a Briton living and working in Germany, with a German family, friends, family and colleagues, I find this sort of thing, often under the guise of “humour”, unacceptable.

This is unfair. It is wrong. This is  Germany bashing.

If it has not yet been understood those in question, please reflect on the unequivocal fact that that vast majority of Germans would never have opted for the Euro if they had been given a choice and would gladly return to their beloved Deutschmark tomorrow if they could. The Greek tragicomedy is only adding fuel to this particular fire. But I guess whatever I say will never not cut much ice with some people.

Debt relief has already happened and will continue to happen

Now, having got that off my chest, I would like to turn to the rest of Paul Krugman´s quotation, since it appears to legitimise much of what is going on in hashtag #ThisIsACoup namely: “This goes beyond harsh into pure vindictiveness, complete destruction of national sovereignty, and no hope of relief.”

I would like to start with the end bit: no hope of relief. It must be noted that Krugman wrote this before the finalisation of the bailout negotiations, so he was not aware of the fact that, for the first time publicly, “hope of relief” has been finessed into the agreement (“… including financing needs, debt sustainability and possible bridge financing.”). We all know there is no such thing as money for nothing; and so do the Greeks. Incidentally, Krugman also fails to acknowledge that there has already been very significant debt reduction in the first two bailouts for Greece. There will almost certainly be further debt reductions in the third bailout.

As for the final part of the quotation, “This goes beyond harsh into pure vindictiveness,” I suggest that the Nobel laureate actually looks are the terms of the bailout to justify his view. I do not see it, thought I do agree that many of the things in the Euro summit agreement will never be realised, just as they were barely realised in the first two bailouts and/or were reversed once Syriza assumed power.

Germany Bashing 2National sovereignty is a 19-way street

The “complete destruction of national sovereignty” part is a red herring. In a representative democracy, the Greeks elect their government and their government makes decisions in relation to spending, taxation, etc. Parliament does not have to agree to anything it does not wish to do. In the meantime, the Greek Parliament has voted to accept the draft agreement. Two general elections and multiple Parliamentary votes later, the Greek government continues to ratify bailout conditionality. The debate about national sovereignty cannot be about Greece and Greece only. In the Eurozone there are another 18 nations whose taxes are increased and/or expenditure is potentially curtailed as a result of bailout after bailout to help Greece get its own house in order. There is a duty and responsibility towards the sovereignty of 19 nations, not only one.

If a country runs out of money through its own actions and inactions and needs to get it from another 18 countries with no end in sight, then then that country can expect reforms. But remember, these are the things which everyone agrees (including the Greeks themselves) it has systematically avoided doing for decades. Ask other states that have gone broke (but do not have the benefit of a Eurozone sugar daddy) whether they have had to implement painful reforms or not and for how long they have had to do it for in order to get back to normalcy.

Greece is under tremendous pressure to accept the bailout and some of the conditionality is questionable, such as connected with the privatisation fund. This reflects the lack of progress made in the other two bailouts as well as the breakdown in trust as a result of the negotiation tactics deployed in the last six months, rather than pure vindictiveness. At the end of the day, Tsipras and the Greek government must decide what, on balance makes most sense for their country. If the conditionality is vindictive and humiliating, there is an obvious option for them. If the future is truly brighter outside the Euro then it is the duty and responsibility of the Greek Parliament to go in the direction advocated by Krugman and others. But this is something which they have steadfastly refused to do so far to many economists´ dismay and disbelief.

As an aside, Paul Krugman is reported to have said that in pushing for a Greek exit he may have “overestimated the competence of the Greek government” and that it didn’t even occur to him that Greece would make a stand against the rest of the Eurozone countries without having made a plan for an exit from the euro if things went wrong. Perhaps he will also come to agree that the latest bailout agreement may be better than the alternative after all.

He who pays the piper calls the tune

At the end of the day, the country which makes by far the biggest contribution to the bailouts and thus potentially incurs by far the greatest loss associated with the Greek bailouts is entitled to not just a vote but to a significant say in the matter. Failure to do so would be irresponsible in relation to its own tax payers and a failure in democracy vis-a-vis its own electorate.

Every country must look after its own national interests. Consider Britain steadfastly refusing to contribute a penny to the Euro bailouts but offering to show solidarity towards Greece in the form of “humanitarian and medical aid,” should the country choose to exit the Euro and default. Britain is doing what it considers acceptable to its own electorate, as are all 19 Eurozone countries. What about Greece? Its approach is the epitome of following its own national interests. Why not Germany?

Get real: Greece´s sovereignty is not the only one in question; 19 countries are affected by the crisis. As the biggest contributor, Germany is entitled to a significant voice in the decision making-process (just as Italy, France, etc. and the Troika/Institutions are – but Britain is not). Some may not like it, but that is the reality.

Grow up: WWII ended 70 years ago; there comes a point when it is just plain silly to keep rolling out the tired old war clichés.

Stop the “over the top” (pun intended) Germany bashing.

 


If #ThisIsACoup then #MoneyGrowsOnTrees

© Ricardo Pinto, 2015, AngloDeutsch™ Blog, www.AngloDeutsch.EU

It seems as if a great number of people, and not just in the Eurozone and the European Union (EU); have taken to Twitter to express their view that Greece has been bullied and coerced into an unjust and undemocratic agreement by the other Eurozone members and by Germany in particular.

Prominent bloggers and commentators such as Paul Krugman, the Nobel-winning economist, have helped to legitimate and propel the hashtag #ThisIsACoup to the global audience. He wrote in his New York Times blog that:

“The trending hashtag #ThisIsACoup is exactly right. This goes beyond harsh into pure vindictiveness, complete destruction of national sovereignty, and no hope of relief.”

Partly as a result, the hashtag #ThisIsACoup, was trending in Greece, France, Germany, Britain and indeed globally as Twitters claimed that Greece was being stripped of its sovereignty as illustrated below.

#ThisIsACoupGLobalTrend

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So it is worth examining what the hashtag #ThisIsACoup really means.

There are two meanings of the word “coup” according to Dictionary.com, with a third connected with the word:

  1. a highly successful, unexpected stroke, act, or move; a clever action or accomplishment.
  2. (among the Plains Indians of North America) a brave or reckless deed performed in battle by a single warrior, as touching or striking an enemy warrior without sustaining injury oneself.
  3. coup d’état.

Strictly speaking, it would appear as if the hashtag #ThisIsACoup is actually praising the bailout agreement that Greece and the Eurozone have come up with as “a highly successful, unexpected stroke, act, or move; a clever action or accomplishment.” However, if you read the thread, it is clear that the vast majority of people on have actually understood the Twitter hashtag #ThisIsACoup as the exact opposite. And took the opportunity to engage in a bit of Germany bashing while they were about it.

As an aside, what is not being reported is that there is also a hashtag #ThisIsNOTaCoup where quite a few people are arguing the opposite. Although I do agree with this particular hashtag, they are also missing the point.

This takes us to the third meaning, namely of a “coup d’état” which is, of course, what the hashtag #ThisIsACoup does not say but presumably actually meant to say.

So let us examine this option. The same source (Dictionary.com) defines a coup d’état as: “a sudden and decisive action in politics, especially one resulting in a change of government illegally or by force.” Furthermore, it identifies various synonyms for coup d’état, including “overthrow, rebellion, revolution, uprising.”

It seems as if the vast majority of people actually were talking about the hashtag #ThisIsACoupD’état rather than #ThisIsACoup. But let us examine if this makes any sense, despite its obvious popularity:

  1. A sudden and decisive action in politics: really? I could have sworn that what has happened is the very opposite of this. The Greek crisis has been at least five long years in the making, there have been two bail outs already and an excruciatingly drawn out process of six months since Syriza came to power. Sorry, but the Twitters seem to be backing the wrong horse again, Nobel Laureate included.
  2. Resulting in a change of government illegally or by force: Really? Again, I could have sworn that the process has been the opposite of this. It seems to me as if the people of Greece have not only elected the political party (Syriza) which the “Eurocrats” did not want but also reinforced the point by offering up the referendum result that the Eurozone was hoping to avoid. Has there been a change in Government in Greece since the January general election? Has anything been done illegally or by force? I don´t think so. In fact, if anything is being done illegally it is that many of the other 18 members of the Eurozone, Germany included, are actually doing somersaults to keep Greece in the Euro despite the sentiment of their own electorates. There are 19 countries and democracies to take into consideration in the Eurozone, not just Greece. And this is before even mentioning the fact that transfer union is illegal, as are debt write offs and permanent bailouts in the Eurozone. Yet effectively all three are being done in one way or another in order to assist Greece.
  3. As for the synonyms “overthrow, rebellion, revolution, uprising,” do these really apply? I am not convinced. There has not been an overthrow or revolution of any kind and the Greek parliament will have its chance to reject the whole potential bailout package if they so wish. If there has been a rebellion/uprising, it is on the part of Syriza in relation to its approach to austerity, its debts and the conditionality which previous Greek governments have signed up to  and unorthodox manner by which it has carried out the negotiations with the rest of the Eurozone countries. This is not something that has been done to the Greeks, except for the Eurozone´s insistence that they deliver on their reform commitments (this time around) before getting their hands on the bailout cash. After all, money does not grow on trees. As I have previously argued, the Greeks have had two general elections and one referendum to leave the Euro and/or the EU. They have resolutely stuck to the current path of remaining in the Euro and the EU. If anyone is advocating a coup d’état, it is the commentators that are shrilly insisting that the Greek government rejects its electorate´s views in two general elections and leave the Euro as soon as possible. If the same wish to argue that the Greek Referendum was a vote to leave the Euro, let them try to make that case but they will get nowhere since the question was so convoluted as to be meaningless. It could not possibly be construed as a desire to leave the Euro and no one is claiming that.

So please, you Twitters out there, do get your facts right instead of blindly following the herd instinct.

If you meant that “this is a coup”, then you have actually been lavishing praise on the Eurozone members and the agreement that was reached at the eleventh hour.

I think it is a flawed agreement but better than none.

And it you actually meant that “this is a coup d’état” (which is clearly not what the hashtag actually says), you have also  got it completely wrong.

Either way the hashtag #ThisIsACoup that has been globally trending is misleading to put it mildly.


To Grexit, or not to Grexit, that is the question

© Ricardo Pinto, 2015, AngloDeutsch™ Blog, www.AngloDeutsch.EU

And so, amazingly and beyond most Europeans’ wildest imagination, it has come to the single most important Referendum since the beginning of the Eurozone, indeed since the very beginning of the European Union (EU) “project”. The Greek nation is voting in a historic referendum that will shape its future, as well as that of the 18 other nations of the Eurozone and the 28 nations on the EU.

As a Briton, I belong to one of the 9 countries that are not part to the Eurozone, but I live and am based in Germany, so I am contributing to the various bailouts. My views of the historic vote the Greeks are casting are shaped by both sets of experiences, which is valuable, since Greece may soon be one of the 9, following a probable default, probable exit from the Euro and possible exist from the EU, the so-called Grexit.

Let me start by saying that I fully understand the Greek’s anger and frustration with the current situation. Unemployment of around 25%, youth unemployment of 60%, wage reductions, pension reductions, poverty reaching unprecedented levels, pensioners desperate to get some money and all the rest of it. Whatever you may think about Germany and the Germans, you will surely be aware of the suffering of the German civilian population after two world wars, hyperinflation, devaluation, two periods of devastation in the last century. The Britons have also gone through traumas. So have the Irish, Portuguese, Spaniards and Cypriots to varying degrees at the same time as the Greeks. No one wants to see this whole sorry situation drag on endlessly.

I am tired of and increasingly frustrated with all the accusations, bickering, tantrums and all the rest that all our politicians have been guilty of since January 2015, reaching a crescendo in the last two weeks. At a historical turning point in European history, it is sad and worrying to see just how divided Europe is. This does not bode well for Greece, the other 18 countries in the Euro or the 28 nations of the EU, not mention the large number of countries that aspire to join the EU in the future. Only one country will be quietly satisfied observing that is going on: Russia.

There have been all sorts of claims and arguments from politicians and economists, many of them totally contradictory. I am just an interested observer who is contributing through my taxes to the bailouts, who may be affected by a possible Euro collapse and who will be affected by the future shape of Europe resulting from today’s referendum. I would like to highlight some issues that Greeks may or may not be considering in casting their vote, but which are probably impossible to pay adequate attention to. given the chaotic and febrile situation, as well as the compressed timescale for this critical referendum:

  1. Europe is not to blame for Greece’s woes. This is first and foremost Greece’s own responsibility.
  2. The EU is not to blame for the Greeks’ troubles. Greek governments have consistently promised more than they could deliver and its citizens have knowingly voted them in one after the other, including the current Syriza. If what politicians are offering sounds too good to be true, it probably is and in other countries, the electorate generally acts accordingly.
  3. The Euro is not the reason why Greece needs bailouts. Greek government, Greek businesses and Greeks individually have lived beyond their means for decades and then used the historically low interest rates generated by (fraudulently) joining the Eurozone to over-borrow even more than previously. But we know full well that what is borrowed must eventually be repaid – and so do they.
  4. Greece has systematically lost competitiveness through its own actions and inactions. Generation upon generation of politician has borrowed too much, created too many public sector jobs, feathered the nests of their supporters through unaffordable perks such as early retirement, failed to collect the taxes due from certain segments of society, refused to implement needed reforms and again and again paid itself too much. In the 10 years until the crisis, the Greeks awarded themselves a 100% increase in wages, not to mention anything about early retirement or other perks. The loss of Greek competitiveness is not due to the EU, the Euro, the banks, the capitalists, the oligarchs, the politicians etc. They have collectively failed to maintain or improve their own competitiveness. The last 5 years have reinforced an entrenched the pattern and austerity has made the pre-existing situtation a lot worse, which is the main criticism which is justifiable. But the last five years were not the cause.
  5. The German, French and other banks are not to blame for the Greeks´ ills. These and other banks saw the opportunity to expand their business in this and other similar countries (as have Greek banks in the whole of the Balkans region) and lent according to the regulatory principles of the Greek Central Bank, according to the contracts that the Greek government, businesses and individuals signed. All three took the money that was lent and did not concern themselves unduly about its origin, though this has become an issue when it comes to payback. The banks naturally want to be repaid the huge sums involved otherwise they go bust, meaning losses for all the individuals that save with them, businesses that bank with them, shareholders that invest in them and others. They are no different from the Greek banks operating in Greece, the Balkans and elsewhere. If the banks (including Greek ones) had not been rescued or propped up, the consequences for the Greeks and for us in the Eurozone and non-Eurozone countries would have been disastrous. The Eurozone has acted correctly in avoiding this scenario. All the talk of paying French and German banks but failing to mention all the others, including Greek banks is hypocrisy. This has happened in all countries where it had to happen, including Britain, Ireland and the United States. If push comes to shove and governments have to make a similar choice again, the same pattern will be repeated because the alternative is worse.
  6. Greece has been the whipping boy for the Eurozone, but not the only one. The fact is that the Eurozone could easily have suffered “contagion” if Greece had defaulted at the time of the first and second bailouts. Furthermore the vast majority (around 90%) of the bailout has gone to the banks rather than the people of Greece. However, this was neither premeditated nor designed to impoverish, punish or humiliate the Greek people. I have already discussed the likely consequences of allowing a Lehman-style ”letting go” of the commercial banking sector. The failsafe mechanisms were simply not in place at the time (who knows if they really are this time around). The Eurozone was doing whatever was necessary to stop a doomsday scenario in Greece and potentially the other weak countries, as well as the whole of the Eurozone area. They succeeded, but at an even greater cost to Greece. But Greece chose to remain in the EU and the Euro. It did not have to.
  7. The Eurozone is not responsible for past, present or future Greek prosperity. There is no transfer union in the EU and it is not possible to have permanent bail outs of one nation by any other nation. Therefore Greece does not have an automatic right to be bailed out by anyone and certainly not on an on-going basis. Solidarity stretches only so far and cuts both ways. The Greeks should reflect on the fact that many of the nations bailing them out are notably poorer than them. If Greece is being bailing out, it is not to create a long-term dependency culture, but to help it to help itself and to be economically sustainable as soon as possible. Greece is entirely responsible for its present and future prosperity, not others.
  8. Greece has chosen so far to remain in the EU and Euro and must live with the consequences. Greece has held two national elections at which its electorate has categorically insisted upon remaining in the EU and the Eurozone. There is a price to be paid for this decision on their part and that price is called “internal devaluation”. The way that the Greek nation can regain competitiveness and eventually stand on its own two feet, is to reduce wages and other costs to levels which are compatible with their economic performance. The other option is to leave the Euro, but this is exactly what Greeks have insisted upon avoiding so far. The decision today enables the country to choose its own path for the third time. If they choose the same path as the rest of the Eurozone countries, then they have to abide by the implications. Please, let us not have any more accusation of blackmail, terrorism, humiliation of the Greek nation and all the rest of it.
  9. No one is taking sovereignty away from the Greeks. The Eurozone does not owe Greece anything and certainly not on a permanent basis (which is actually illegal in the EU and rightly so). So far Greece has chosen to remain in the Euro and swallow the bitter pill of internal devaluation that goes with the bailouts. The bailouts involve clear conditionality and the other Eurozone governments will only provide further tranches of funds if they accept the conditions/reforms connected with the bailouts. No one can or should get money for nothing. The conditionality is designed to enable Greece to get back on its own two feet as soon as possible, including priority reforms which previous Greek governments have systematically failed to implement over decades. Most people are totally unwilling to pay for a free Greek (Irish, Spanish, Portuguese, Maltese) lunch and certainly not for ever. And the same applies to these countries in reverse. Greece has a duty and responsibility, to itself as well as the Eurozone countries, to reform and regain its competitiveness as soon as possible. The conditionality is not for the benefit of the other countries, except in the sense that they and their electorates / taxpayers wish fervently not have to have to continue to bail out other countries.
  10. No one has twisted Greece’s arm and forced it to take the bailouts and accept the associated conditionality. Greece asked for the bailouts arising directly from its own actions over decades. Its politicians signed-up to the money and the conditionality. If it takes the cash but fails to deliver on the conditionality, shit happens. But as the popular saying goes: “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” EU voters in other countries will not allow further bailouts that fail to deliver the promises of reform for ever. Our politicians know this and they are not suicidal. They have a responsibility towards the Greek citizen by virtue of Greece being part of the Eurozone. However, they have a much greater responsibility towards their own electorates and to fulfil their own mandates. This will always trump Greece in a democratic environment comprising 28 nation states, and rightly so.
  11. The last general election resulted in a Syriza majority despite the electorate knowing full well that its programme was both contradictory and unaffordable without continuing bailouts from the Eurozone countries, debt relief and a cancellation of numerous conditions attached with the present bailout agreement. The nightmarish last five months have been the direct consequence of the mandate that the Greek people have given Syriza to end austerity. This is pie in the sky. This will not happen for a decade, regardless of whether Syriza is able to extract all the concessions it wants and certainly regardless of whether Greece remains part of Euro/EU or not. The mandate to end austerity in Greece is pure political opportunism on the part of Syriza: it amounts to a populist policy that cannot be delivered. Messrs Tsipras and Varoufakis know this full well and so does the Greek electorate.
  12. Mr Tsipras and Mr Varoufakis cannot deliver the mandate they have asked for. They have assumed that the risk arising from Greek default is so high that the Eurozone countries would agree to whatever they demanded and have acted accordingly. They have deliberately and consistently gambled over the last five months with the future of Greece, as well as that of the rest of the Eurozone (and beyond – Britain, take note). I resent this stratagem on the part of the Greek government and I feel indignant about it both on the part of the ordinary Greeks and other Eurozone citizens. Game theory is all very well when it comes to econometric modelling, but not when the future wellbeing of 19 countries is at stake. Newsflash for Mr Varoufakis: we are not a mathematical model comprising 10 million Greek voters and a further 325 million rest-of-Eurozone variables to be number crunched until your previously desired statistical outcome is eventually delivered. The sad reality is that all that the Fine Your Radicals have manage to achieve so far, other than plunging Greece into unneeded and unwanted chaos, it to manage to rename the hated “Troika” to the equally detested “Institutions.” Game theory at its best? We are real people, not some gigantic theoretical experiment. The Greeks are facing enormous stress which goes well beyond any spurious mandate that Syriza believes it has managed to extract from a deeply traumatised nation.
  13. Greece has broken the EU way of doing things and the current state of the country is the result. The only way that it is possible for 19 counties to make decisions on such issues as the future of Greece and the Euro (and possibly the EU) is through compromise. Neither Mr Varoufakis nor Mr Tsipras have proved to be willing or able to play the game according to the established rules. The game theory assumption is that when push comes to shove, the Eurozone countries will back down and agree to more or less whatever Greece wishes. Newsflash for Mr Varoufakis: this hardball strategy, which plays fast and loose with the lives of 350 million people, not just that of the Greeks, has failed. The resulting fall-out is a complete and utter lack of trust on a scale never previously witnessed in Europe (not even during Margaret Thatcher’s period as British Prime Minister) since the end of the Cold War period. It does not serve Greece’s interests. It does not serve Eurozone interests. It does not serve EU interests. And it does not serve global interests.
  14. The current chaos in Greece only serves Russian interests. The geographers out there would agree that Greece is undoubted located at a pivotal geo-political position in Europe. The USA, EU and Greece know this, and so does Russia. Mr Tsipras´ attentive and persistent courting of Russia has been deliberate and has not failed to grab our attention. Europe is at a turning point and Russia, despite the ongoing economic weaknesses due primarily to low petrochemical prices, is resurgent. This is game theory with serious global implications which go potentially beyond mere economics and finance. The obvious and explicit threat is that Greece will turn its back on Europe and fall straight into the arms of mother Russian. Good luck with that. Greece is part of the European Union and Greeks feel European. There is nothing in the mandate that the Greek that citizens have given to Syriza to justify this approach and it can only entrench feelings against Syriza in the first instance and the Greek nation thereafter.
  15. Austerity cannot and will not be stopped tomorrow or any time soon. What the Greek or any other politicians imply, say or promise count for nothing as far as austerity is concerned. Not much will change, regardless of whether Greece votes Oxi (yes) or Nai (no). The choice is between “shock therapy” by defaulting and leaving the Euro or “muddling through” with EU bailouts. Neither option is quick nor palatable, though the shock therapy route does offer the promise of regaining competitiveness faster than the “muddle through” option, since Greece would then be totally in charge of its own currency and its own monetary policy, instead of the Euro straitjacket. However, there is no guarantee that its politicians will be able to agree, implement or maintain the long-term reforms necessary to achieve greater and faster economic dynamism than the current path. Presumably this lack of confidence in their own politicians is the reason why the Greeks are bending over backwards to remain in the Euro and the EU, rather than to entrust their own leaders with their future. The chaotic last 6 months are not a good omen: who can blame them?
  16. A flip-flopping government has run out of credibility, friends and trust. The negotiating position of Greece fluctuated over time but unilaterally pulling out of negotiations at a critical time, calling a snap referendum, the decision by Messrs Tsipras and Varoufakis to solicit a “no” vote, not to mention the increasingly bellicose language used, means that there is no longer any trust in the current Greek government. How Messrs Tsipras and Varoufakis can imagine that Greece’s negotiating position will be strengthened by a “no” vote is beyond me but this must obviously be the conclusion that their game theorising has led them to. The main counterparts in the whole process, not least IMF, EC and the principal contributor to the bailouts, Germany, have stated that they will not be able to work with Mr Varoufakis while remaining a vague about whether the same applies to Syriza.
  17. The EU cannot achieve regime change, only the Greek people can. The Institutions/Troika can say whatever they like (and they are, presumably because of their exasperation) but only the Greek people can decide on their own future and which party will lead them. The rest of Europe will have to like or lump it: that is the nature of democracy. But what exactly are the Greeks deciding on in this referendum? Do the people understand the convoluted question? Do they have enough time to consider the options properly? Even if the answer is “yes” twice over, is there an EU bailout on offer to vote on? The answer is “no”. The only thing that the voters are deciding on is whether they want to be part of the Euro or not. Already, with funds running low, there are chaotic and heart-rending scenes that are nothing to be proud of, either in Greece, the Eurozone or the rest of the EU. If this goes on, whatever the announcements by the Syriza government that they have stock-piled food and medicines (when did they do this and why did they do so, unless they did not expect their negotiations to succeed?), we shall all be diminished and the Greek people will indeed be desperate. Who knows what kind of chaos will break out? Has this really been factored in by Syriza? I very much doubt it. I suspect that they are just winging it.
  18. Neither option will be palatable to Greek people: it is a case of damned if you do and damned if you don’t. A yes vote could mean easier negotiations with Syriza since they will then have another mandate (but they already have the mandate of remaining in the Eurozone) to negotiate the terms of the bailouts. This will be awkward but not impossible to roll up the sleeves and find a workable compromise this time around. We expect no less from our politicians. But a resignation by Syriza is the more likely outcome based on their intransigent approach in the last five months. There would be another general election, with the possibility of an even more radical government coming to power and the crisis being drawn-out even longer. Or it could mean a “traditional” government that will agree debt relief, combined with an acceptable bailout programme and conditionality. Either way, the Greeks cannot expect higher minimum wages, pensions, etc. than exist in the various countries that are contributing to keeping their economy afloat but do not enjoy the same level of benefits. This is not feasible and will not be agreed to. Living within their means has to be the way forward, even with the significant debt relief combined with serious investment for growth and development that I sincerely hope will be hammered out next time round.
  19. The present is bleak, but the future could be worse. No European, indeed no human being, can look upon the scenes in Greece with aloofness. My parents are pensioners and I would not wish this sort of thing upon them or any other person. However, should the Greeks choose the “no” path, followed by default and introduction of a new Drachma, they will have delivered themselves into an unpredictable roller-coaster ride which will test the nation well beyond the limits of anything they have endured so far. There is plenty of not-so-distant experience of “shock therapy” in most of Central and Eastern Europe, including Russia. Whatever the alluring promises on the part of duplicitous politicians or contradictory prize-winning economists, the bloody reality will result in economic and human carnage in the short-term. This will, hopefully, quickly be followed by much more rapid recovery and prosperity than possible under the current “muddling through” option within the Euro. But don’t bet on it: economic theory and reality are usually out of sync, as the last five years should have once gain proved.
  20. A last word on the matter. Good luck to the Greeks today. I would not like to be in their shoes and I can only hope that they will make the right decision for Greece, as well as for the rest of us.

 

 


The Return of the Greek Drachma … err Drama!

© Ricardo Pinto, 2015, AngloDeutsch™ Blog, www.AngloDeutsch.EU

Greece is widely considered to be the cradle of democracy. The theatre of ancient Greece is also considered to be the fountainhead of the Western dramatic tradition, and it shows. The earliest Greek dramas emerged during the 6th Century BC and the term “drama” is derived from the Greek word for action (to do or to act). Indeed, the three main dramatic genres, namely tragedy, comedy and satire (tragicomedy or burlesque), emerged from Athens.

It is just as well that drama is a Greek invention because in the last five months, a mixture of “comedy” and “satyr” is exactly what the Syriza-led government has been serving-up on the European Union (EU) stage. For the final act, it is quite possible that “tragedy” will complete the fascinating yet frightening performance that is unfolding before our eyes. The end product of the Greek drama could well be a return to the Greek drachma.

Greek Drama: paving the way for the drachma?

Dramatic structure refers to the framework of a dramatic work such as a play or a film.  According to Gustav Freytag, dramas can divided into five parts or acts (also called Freytag’s pyramid), as illustrated below.

Freytag's Pyramid and the Greek Drama

I would like to take the liberty of applying Freytag’s pyramid to modern-day Greece, as far as the Eurozone crisis and its future in the EU are concerned. Bear with me.

Act 1. Exposition

This introduces important background information to the audience such as the setting before the main plot in the form of flashbacks, characters’ thoughts, background details, etc.

The first Act of the latest instalment of the Greek drama started during the General Election of January 2015. The Syriza party, indeed almost all Greek parties, told more or less the same narrative and provided the same broad analysis of the background to the plight of Greece and the Greeks. The plot can be summarised as follows: the Greek troubles are the result of the Euro and EU, the Troika (ECB, IMF and EC) has imposed unbearable burdens on the Greek people, resulting in a collapse of GDP, reduction in income and pensions (internal devaluation), very high levels of unemployment, etc. This has all been done in the name of austerity, which has principally served to rescue German and French banks, as well as the Eurozone as a whole but Greece itself. The Greek people have suffered enough. Austerity must end and Greece must regain its self-respect.

Interestingly, the above exposition concentrated almost entirely on the period post-2009, when Greece was rescued from bankruptcy by the EU. The first Act makes clear that the protagonist (Greece) has been treated very badly by the main antagonist in the drama, the Troika / EU / Eurozone / Banks but that enough is enough. The protagonist´s exposition somehow leaves out the decades of corruption, mismanagement, clientelism and sheer incompetence of generation upon generation of Greek leaders that necessitated a rescue by the rest of the Eurozone in 2009 in the first place. But such is the nature of dramatic plots. It is not convenient to set out the background in painful detail, including the fact that Greece had the chance to exit the EU but chose instead to remain and be part of the euro while taking the painful internal devaluation that it implied and which countries in a similar position have also gone through. The previous government signed-up to the bailout conditionality but clearly the mood has changed after five years of painful austerity.

A key aspect of the exposition was the election manifesto. As I have previously discussed, the Syriza programme did prioritise an end to austerity, however, any reading of its pledges would lead to the conclusion that it was both contradictory and unrealistic.

It called for Greece to remain in the EU and Eurozone yet basically roll back the commitments made by the previous government as part of the conditionality for the bailouts, while at the same time calling for an end to privatisation, restoration of lost state jobs, raising of minimum incomes and pensions, free health provision and much else beside. That is all very well during a general election, except for two minor issues: Greece is broke and the only way this can be done is if others pay for it in the short, medium and possibly long-term, yet permanent bailouts are forbidden by various EU treaties for a very good reason.

The EU rescue packages were designed to stop Greece from becoming bankrupt as a result of its own decisions made over a period of decades and did indeed manage to keep them in the Eurozone and the EU, something which the Greek people have always insisted upon. They were designed primarily to buy Greece time to regain competitiveness through reforms agreed to by the previous government. Five years later, this is all interpreted as no more or less than national humiliation, bullying and dictatorship on the part of the EU, with Germany and the Troika singled out for special attention. This was a cracking opening Act in the play.

Act 2. Rising Action

The rising action is a series of events that begin immediately after the exposition (introduction) and builds up to the climax. The entire plot depends on these events to set-up the climax and the satisfactory resolution of the story.

A series of events took place immediately after the election, which set the course for the current Greek drama.

As I have previously discussed, instead of picking a mainstream coalition partner, Syriza chose the Independent Greeks Party which was committed to revoke the agreements between Greece, EU and the Troika, prosecute those who negotiated them, repudiate part of Greece’s debt and require German war reparations for the invasion and occupation of Greece during WWII. Syriza selected this party over other moderate alternative partners. This was widely interpreted and an immediate slap in the face for Germany, by far the most important contributor to past, present and future EU bailouts. Not a good start to negotiations, but great drama.

Syriza then took it as read that being elected actually gave it a mandate to end  austerity in Greece. Under a scenario where Greece would leave the Eurozone and possibly the EU, this would have been correct. Just because they were elected on the basis of a contradictory and unrealistic manifesto, does not give a country the right to implement it unless it assumes responsibility for the costs associated with such a manifesto. Clearly, all the other Eurozone countries would need to pay for a Greek programme that they had absolutely no control over. But if they are to agree a further bail out, they naturally have to approve the basis or conditionality associated with further funds, since they have their own electorates to consider. Instead, Syriza chose to act as if the other countries owed it to Greece to agree their programme by virtue of their electoral mandate.

Furthermore, Syriza and the Independent Greeks Party made a series of important appointments based on political dues to take-on the Troika, rather than selecting experienced and diplomatic negotiators, steeped in the EU way of doing things.

A critical decision was the appointment of the unelected Yanis Varoufakis as the Finance Minister. A bike riding, fiery blogger with a penchant for game theory who describes himself as a “libertarian Marxist” was not necessarily an inspired choice for dealing with 27 other EU Finance Ministers. While he may be a highly regarded economist, he has almost no political experience, except for a period during 2004 – 2006, when he served as an economic adviser to George Papandreou.

Alexis Tsipras, the other main character in the play, can hardly be considered a mature politicians himself, having first been elected to the Greek Parliament in 2009. But initially both Alexis Tsipras and Yanis Varoufakis were widely fêted by the European media for being a contrast to the previous government – young, handsome, tieless, bike riding (Varoufakis), living in a modest neighbourhood (Tsipras), etc. The media throughout Europe loved this and the message that the Greeks were going to take on the austerity camp in the EU. But it was not only the media and the population of various countries that appreciated the rising action in the Greek drama. Many political parties, such as Podemos and other populist movements, saw the Syriza as a white knight in shining armour riding to slay the austerity dragon and reclaim its democracy from the clutches of the dreaded Troika.

Indeed, many economists and politicians in the EU were actually in tune with the message that after five tortuous years, the emphasis had to change. Instead of unrelenting austerity, collapsing GDP, falling incomes and standards, increasing poverty, deflationary pressures, the emphasis simply had to shift to investment, growth and employment. This had to be combined with flexibility in the bailout programme’s target of a surplus of 4.5% of GDP, so that it could be redeployed to achieve Syriza’s programme objectives.

Therefore, a series of events and individuals came together in the second part of the play that created the basis for the next Act in the political drama.

Act 3. Climax

The climax is the turning point. If the story is a comedy, things will have gone badly for the protagonist up to this point; now, the plot will begin to unfold in his or her favour. If a tragedy, things will go from good to bad or bad to worse for the protagonist, often revealing their weaknesses.

However, although the media, general public, economists and politicians were generally well disposed to the Syriza agenda for easing austerity and focusing on growth, the next  set of events gradually but systematically turned against the Greek government, leading to a crescendo of criticism and recrimination.

The talk of war reparations, right at the beginning of the term of government did not go down too well in Germany. Yet Tsipras and Nikos Paraskevopoulos (Justice Minister) kept banging this particular drum to the tune of € 341 billion in compensation (about the same as the overall Greek debts), knowing full well that this would goad German public opinion at a critical time in Greece’s negotiations. This was naïve to say the least and resulted in a general feeling on the part of the Germans of being blackmailed.  Just to add a bit fuel to the fire, Panos Kammenos (Defence Minister, Independent Greeks) seemed to consider it appropriate to threaten to send Islamist fundamentalists to Germany from among tens of thousands of migrants currently in Greece in revenge for the austerity measures he felt had been imposed on Greece by the Germans. That turned up the heat nicely, not least because other people had been under the impression that the Greeks had chosen to remain in the EU and Euro, sign-up to be bailout and take the bitter medicine of internal devaluation.

The choice of Varoufakis to negotiate the EU bailout was a little unfortunate. Varoufakis may well be a brilliant economist and he may well know more about the ins and outs of the financial crisis than all the other 27 EU Ministers of Finance put together. However, lecturing to them from the off was never going to be a winning strategy. From the beginning there was a fundamental personality and ideology clash between himself and Wolfgang Schäuble, the powerful, experienced and prickly German Minister of Finance, who wasted no time in making it clear to the Greek negotiators that their programme was unrealistic, their promises to their electorate had been misleading and that there would still be conditionality in negotiating EU bailouts.

The basic assumption which characterised the Greek position from day one was that they had the Eurozone countries by the balls and that they simply had to squeeze long and hard enough for their demands would be acceded to. In other words, the basis of negotiations, perhaps informed by game theory,  was that the Eurozone countries feared a Greek default and the contagion that would follow, and that this had the potential to deal a mortal blow to the Euro and the EU project.

But the EU finance ministers did not seem to be cowed by this threat, which I consider to be the worlds´s biggest game of chicken. Greece’s most natural allies in the anti-austerity movement, namely Italy and France, were quickly put off by the strident tones and lack of willingness to compromise. The Spaniards, Portuguese, Irish and Cypriots who were also following the internal devaluation route proved to be even more resistant to backing the Greek cause, no doubt fearful of similar populist movements in their own countries. And the northern group of EU countries, especially Germany, Finland, Slovakia, etc. and others were anxious of the consequences of capitulating to Greece’s insistent demands. As I previously wrote, moral hazard is the main reason why Syriza could not and will not force an EU capitulation. If the Greeks could manage to drive a coach and horses through the bailout terms and conditions, would others be tempted to follow their lead and would this be sustainable for the rest of the Eurozone?

The demand for 50% debt relief was denied, though everyone recognises that the current level of state indebtedness (180% of GDP and rising) is not sustainable and will need to be tackled at some point in the future, during calmer global economic times. There certainly was recognition of the need to allow Greece to use more of its primary budget surplus over the next few years. But Greece’s steely determination to avoid as conditionality to the extent possible in the future Eurozone rescue package, whilst simultaneously dismantling the few reforms implemented so far, such as rolling back privatisation, reemployment of former public employees and raising wages and pensions which it can ill afford, only served to harden opinion against Greece. The consequence after five months of intense negotiations and diplomacy is that remarkably little agreement exists on the overall package of reforms necessary to secure the latest tranche of the EU bailout worth Euro 7.2 billion.

It is tempting to conclude that the single most notable Greek achievement appears to have been the rebranding of the “Troika” into the “Institutions”.  This would be unfair, but everyone has noted the Greek government’s populist tendencies. Progress has been made on the reform programme, but there appear to be insurmountable sticking points, such as the primary surplus targets, VAT reform, privatization targets, minimum wage levels and pension reforms. These are all issues which impinge directly upon the country’s fiscal base and thus its debt sustainability, which is why both sides are sticking grimly to their guns.

Within a few months, the almost complete inability to make progress on these sticking points has raised tensions to critical levels. The resulting lack of confidence and trust means that several high-profile individuals no longer negotiate directly. Varoufakis has been removed from the Greek negotiating team for his abrasiveness and style. Schäuble has been side-lined because of his prickly relationship with Varoufakis and his conclusion that the way forward is a “velvet Grexit”.  Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission and one of the key remaining Greek allies, has expressed his anger and frustration at Tsipras’ misrepresentation of the EU proposals. Many others have vented their frustration with the main protagonists of the Greek drama. The IMF has packed its bags and gone back to Washington saying it was pointless to stay while the two sides remain so far apart. Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s vice-chancellor recently said that Europe and Germany will not let themselves be blackmailed or let the exaggerated electoral pledges of a partly communist government be paid for by German workers.

These almost unprecedented accusations and counter-accusations serve to harden positions and will make it ever more difficult to achieve compromise in the coming days. Instead of seeking common ground, the Greek Prime Minister reacted by accusing the IMF of “criminal responsibility” for the situation and that its creditors were seeking to “pillage”, “humiliate” and “asphyxiate” his country. For good measure, he added that if Greece fails, it will be the beginning of the end of the Eurozone.

As if that was not enough, others are raising the stakes. Germany’s EU Commissioner, Guenther Oettinger argues that Greece could face a “state of emergency” on 01 July 2015 and Josef Kollar, the vice chairman of Slovakia’s Finance Committee, accused the Greek prime minister of “swindling the whole world” and that “Politics should … be based on economic reality. And in reality, the drachma would be a rescue for Greece.”

The climax was reached in the third Act: there are open rifts and recriminations, the likelihood of Grexit is openly talked about, emergency measures and being discussed and a return to the Greek drachma is widely speculated upon.

Act 4. Falling action

During the falling action phase, the conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist unravels, with the protagonist winning or losing against the antagonist. The falling action may contain a moment of final suspense, in which the final outcome of the conflict is in doubt.

During mid-late June 2015, we enter the 4th and penultimate Act of the Greek drama. Nothing less than the future of Greece in the Eurozone is at stake. Unless Greece honours the € 1.5 billion repayment due to the IMF on 30 June, it is likely to default. Yannis Stournaras, the Governor of the Bank of Greece, has pitched-in to confirm that his country does not have enough funds to pay the IMF and sketch a less than reassuring scenario of the likely consequences of default.

The only solution is to resolve the critical sticking points in the little time that is left. In the past, I would have bet my bottom dollar in the EU’s ability to manage this. Today, following all the posturing and bickering, I am doubtful that the remaining issues can be resolved and a possible EU rescue package can be approved by the Eurozone governments in time for the IMF payment on 30 June 2015.  At the same time, the game theorists among the Fine Young Radicals remain convinced that the EU will shrink from pressing the euro Armageddon button and Greece will win take the prize.

Freytag’s pyramid predicts that the falling action may contain a moment of final suspense, in which the final outcome of the conflict is in doubt. There is only one politician with the stature to change the entrenched dynamics, and I certainly do not refer to either Mr Cameron or Mr Hollande, whose lack of leadership and vision is palpable. A last-minute intervention by Mrs Angela Merkel is the only hope for a compromise that satisfies all parties sufficiently to get a deal done but, as usual, she is keeping her cards close to her chest until there is no alternative but to act. But perhaps the situation is already past the point of acting.

At the moment, it is far from clear whether the protagonist or the antagonist will win the day. But in a way, it does not really matter because we have already entered uncharted territory where there will only be losers in this Greek tragedy.

Act 5. Dénouement

The comedy ends with a dénouement in which the protagonist is better off than at the story’s outset. The tragedy ends with a catastrophe, in which the protagonist is worse off than before.

And so we enter the final Act, but it is not clear whether this drama is a comedy, a tragedy or a mixture of the two.

It is still possible for the conflict to be resolved, reducing the tension and stress in Greece and Europe. If this happens, Tsipras, Varoufakis and the rest will be fêted for their high stakes brinkmanship and other countries will undoubtedly try to replicate the methodology deployed by the Greek government. But will this end happily for the Greeks and for Europe? I very much doubt it. There may be a rolling back from the reforms that the Troika/Institutions have been seeking so as to raise Greece´s own competitiveness, but this will only make it harder and take longer for Greece to regain economic traction compared with its neighbours. There may be further debt relief, but even if the level of indebtedness is scaled back to the supposedly sustainable level of 120% of GDP, the Greek economy would still need to perform well consistently for a stretch of time so as to avoid its debts mounting-up rapidly. There may also be implementation of many of the measures that the Syriza has been insisting upon and which are the source of the stalemate, but these will come at the expense of the Eurozone countries for the foreseeable future, many of which are significantly poorer than Greece and resent having to subsidise the Greeks’ minimum wages, pensions, etc. The seeds of doubt about the merits of continuing Eurozone membership have already been sown and will start germinating. If other countries such as Spain and Portugal follow the Greek model (moral hazard), several of the net EU contributors, not least Germany, may conclude that the limits of the EU and Eurozone have not only been reached but surpassed. As for the Greeks themselves, they may be in greater control of their own destiny but the reforms that have been so elusive in the past will still need to be implemented, which is not a given. Whatever happens, the Greek citizens will realise that austerity will not, in fact, have been stopped. Furthermore, unless the economy starts performing much more strongly, the latest tranche of the EU bailout will not last long. But after the extreme stress and friction of negotiating this agreement, there may not be much enthusiasm for another full bailout. The game theorists must realise that this is a consequence of their winner-takes-all and at-all-costs strategy. Grexit will remain a possibility. Or perhaps the Syriza government will begin to collect tax revenues vigorously, introduce effective reforms exceeding all expectations and pull the country back from the brink. The past is not necessarily a predictor of the future, but I doubt this will happen without strong and timely global growth to lift all boats, including the Greek one.

But it is possible, indeed likely, based on the latest statements emanating from all sides, that this Greek tragedy will end in catastrophe – yet another word of Greece origin. If Greece does not make the IMF repayment due on 01 July 2015, it is quite possible that a political rabbit will be pulled out of the bag and default will be averted. Angela Merkel is apparently fond of the saying: where there is a will, there is a way. But based on the current situation, sooner rather than later, the country will run out of money. At that point, all hell will break loose, despite all the warm and comforting reassurances from politicians that firewalls are in place to avoid contagion that would wreak havoc across Europe and possibly other parts of the world.

As I wrote in a separate blog post: Eastern Europe went through variants of shock therapy in the 1990s and the Russians, Poles and all the others will confirm that very little was predicted by economic theory, that recovery took much longer than anticipated and that they have absolutely no desire to ever experience such wanton destruction again. I would not wish this upon Greece or any other nation. I would much rather another round of muddling through in the classical European way instead of the destructive, unpredictable catharsis that is being floated. But I also know that many would disagree and not just in Greece.”

Having reflected on the last five months since the election of the Greek government, I am tending to the conclusion that the Greek drama may well end in a dénouement / catastrophe / catharsis resulting from the Fine Young Radicals’ refusal to compromise. They will take the hit, re-establish the drachma or something similar and do their best to move forward. Greece will then be fully in charge of its monetary policy, its currency, its dignity and everything else that its people, in an act of mass amnesia, believe Germany and the other Eurozone countries have taken away from them in the last five years. Of course, they cannot then expect further EU bailouts, will have to live within their own financial means and will rely on their own politicians to navigate the process of regaining international competitiveness.

Hold on! For a second I almost forgot that this is precisely the scenario that the Greek citizens have been bending over backwards and executing double somersaults to avoid. For otherwise they would surely have voted to exit the Euro/Eurozone/EU in one of their previous two general elections, rather than willingly go through the latest acts of this excruciating Greek drama.

Perhaps it really is true that we cannot have it both ways… even in the EU.


Britain’s post-election reform priorities: a stony path ahead

In my last post, I predicted the outcome of the British General Election and the post-election reform priorities that the resulting British government would pursue. Now that the election outcome is clear, it is worth reviewing how accurate my pre-election predictions were and whether it is time for me to eat my hat. It also presents an opportunity to reflect on some of the key reform priorities in the next few of years. It is clear to me that Britain will emerge transformed, while also impacting directly on the future of the European Union (EU).

The future is blue

In advance of the General Election, unlike the vast majority of polls and media pundits who were convinced that there would be a hung parliament, I wrote: “My main prediction is that the Conservatives will win more seats than any other political party, even if the polls suggest that the election might be a close call. I also predict that the Conservatives will gain an overall majority.” For someone who normally lets his heart rule his head at election time, this was bull’s-eye!  Just reflect on what.

The pollsters are taking the heat and the leading newspapers and other media commentators are reflecting on how they could have got things so badly wrong in advance of the exit polls on election night. But this is not the first time that the opinion polls have been badly out of kilter with reality (Neil Kinnock anyone?) and it will certainly not be the last.

The blame game starts

The blame lies fully and squarely with the Labour Party’s inadequacies during the General Election. This was not an election that was won by the Conservatives whatever their post-election euphoria may suggest. The fact is that too few voters trusted the Labour Party to do better than the previous government. I wrote in my post“The main reasons for this prediction are all to do with Labour, rather than the Conservatives or their policy initiatives… Many voters will switch to the SNP in Scotland and the Conservatives and/or UKIP in England… Large segments of the general public neither relate to nor trust either Ed Miliband or any of the current crop of Labour leaders.” These are the core challenges that Red Ed’s successor will have to grapple with, with the changes in Scotland and the attractiveness of UKIP to former Labour voters at the heart of it (but see below).

Hail the Scots

On Scotland and the Scottish Nationalist Party, I wrote: “The clear winner is going to be the Scottish National Party (SNP) and with this development, the dynamics of Westminster-based politics will change dramatically, especially for the Labour Party.” I added that: “Labour is going to be decimated in Scotland and the other political parties will have almost no influence there.” There are only three non-SNP members of parliament in Scotland out of 59. This is a stunning development and is one of the three critical issues in terms of the future of the UK (see the other two below), something that is already acknowledged by the new Conservative government.

The British bulldog bites… itself

In terms of UKIP, I wrote: “… the UKIP vote, though significantly understated in the opinion polls, nevertheless does not seem to be as much of a threat to the Conservatives as previously anticipated. This is as much to do with the current electoral system as UKIP’s almost wilful self-destruction through incompetence.” This prediction was spot-on. The party gained almost 4 million votes, mostly in England, yet managed only to win one seat. As I have previously written, I consider them to be an anti-immigration verging on racist (and homophobic) party, which is dangerously fanning the flames of angry nativism, as the only remaining UKIP MP, Douglas Carswell, famously put it. But we cannot fail to recognise that the first-past-the-post system can have seriously negative repercussions for democracy – imagine the dismay of the 4 million voters who voted for UKIP and have one MP for their efforts.

Nigel Farage did the right thing by resigning for UKIP’s disastrous performance. He then did the wrong thing by un-resigning immediately afterwards. This takes UKIP beyond the “almost” into the “wilful self-destruction through incompetence” territory. The key issue is whether Farage can emerge phoenix-like from the resulting ashes. Even if he does re-emerge victorious from the unedifying in-fighting, he will not remain unscathed and neither will UKIP as a party. The thin patina of “being different from the rest of the political herd” has worn off and voters will take notice. This is not to imply that UKIP will not be a powerful force to reckon with, especially in relation to the forthcoming EU referendum. It will play a crucial role with or without Nigel Farage as their leader; indeed, UKIP might be even more powerful without him. Despite his “I am just an ordinary guy downing his pint and puffing his fag” routine, his impulsive style of leadership may prove to be difficult to convert into a coherent and consistent campaign against remaining in the EU. Others might well do better.

Reinventing the Brand

I wrote very little about the LibDems – it has been clear for quite a while that it was a party in meltdown. They are in many ways the party with the most realistic reform package and I would have considered voting for them (were it not the for 15 year rule which robs me and others of our democratic rights). I only wrote: “… the LibDems would have to perform much better than anticipated to have a chance of running the country” in another coalition government, that is. As expected, the LibDems have taken the brunt of the political punishment meted out by the voters while the Conservatives have taken the prize of running the country on their own. This was hard and unjust in my view, but such are voters and such is politics. The LibDems face a bigger challenge than the Labour Party, namely of reinventing themselves (once again) and re-establishing the trust of the voters.

I also discussed the two main post-election reform priorities for the new British government (I could have added the Scotland issue as a third, but did not). Judging by the political pronouncements made and the media reporting so far, both predictions appear to be on-track to be implemented.

To leave or not to leave… that is the question

The Conservative Party’s promise of holding a straight in/out EU referendum has been the subject of various posts in this blog. The Conservatives remain committed to holding the referendum by the end of 2017 at the latest. In my previous post I floated the possibility of it being held in 2016 in the context of a coalition with UKIP: “… the political price to be paid to UKIP will be a Conservatives campaign to leave the EU and to hold the in/out referendum in 2016, rather than 2017.” Now a referendum in 2016 is an increasingly realistic scenario, rather than 2017. It is increasingly clear, now that the election is over, that it might destabilise the government and the economy to have an ongoing debate for two years on the pros and cons of Brexit. I have little doubt about the economic, social, environmental and political benefits of continuing EU membership. To my mind, Britain would emerge a vastly diminished nation from a no vote.

My prediction was that: “The outcome of the EU referendum will be a narrow “yes” majority to remain in the EU.” I did not predict this because of an economic study or other. If you were to hold the referendum today, I think the majority of Brits would choose to leave. I predicted a small majority for remaining in the EU principally because: “If the Conservatives are able to form a majority Government, as the traditional party of business, it will ultimately side with remaining in the EU, whatever the pressures of UKIP or the antics of its noisy Eurosceptic wing. After all, the Conservative policy of offering an EU referendum in 2017 was a strategic move calculated to defang UKIP and yet placate the more rabid anti-EU Tories; it was not a decision to leave the EU per se.” I stand by that assessment.

I also predicted that: “The political price to be paid for campaigning to remain in the EU is that this will prove to be the second and final term of office for David Cameron as the Prime Minister and possibly as an MP.” Upon stepping into 10 Downing Street he immediately announced that he will not contest a third term as Prime Minister. Perhaps my gut feeling is not so outlandish that: “Their shambolic position on the EU reflects the fact that David Cameron and other senior members of the Conservative Party, on balance, favour remaining in the EU.” With a sound majority, Cameron can face-down the Eurosceptic wing and finally lance the Conservative Party’s long-festering EU boil.

Regardless of whether the Conservative Party has the balls to declare its position on the EU or not (as opposed to allowing MPs to follow their own convictions), I maintain my prediction that: “The SNP, LibDems and Labour will campaign in favour of remaining in the EU. Moreover, the business sector will make its views in an increasingly vocal and forcible manner and the wider pro-EU voice will be more pronounced than has been the case hitherto.” UKIP and other Eurosceptics have been kicking the hell out of the EC and EU football with little or no opposition. As I have previously argued, far too few prominent Britons have stood up to be counted in this debate so far. Such a state of affairs could not be imaginable in any of the 27 other EU countries. This is finally changing and the pro-EU cavalry is beginning to rally around. But the counter-charge is long overdue and forthcoming battle will be a close run thing.

Death by a thousand cuts

As someone who has lived and/or worked in around 35 countries, I can state what most Britons take for granted or have forgotten. Britain is a marvellous country in part because it has a welfare state courtesy of the famous Beveridge Report of 1942, which sought to counteract the “five giants” namely Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness. Since 1945, the welfare state has become established and was for a long period of time the model for others. But it is apparent that the welfare state has experienced a long drawn-out decline and no longer performs adequately against the five giants despite energetic efforts to reform it and ensure financial sustainability.

With some sadness I wrote: “The last prediction is that the squeeze on the public sector is set to continue for the next few years and it will further transform Britain and its welfare state, resulting in a more divided and fragmented society.”  There is no doubt about the need to reform the welfare state. The concern is that the agenda is driven almost entirely by the Government‘s austerity agenda, resulting in predefined targets of how much to cut so as to balance the national budget by a certain deadline. This does not amount to a serious attempt to reform the welfare state.

Furthermore, the evidence is that the working poor and non-working segments of the British population were not the cause of the economic and financial crisis that plagues Britain and most other European countries. (As an aside, neither was it the EU, the euro, the Labour Party, the EU or non-EU immigrants, the asylum seekers and any of the other convenient scapegoats that keep being bandied around by the politicians and large segments of the British media). But in reality it is the working-poor, the unemployed and other benefit recipients, including the disabled and vulnerable in society that have paid disproportionately the price of austerity, compared with the wealthy (who have done rather nicely during the same period), the retired (who have maintained their standards) and the middle-income families (segments of which are certainly feeling the pinch, but not nearly to the same extent).

In this context, I predicted that this trend is set to continue: “The Conservative Party does not deny that further cuts in the order of GBP 12 billion  in social expenditure are in the pipeline, even if it is rather coy about how exactly this will be achieved. If the last Parliament was anything to go by, the brunt of the cuts will continue to be borne by the more vulnerable members of society, while corporations and the wealthy are spared.”

Somewhat gloomily, I also predicted that: “… some of the things that Britons are most concerned about such a shelter (sufficient, affordable and good quality housing), health (NHS, access and quality) and education (primary, secondary and tertiary) will continue to experience gradual deterioration… Instead, the (EU and non-EU) migrants will continue to act as the lightning rod for people’s frustration with a slowly crumbling system, while those that have been running these very systems for decades or generations are largely spared the British citzens’ ire.” I certainly hope that this prediction misses its target by a proverbial country mile.

What is already apparent is that the Chancellor, Mr George Osborne, is not wasting his time in continuing the process of financial and fiscal reform, otherwise known as austerity (but see Paul Krugman’s piece on The Austerity Delusion). He has announced that there will be a further Budget on 8 July 2015 to set out how the Conservatives will eliminate the gaping national deficit. He stressed that it will be a budget for “working people” but the centrepiece will be how £12bn can be shed from Britain’s welfare bill. It is almost certain that this Budget will usher in a fresh wave of austerity measures that will presumably not be so good for the “non-working people” of Britain.

Just to be clear, there are 33 million (78%) economically active people (16-64 years of age) in the UK, of which 1.8 million or 5.5% are unemployed. There are a further 9 million economically inactive (22%) people. If you are part of this group of 27.5%, this is clearly not going to be a Budget designed to make you happy. Since very few of these people will fall into the category of “skivers”, “benefits cheats” and similar (something which the government is well aware of despite the rhetoric deployed), it is hard to see any justification for yet another assault on their already low or precarious standards of living. Why can the cuts not fall proportionately on the wealthy, profitable businesses and others that have high incomes instead, other than for the usual sordid short-term, partisan politics with a small “p”?

Britain is not is the same category as Greece. I have always been convinced that Britain is one of the wealthiest, fairest and most compassionate societies that I have come across, something which makes me proud to be a Brit. After the next five years, following the Budget of 8 July 2015, I might well have grounds for revisiting that impression.

As I wrote in my previous post, I would have gladly eaten my hat for getting these predictions wrong. Sadly, it appears as if the great majority of them have either been correct or are on-track to be realised in the next term of government. Britain will emerge from it a poorer nation in almost every sense.

Ricardo Pinto, AngloDeutsch™ Blog, www.AngloDeutsch.EU


Predicting the British General Election Result and the next few years

A humorous but apt Danish proverb is that “Prediction is difficult, especially when dealing with the future.” As the politicians finally stop pushing the merits of their policies and the British voters reflect on which way to cast their vote on 07 May 2015 general election, I will hazard some predictions about the likely general election result, as well as the political priorities that are likely to be pursued in the next few years in Britain. Most if not all of the predictions will probably come back to haunt me, but here goes nothing…

And the winner is…

My main prediction is that the Conservatives will win more seats than any other political party, even if the polls suggest that the election might be a close call. I also predict that the Conservatives will gain an overall majority, rather than a hung parliament. The main reasons for this prediction are all to do with Labour, rather than the Conservatives or their policy initiatives:

  • Labour is going to be decimated in Scotland and the other political parties will have almost no influence there. The clear winner is going to be the Scottish National Party (SNP) and with this development, the dynamics of Westminster-based politics will change dramatically, especially for the Labour Party.
  • The British public, including many traditional Labour voters, remain extremely sceptical about the final Blair / Brown years, which they blame a lot of the issues confronting society, not least being drawn into recent wars, immigration trends and the state of the economy. Many voters will switch to the SNP in Scotland and the Conservatives and/or UKIP in England.
  • Large segments of the general public neither relate to nor trust either Ed Miliband or any of the current crop of Labour leaders. In this respect, I cannot help but experience a sense of déjà vu in respect to the Michael Foot / Neil Kinnock era which bodes ill for the Labour Party.

The Conservatives will profit from the above and will form the next government. This is particularly the case because the UKIP vote, though significantly understated in the opinion polls, nevertheless does not seem to be as much of a threat to the Conservatives as previously anticipated. This is as much to do with the current electoral system as UKIP’s almost wilful self-destruction through incompetence combined with persistent gaffes by its candidates that undermine the message that it is neither anti-immigration nor racist. Despite it all, UKIP retains strong support in parts of England.

My other two predictions concern the issue of austerity and its implications on British society, as well as the future of Britain in the European Union.

EU Referendum: plus ça change…

Regarding the in-out EU referendum scheduled for 2017, the Conservative Party will finally have to break cover and clarify whether it belongs to the yes or no camp. If the Conservatives are able to form a majority Government, as the traditional party of business, it will ultimately side with remaining in the EU, whatever the pressures of UKIP or the antics of its noisy Eurosceptic wing. After all, the Conservative policy of offering an EU referendum in 2017 was a strategic move calculated to defang UKIP and yet placate the more rabid anti-EU Tories; it was not a decision to leave the EU per se.

Their shambolic position on the EU reflects the fact that David Cameron and other senior members of the Conservative Party, on balance, favour remaining in the EU.  The political price to be paid for campaigning to remain in the EU is that this will prove to be the second and final term of office for David Cameron as the Prime Minister and possibly as an MP. The SNP, LibDems and Labour will campaign in favour of remaining in the EU. Moreover, the business sector will make its views in an increasingly vocal and forcible manner and the wider pro-EU voice will be more pronounced than has been the case hitherto. Unlike the present time where few speak up, others, such as art, culture and sport personalities will do likewise as a means of counteracting what will remain, in the main, a strongly anti-EU media.

Should a coalition Government arise, the LibDems would have to perform much better than anticipated to have a chance of running the country. The other possible coalition partner to the Conservatives, despite protestations to the contrary, is UKIP. If the latter coalition government were to emerge, the political price to be paid to UKIP will be a Conservatives campaign to leave the EU and to hold the in/out referendum in 2016, rather than 2017. A combination of the Conservatives and UKIP running to leave the EU would be a disaster for Britain (as well as the remaining EU countries already battered by the travails of Greece and holding the Eurozone together), which would be very hard to counteract, especially with the majority of the British media supporting their position. Britain would come to regret the likely outcome in the medium to long-term.

Under any scenario involving a referendum, the EU will have to show flexibility and do whatever it takes in to facilitate the UK remaining in the EU. As I have previously argued, there will not be fundamental EU treaty amendments for the sake of keeping Britain in the EU boat, such as a reform of the freedom of movement or the other three fundamental freedoms of movement, namely of capital, services (which is extremely underdeveloped) and goods. However, the EC and the EU will be more flexible in areas such as benefit entitlement in the EU area, which in any case is almost entirely determined by nation states, rather than EU directives and regulations.

If the referendum were to be held today, I believe the outcome would be an outright rejection  of the EU. The great majority of British media is extremely anti-EU and anti-immigration and would contribute to a no vote. However, there could be up to two years for business, society and voters to reflect on the not insignificant advantages of being part of the EU, as well as the potential consequences of Britain going it alone in an increasingly globalised world. A re-orientation towards the old and new Commonwealth and North America is no longer adequate to guarantee current, let alone future prosperity. An emphasis on trade at the exclusion of everything else that the EU brings simply does not cut the mustard in the modern era, where problems such as environmental issues and tax agreements require regional or global responses, rather than national ones. Turning our back on 27 other next door neighbours around us in Europe is simply not sustainable in an economic, social, political or any other sense.

I retain great faith in the capacity of the British public to eventually do the right thing. The following Winston Churchill quotation springs readily to mind: “The Americans will always do the right thing… after they’ve exhausted all the alternatives.” Substitute “Brits” for “Americans” and you get the gist of what I mean. The outcome of the EU referendum will be a narrow “yes” majority to remain in the EU. The alternative does not bear thinking about.

Austerity ad nauseam

The last prediction is that the squeeze on the public sector is set to continue for the next few years and it will further transform Britain and its welfare state, resulting in a more divided and fragmented society. There will be a repeat of the pattern set in the previous Parliament, namely a dramatic public expenditure squeeze in the first two years, followed by a gradual let-up as the term of office peters out and politicians look to be re-elected.

The Conservative Party does not deny that further cuts in the order of GBP 12 billion  in social expenditure are in the pipeline, even if it is rather coy about how exactly this will be achieved. If the last Parliament was anything to go by, the brunt of the cuts will continue to be borne by the more vulnerable members of society, while corporations and the wealthy are spared.

There will continue to be a lot of talk about benefit scroungers (British and EU) to justify the cuts which will fall disproportionately on the working poor and non-working segments of British society. The austerity agenda continues to offer handy political cover for a significant reduction in the size of the state and the social and welfare infrastructure, including local government. This is set to continue, spreading more deeply to areas such as police, judiciary, military, etc. since the other options have been largely exhausted. The alternative would be to put the squeeze (e.g. means testing benefits of various sorts, higher taxes, etc.) on the middle classes, the retired and the wealthy; this will not happen if the Conservatives hope to be re-elected thereafter.

In the meantime, some of the things that Britons are most concerned about such a shelter (sufficient, affordable and good quality housing), health (NHS, access and quality) and education (primary, secondary and tertiary) will continue to experience gradual deterioration. These are simply not great priorities for the Conservatives. Their traditional supporters are capable of by-passing any current or future shortcomings in state provision and directly accessing the highest quality services that money can provide, though the phenomenon of the “squeezed middle” will ensure that political capital and financial resources will still be devoted to these fundamental themes.

Instead, the (EU and non-EU) migrants will continue to act as the lightning rod for people’s frustration with a slowly crumbling system, while those that have been running these very systems for decades or generations are largely spared the British citzens’ ire. After all, if housing is unaffordable and private renting is insecure, the normal response in a modern wealthy country would be to stimulate significant additional supply and/or ensure that appropriate protections are enacted. This will not happen. If there are not enough school places or hospital beds, then public investment should deliver greater supply while still maintaining standards. This is highly unlikely to happen either. Yet it is Westminster that is responsible for recognising, responding to and securing these changes over the medium term, not individual citizens looking to access these services, regardless of their nationality, race or creed.

We shall know the result of the general election soon enough. I sincerely hope that most of the above predictions prove to be wrong, in which case I will gladly eat my hat.

Ricardo Pinto, AngloDeutsch™ Blog, www.AngloDeutsch.EU


Syriza’s Electoral Success in Greece: the future of austerity in Europe

Syriza has just pulled off the most amazing of political coups. There is little doubt that the Greek voters were simply sick and tired of the parlous state of their economy, combined with years of austerity which have undoubtedly caused economic and social havoc. Things simply could not go on as before; something had to give. Politics gave, resulting in a stunning electoral success for Syriza and its young leader, Alexis Tsipras, already dubbed Sexy Alexi. The reality though, is that there is little of an appealing nature about the aftermath of the Greek election. There is nothing ahead but more turbulence and socio-economic strife in the short-term for Greece and the other countries undergoing austerity in the eurozone and beyond.

Demonizing Germany

Greek society has been traumatized by what has been happening since 2008/9. However, there seems to have been a strange collective loss of memory about the role of the Greeks in this tragedy. Instead there has been a deliberate and consistent demonization of the eurozone, the Troika and, most prominently, Germany itself, which has characterised this stunning electoral victory. On the eve of the election, Mr Alexis Tsipras said at his final campaign meeting: “On Monday we shall be done with national humiliation. We will have finished with orders from abroad,” 23rd January 2015. This theme was consistent during the lead up to the election and has continued since.

Let us consider the Greek role in that national humiliation and the role of those issuing orders from abroad, an euphemism for the EU, the Troika, the Eurozone generally and Germany in particular:

  • Greece’s problems did not start with joining the EU or the Euro.
  • They are the product of generation upon generation of decisions made by Greek leaders.
  • These same Greek leaders, at least since 1975, have been democratically elected.
  • Joining the EU in 1981 gave a massive social and economic boost to Greece.
  • Through its own macroeconomic decisions, it has built-up unsustainable levels of debt.
  • Through its lack of wage restraint, combined with lack of reform, Greek decisions led to a systematic loss of competitiveness during the long economic boom until 2008.
  • Extensive tax avoidance and evasion combined with corruption remains a problem.
  • During the last general election, the Greek people voted to remain in the EU and Euro.
  • The Greek government chose not to exit the Euro and thus sought support from the EU.
  • Even though EU treaties forbid eurozone states from assuming the debts of other states (bailouts), emergency rescue funds were formed to support debt crisis states to meet their financial obligations and buy time for reforms to regain competitiveness.
  • The Eurozone has provided various rescue funds which have avoided default and massive social and economic disruption. A long and painful “internal devaluation” is occurring.
  • The price of these rescues is a programme of reform and cuts, agreed with and signed off by the Greek government as the pre-condition for the various rescues.
  • The price, in terms of human suffering and the effects on the economy have been huge. Internal deviation has finally delivered growth but at the price of a reduction of 25% of GDP, 25% unemployment, 50% youth unemployment and 23% poverty rate.
  • This is now interpreted as humiliation, bullying and dictatorship, with Germany singled out.

It is a delusion almost gleefully perpetuated by certain parts of the media, to imagine that the EU, and Germany are responsible for all the above. This is the end-product of Greek voters’ decisions and their chosen democratically elected Governments, even if the average person now feels completely divorced from the traditional parties. People can bang on as much as they like about the EU, eurozone, Euro, Troika and Germany being responsible for the lot of the Greeks, but it rings hollow for anyone that cares to reflect on the reality. They may put-up their anti-EU and anti-Germany slogans, posters and graffiti to express their rage and helplessness, but the facts are different. None of this is to imply or deny that the Greek people have suffered tremendously or indeed to blame them for wanting a change from a downward vortex that they find themselves trapped in.

This is indeed a national humiliation, but one made in Greece. It is a travesty to leave unchallenged the assertion that Greece is simply taking orders from “abroad”. Greeks voted to remain in the EU and the euro at the previous General Election and this is what their previous democratically elected government delivered. The EU and Eurozone have made extensive efforts to meet the wishes of the Greek electorate, while also keeping the economy afloat and the country in the euro. No one suggested that there would not be a price pay in terms of painful reforms required from internal devaluation, as opposed to default which would have been at least as painful.

There was an outpouring of joy about the Greek election results and the expression of solidarity in many European countries. The hope is that this election result will spell the end of “Germanic” austerity in Europe. So let us examine what exactly the Greeks have just voted for.

Unsustainable to the Nth Degree

For those that are not aware of it, Syriza stands for the Radical Left Coalition. The Greeks have voted (36%) for a party which has a series of policies which stretch credulity beyond breaking point:

  • Stay in the EU and the Euro.
  • Negotiate the level of the debt burden (175% of the GDP or €318 billion) immediately
  • Reboot the economy (New European Deal and Investment Bank) and create 300,000 jobs
  • Bring about an immediate end to austerity:
    • Tax reductions (abolish taxes & social contributions for 7 years & income tax of 30%)
    • Raise the minimum wage from €586 to €751
    • Re-introduce 13th month for the lowest retirement pensions
    • Distribute electricity or housing coupons and free access to public transport for the poorest 300,000 households
    • Introduce free healthcare for all.
  • Stop privatisation on its tracks.
  • Various other pledges, depending on the source considered.

Individually all the above items are logical, especially in a country which is in economic and social turmoil. Collectively they certainly are not. The only radical thing about this programme is that Syriza wants to have its cake and eat it, and has managed to persuade the exhausted Greek voter to buy a ticket for a bumpy ride. How is all this possible to achieve given the parlous state of the Greek economy?

If Greece wants to finish with “orders from abroad”, it could have done so at the last general election and it can certainly do so now by leaving the euro and/or the EU, but it cannot have it both ways. It cannot insist on staying in the EU and euro but require everyone else to prop-up the country and its standards of living for the foreseeable future. This is not a eurozone or an EU that almost anyone else would wish to be part of. The transfers from other countries implied are, rightly, forbidden by EU treaties.

That’s not all, folks

As if this was not challenging enough, Syriza has just made the situation a lot worse than it needed to be. Three seats short of an outright majority, it had to select its coalition party. Instead of going for the more moderate To Potami party (The River, 6% of the vote), Syriza selected the Independent Greeks Party (4.6% votes) as its coalition partner. So let us examine the Independent Greeks Party’s key election pledges:

  • Revoke the loan agreements between Greece, EU and International Monetary Fund (Troika) and prosecute those who negotiated them.
  • Repudiate part of Greece’s debt because it was created by speculators in a conspiracy to bring Greece to the edge of bankruptcy.
  • Require German war reparations for the invasion and occupation of Greece during WWII.
  • Oppose multiculturalism, reduce immigration and develop a Christian Orthodox-oriented education system.

Its leader Mr Panos Kammenos makes much play of the fact that ‘The Troika’ has turned Greece into a “laboratory animal” in an austerity experiment using “… public debt as a means of control.” Mr Kammenos concentrates his ire on Germany: “Germany is not treating Greece as a partner but as its master. … It tries to turn a Europe of independent states into a Europe dominated by Germany.”

He does not seem to focus much on the role his own countrymen have played in creating this Greek Tragedy for generations, even before joining the EU, before joining the euro 10 years ago and then going into a massive debt-fuelled public and private spending spree. No, apparently it is all the responsibility of the German banks that pushed piles of cash into the unwilling hands of Greek public and private borrowers. Apparently it is all the responsibility of the Troika for responding to the express wishes of the Greek electorate to remain in the euro at all costs. And it is all the fault of the hard-hearted Germans, hell-bent on European domination once again. The reality is different. All serious commentators agree that Germany is a “reluctant European hegemon.” Mrs Merkel leads because there is no one else to lead, with France imploding and Britain vacating the EU stage.

In selecting the Independent Greeks Party as its coalition partner over To Potami, Syriza has made a major miscalculation that will complicate the tough negotiations with the EU to come and the massive reforms which will continue to be needed for the foreseeable future, even if all of the Syriza pledges were to be achieved, which they most certainly will not.

Endgame: pressing the reset button

The endgame will not be long in the making both for Greece and for the whole of austerity Europe. The Spaniards, Portuguese and others including Italy and France look on curiously. Britain stands aloof, perhaps feeling protected by its own currency, yet still gripped by its own variant of austerity which is no less cruel. There is no doubt that what happens in Greece will have repercussions throughout Europe and not just in the eurozone.

A decision is imminent since the next round of discussions on the EU support to Greece is due. The newly minted Greek government is maintaining its tough talk but it is a high stakes poker game for both sides. Quite simply, the game is up for Greece if it fails to agree the next EU rescue. It will have to default and go through all that which it tried so hard to avoid since the last general election. The difference is that the suffering experienced so far with be a cakewalk compared with what would follow. On the other hand, if the EU does not compromise on austerity, the whole eurozone edifice could crumble. The chances are that a compromise will be found and the eurozone will simply muddle through, but there would need to be a very significant change to the current Syriza / Independent Greeks Party electoral programme to achieve a workable compromise.

But default is not out of the question. Many economists and commentators in Britain, Germany and USA are increasingly portraying default and dropping out of the euro as the lesser of two evils for Greece. The argument is that it would be best for Greece to pull out. What would follow is bound to be a short, sharp shock or so says economic theory (which did not prove all that sound in predicting the current financial and economic crash). The argument continues that countries such as Argentina have done it and the experience shows that default and a new currency is normally followed by rapid economic recovery. Their conclusion is that this scenario would be infinitely better than death by a thousand cuts via the current internal devaluation in the eurozone.

Maybe, maybe not.

I ask these economists and commentators: have you and you families experienced anything remotely like what the average Greek family already has in the last six years? Who are you to suggest to the Greeks that a round of short, sharp “shock therapy” arising from sovereign default is bearable for a country that has already suffered so much? What makes you so confident that Greece will arise Phoenix-like from the ashes, ready for rapid growth and regenerated from such a catharsis? How can you be so sure that contagion will not take hold in other eurozone countries?

Eastern Europe went through variants of shock therapy in the 1990s and the Russians, Poles and all the others will confirm that very little was predicted by economic theory, that recovery took much longer than anticipated and that they have absolutely no desire to ever experience such wanton destruction again. I would not wish this upon Greece or any other nation. I would much rather another round of muddling through in the classical European way instead of the destructive, unpredictable catharsis that is being floated. But I also know that many would disagree and not just in Greece.

So step-up to the plate Syriza / Independent Greeks Party: a lot rests on you so let us see what you can do.

Ricardo Pinto, AngloDeutsch™ Blog, www.AngloDeutsch.EU