Since the founding of the EU in Maastricht in 1993, the European idea has surpassed mere economic cooperation to both political and social spheres, and beyond. Citizens living within any of the countries encompassed by this label increasingly identify with ‘being’ European, and certain European ideals have begun to crystallise out. Values such as human rights, freedom of speech, the acceptance of racial and religious diversity; the list is long, and the shared support of such values, indeed their implementation, universal. Through its creation the European idea has opened the door for a shift away from extreme forms of nationalism that ultimately lead to conflict, and offered the possibility of collectively solving previously untouchable problems. This extension of human cooperation into the field of politics that was formerly kept isolated between nations thus presents us with a real opportunity for meaningful change. Such potential has quickly become reality, and European citizens have seen their average quality of life rapidly augment: open borders; a reliable and trustworthy judicial system; the establishment of vast safety nets by the state, to name just a few.
22 years later and the debt of Greece, amongst others, has led us to a crucial point. For five years we have seen several countries fulfil the conditions set in return of massive bailout packages, aimed at containing and repaying their debt, putting finances back in order and thus the economy on track for growth. These conditions have become known as austerity measures (from ‘austere’, meaning strict or severe in discipline) a term becoming less and less popular accross Germany1. Many examples from the German media consistently attempt to conceal the bigger picture at hand: Syriza’s vote to power in Greece, the rise in support of other socially-oriented parties in several European countries now, is not just a a political game to be played, to be won or lost, but a serious
concern regarding the conditions that ordinary citizens are being pushed into as a result of these austerity measures. Instead of considering such concerns, they are swept hastily under the carpet and forgotten about, or replaced by emotional, sensationalised viewpoints aimed at stimulating the selfish instincts of every individual. ‘The Euro-scare: where will the Greek anger lead?’ and ‘The Greek debt-poker – are we being played by the South?’2 are just two examples. The new government’s demand for an end to the austerity measures has even been described as ‘Greek arrogance’ and ‘Greek greed’.
Yet it is stunning what can be found when looking just ever so slighlty deeper than what is offered at first glance. When the new finance minister Yanis Varoufakis was asked for an interview by the BBC’s Newsnight only five days after Syriza won the Greek election, it was unlikely that the presenter was anticipating what was to follow. In Varoufakis I witnessed for the first time a governing politician whose answers are so sincere, his attitude so honest, that it was with a strange feeling I watched the 15 minutes or so play out. How can this be? Varoufakis is not radical, not a left-wing ‘Rabauke’ (engl.: bully) as we are lead to believe, nor, as became increasingly clear in the ongoing interview, is he trying to blackmail the European governments responsible for implementing the austerity measures. Varoufakis is simply challenging a humanitarian crisis: 58.3% youth unemployment. 26.2% overall unemployment. A monthly minimum wage of 683.76 Euros.3 30%, so around 3 million people, without health insurance4. A rise in the suicide rate by 0.43% for every 1% cut to public spending (leading to 551 men commiting suicide between 2009 and 2010 solely because of austerity) and a rise in the HIV infection rate by more than 200%.5 These numbers outline the basic content of the problems that Syriza are contesting, the concerns that we have ignored, and provide the backdrop as to why so many Greeks have had enough.
Consider for a brief moment a situation where these figures conveyed the circumstances in Germany. Would the citizens accept such conditions, given that the principle currently being applied in Greece would have to be superimposed onto Germany, too. Would they accept their average, monthly minimum wage being cut by more than half?6 Would they accept an additional 50% of their youths to be pushed out of work?7 Or how, for that matter, would the Netherlands react to these conditions? Or Finnland? Or any of the other 13 member states currently meeting in Brussels in an attempt for a continuation of the exact austerity measures that are the cause of the aforementioned statistics? Although certain aspects of the methods Syriza are using to deal with these problems may be questioned in terms of economic theory, the solutions that they are fighting for, and thus their motives, can surely not be disputed by any European with just the smallest amount of social awareness. Especially not by Germany, who’s ‘Länderfinanzausgleich’ policy – a mechanism of financial redistribution between the 16 states to ensure relative income equality, and everything that stems from that, across the whole country – is actually a prime example of the ideal European model, just on a national level. Interestingly, in 2012 the debt per capita in the North German city Bremen (one of the 16 states) was higher than the debt per capita of Greece8. The difference is that Bremen is heavily subsidised by Germany as a result of the aforemoentioned policy.
Let us return again to the principles upon which the European idea was founded. Was it not a desire for cooperation, for a move away from political and economic nationalism, for an inrease in the quality of life for all individuals who live within the borders of this concept? For when looking closely, it is not, as the western media is trying to make us believe, the collection of Germany and France etc. that are representing these ideals, but Syriza. It is a new type of politician, the likes of which Varoufakis characterises, which will challenge the perpetual structures of our establishment that have hindered the fulfilment of our potential for social harmony. In a continued political state of a Jean-Claude Juncker pulling the strings, a leader who was the Prime Minister of Luxemburg for a period of 18 years, a period in which at least 340 multinationals and thousands of wealthy individuals were permitted to engage in tax evasion9, little will ever change, for the sphere of influence amongst the rich and the powerful is already too strong. If the values that persevere are those which put a financial institution before human suffering; if the principles protected are those which put blame on Greek citizens more so than on German, or Finnish citizens for a failure of exactly those institutions, then I will no longer be able to identify with this ‘being’ European, and I am certain that upon closer reflection many others would feel similar.
Reflecting exclusivley on the current situatuon in Greece, of course Syriza have certain responsibilities to fulfil, and a debt to pay off. Over the past few years we have seen several contracts signed, and now our commitment to the considerations of these agreements must be kept. However, this does not rule out a need for flexibility in light of changing political and social landscapes; consequences which are often shaped by human suffering. It follows that were we to allow a brief respite in our immediate rejection of political alternatives, and endorse Syriza and Podemos10, then it is likely that we could find ourselves far closer to our humanist aims relatively soon, heading in the direction that we for too long have thought is economically dangerous.
1 I will be constantly referring to the media reports etc. from Germany, for this is where I live and thus experience the reporting most significantl. This is not to say, however, that the comments cannot be applied to other countries as well.
2 Both of these titles are taken from talkshows on the German TV-Station ARD: ‘Der Euro-Schreck – wohin führt die Griechen-Wut?’ (ARD, Günther Jauch 02.02.2015) and ‘Griechenlands Schuldenpoker – zieht uns der Süden über den Tisch?’ (ARD, Hart aber Fair 09.02.2015)
3 OECD data on Greece – http://data.oecd.org/greece.htm
4 Eurostat, monthly minimum wages, bi-annual data – http://appsso.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/nui/show.do? dataset=earn_mw_cur&lang=en
5 The data was gathered by Nikolaos Antonakakis, published as ‘The impact of fiscal austerity on suicide: On the empirics of a modern Greek tragedy’ and also reported in a book by David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu: http://www.theguardian.com/business/economics-blog/2013/apr/29/austerity-kills-health-europe-us
6 The monthly minimum wage in Germany is 1,473 euros, OECD data on Germany
7 The youth unemployment rate in Germany is 7.9%, OECD data on Germany
9 In November 2014 the so called ‘Lux Leaks’ released these figures – http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/
10 Podemos is a spanish political party representing similar ideals to Syriza