here seems to be a general feeling in northern Europe that irresponsible management of finances coupled with easy access to EU grants and cheap credit, a culture of sleaze, laziness and tax evasion are the main causes of the Greek crisis.
But is this the case? Even a cursory analysis would reveal that the truth is very different and the causes of the crisis are to be found largely elsewhere. The Greece Solidarity Campaign, in its short existence has organised three visits of British trade unionists, progressive politicians and civic organisations to Greece. We met progressive politicians, including party leaders, mayors trying to protect their constituents, trade unionists, civic organisations and respected political activists.
People in Greece and the other Mediterranean countries seem shocked, confused and hurt. Faced with unprecedented levels of unemployment, draconian austerity measures and a barrage of insults they feel cornered and unfairly blamed for something that they had no idea was happening and with which they had very little if anything to do.
Official unemployment levels in Greece and Spain are now exceeding 20% (the real levels are almost certainly much higher) with youth unemployment over 50% and rising. Many young people in their 20s have never experienced paid employment and a whole generation is socialised into a life of worklessness, with unpredictable consequences for the future.
Since the outbreak of the crisis, after years of record growth levels, the Greek economy has been shrinking rapidly. The country's GDP has contracted by 15%, with a staggering 7% contraction last year and a similar figure predicted for the current one.
Extraordinarily harsh austerity measures have been imposed on the country over the last three years, by the TROIKA (the infamous group of EU, European Bank and IMF representatives, managing the so called bailout agreements with countries like Greece).
Up to 40% average reductions in pensions (many retrospective), huge reductions in the minimum wage, 22% reduction in unemployment benefits, a massive cull of civil servants, up to one third reduction in both private and public sector wages a 50% reduction in central government subsidies to local authorities, abolition of national collective bargaining legislation and mechanisms and of employment protection laws are just some of the austerity measures already imposed on the population. More are on the way with the Troika demanding a further 11.5bn Euro cuts on top of those already imposed.
The huge reductions in individual spending power has driven the country's micro-economy into a fast and accelerating decline; 60,000 small businesses closed down in the last two years. Empty shops with ‘to let' signs dominate the streets of Greek cities. Suicide rates, especially amongst middle aged self employed and small businessmen, have more than doubled in a year, with heart-rending suicide stories appearing almost daily in the press.
More than a third of Greeks now live officially below the poverty line, with millions unable to buy enough food, necessitating the rapid establishment of a huge network of municipal ‘community restaurants' and church-run soup kitchens, in practically every neighbourhood of the big cities. Special municipal initiatives, like the potato movement and ‘community markets' where sympathetic producers sell directly their produce at or below cost to those in need have mushroomed.
Huge numbers have lost their health insurance protection with their jobs and are now relying on the new ‘community surgeries', of volunteer doctors and nurses, set up by sympathetic councils and the good will of private doctors (many have agreements with local councils to provide free health services to the destitute), as well as ‘community pharmacies' (operated by some councils, with donated medicines and volunteers). Normal pharmacies are themselves fighting for survival, increasingly demanding cash payments for medicines.
The feeling of pessimism, shock, and hopelessness is palpable in every neighbourhood, in every conversation, increasingly feeding civil unrest, with graffiti everywhere, demonstrations, strikes and challenges to the discredited authorities.
Greece, since its 19th century liberation from the four centuries-long Turkish occupation, had never enjoyed full independence from the western powers that had supported its uprising, until the emergence of the radical socialist PASOK movement in the late 1970s. PASOK, with a populist socialist and national independence message, led by the charismatic Andreas Papandreou secured massive majorities in successive elections.
By the third PASOK government, as its ageing charismatic founder was ailing and losing his grip, the party started getting corrupted by its seemingly unassailable grip on power and reverted into the old clientilistic and sleazy practices that it was previously fighting against. Disillusionment amongst its natural supporters led to the return to government, nine years ago, of the conservative ND party, which consolidated the bad habits and eventually collapsed three years ago, when the scale of the debt crisis it was presiding over started becoming clear.
A seemingly revitalised PASOK returned to power with a massive vote, promising to sort out the crisis in a caring socialist manner, only to find itself locked into the jaws of the TROIKA, and lacking the unity and strength necessary to stand up to it.
The harsh austerity packages that ensued, fuelled divisions and social unrest and soon PASOK was forced to hand over to a transitional coalition government led by an unelected non-politician, a banker, ex-deputy head of the Central European Bank. Many Greeks joked bitterly at the time that since the bankers were controlling their government in any case, they might as well hand the administration directly to a banker, cutting out the middlemen!!
In Greece (as well as Spain and Italy), the suddenness of the crisis and the severity of the austerity measures, have turned a previous apathy into an anger that gave birth to spontaneous, popular movements known as ‘the indignant'. This rather amorphous movement, led to the erosion of the traditional support for PASOK and ND, the two major ‘government' parties that dominated Greek politics for the previous 45 years and to a popular search for new alternatives.
A previously small loose coalition of some 12 different Green, Trotskyist and Anarchist groups, known as Synaspismos, became one of the main vehicles for this popular search for an alternative. SYRIZA, its electoral vehicle,, led by the young and charismatic Alexis Tsipras, started rising in the opinion polls and became the natural focus of the progressive forces amongst the indignant, securing a surprising 17% in the March 2012 elections, rising to a spectacular 27% at the June 2012 ones, whilst the two major parties lost most of their support.
In parallel a new conservative anti-austerity party , the Independent Greeks led by Panos Kammenos, (ex-ND MP), came out of nowhere to take 11% of the votes in recent elections, whilst the previously miniscule (0.4% in 2009) fascist Golden Dawn, reached 6-7% of the vote, entering parliament for the first time, with a fierce rhetoric combining anti-austerity with nationalistic sentiments.
The March 2012 elections failed to produce a viable government, leading to further elections in June, with opinion polls indicating a massive 75-80% majority against the implementation of the austerity measures and a similar one wanting to, nevertheless, stay within the EU.
The June 2012 elections, consolidated the previous dramatic shift from traditional to entirely new radical parties, but with the electorate polarised between the parties who promised outright rejection of the ‘memoranda' (i.e. the austerity packages attached to the bailouts) and those who, whatever their feelings on the memoranda, would not risk expulsion from the EU.
The conservative ND, the main beneficiary of tactical voting from pro-EU voters, achieved a surprising 29%, coming narrowly top of the poll and grabbing the 50 seats bonus the Greek constitution allocates to the party that comes top.
The previously dominant PASOK, which in government had negotiated the bailout agreements, had cornered itself into supporting the pro EU alliance, and found itself in the same camp with its old conservative enemy, suffering a number of defections (mostly to SYRIZA) and seeing its vote slump from 44% in 2009, to a hard core of 12% three years later.
The 50 bonus seats provided a coalition of ND, PASOK and DEMAR with a narrow majority within Parliament, enabling it to form a government, although a majority of voters had voted for the anti-memoranda side. This created an awkward political situation, with the coalition having a parliamentary majority, but not a popular mandate for continuing with the austerity measures.
The Greek people have now managed to turn their anger into a fundamental shift against the old political parties. It is a model that is likely to spread well beyond Greece. The lessons of PASOK's rapid demise for our Labour Party are evident, whilst SYRIZA's meteoric rise against the combined onslaught of the media and the establishment has been an inspiration for the alternative political parties emerging in France, Germany, Spain, Ireland and so on. There is a real hunger now amongst radical and alternative movements across Europe to forge alliances with Greece and with each other, adopting the Greek struggle as their own, often under the banner of ‘We are all Greeks'.
But the implications for us are wider and in some respects sharper. It is becoming increasingly evident that, whatever the reasons and the origins of the crisis, it is being used by an international ‘neo-liberal' establishment to promote a new model of social, labour and economic relations across the western world. Greek and international commentators talk increasingly of Greece being used as a guinea pig for testing a range of neo-liberal measures that are designed to be transferred elsewhere, initially to the EU's peripheral states, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Cyprus and Ireland and then to the other EU countries, including Britain.
British trade unions increasingly understand that the fight against the austerity measures and the undermining of labour protection and social welfare systems that takes place within Greece today, is not a fight of the Greeks alone, but on behalf of the whole of Europe, the European trade union movement.