Debt, Democracy, Dignity
The results of the Greek elections have garnered Greece more attention than any time since the onset of the euro crisis: the stakes so high, the drama gripping, and the characters fascinating. Two weeks into the new government, it feels like we are still going through a campaign (makes you wonder if Greece should adopt the longer transition periods that we have here in the U.S.) Dire predictions and optimistic scenarios seem equally half-baked, neither specific government proposals nor troika counterproposals have been presented. What we do know: the austerity only policies imposed on Greece have not worked. Consider these statistics (out of January 20, 2015 online edition of The Wall Street Journal – not exactly one of Greece’s biggest fans):
- 25%: the amount the Greek economy has shrunk since its peak in mid-2008.
- 25.8%: the percentage of Greeks who remain unemployed (1.2 million people).
- 23.1%: the percentage of Greeks living at risk of poverty in 2013.
- 83.9%: the percentage the Greek stock market has fallen since 2008.
- 70 billion: how much has been taken out of Greek banks over the past five years.
- 9 times: How much more self-employed professionals had to pay in 2014 in types of taxes, according to the Parliamentary Budget Office.
- 7 times: How much more in tax Greek employees and pensioners had to pay in 2014 compared with 2009, according to the Parliamentary Budget Office.
- 23%: Percentage Greeks pay as value-added tax on most goods. The average VAT paid in the eurozone is 21.5%, and in the European Union 20.5%, according to the Parliamentary Budget Office.
This was not what the Greek people were promised when the “reform” package was presented to/imposed upon them. The shrinking of the economy was more drastic than promised, unemployment soared way past the predicted cap, and the country suffered economic losses never experienced during peace time.
This wouldn’t be the first time policies missed their targets or backfired. The failure of these austerity policies have been exacerbated by the way they came about. The handling of the euro crisis has represented a failure of European democracy, one that threatens to unravel not only the euro, but the entire European project.
Having unelected troika inspectors visit Athens and play overlord on Greek budgets, hearing leaders of other countries issue definitive pronouncements on Greece, not having the ability to hold those most responsible for Greece’s economic future – the heads of the EU, the ECB or the IMF – accountable at the ballot box all brought the Greek electorate to a tipping point. According to the EU’s website, the union is meant to promote “human dignity” and is “focused on making its governing institutions more transparent and democratic.” Yet the people of Greece – themselves citizens of the EU – felt in 2015 that they have been left without democracy or dignity, just debt.
As the debate continues over reforms, restructuring debt, and collecting taxes, neither Greece nor Europe should neglect the democratic deficit that has exacerbated the euro crisis. SYRIZA must start with presenting detailed proposals not only to its partners in Europe, but to the people of Greece. A pivot away from the politics of austerity is in order, but the Greek people are owed clarity in terms of what further sacrifices they must make and to what end. At the same time, the “leadership” of the EU (most notably Germany) must realize that the citizens of Greece, of Spain, of Cyprus, Ireland, etc, are their fellow citizens. This doesn’t give them a free pass on their own bad policies, but it should give them a pass on being treated with disdain and as guinea pigs. The EU has reached a moment of truth: its members will stand together, or the union will fall apart.