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Europe's Elections: A Coming Storm?

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Reprinted from Dispatches From The Edge


Between now and next April, four members of the European Union (EU) will hold national elections that will go a long way toward determining whether the 28-member organization will continue to follow an economic model that has generated vast wealth for a few, widespread misery for many, and growing income inequality. The choice is between an almost religious focus on the "sin" of debt and the "redemption" of austerity, as opposed to a re-calibration toward economic stimulus and social welfare.

The backdrop for elections in Greece, Portugal, Spain and Ireland is one of deep economic crises originally ignited by the American financial collapse of 2007-08. That meltdown burst real estate bubbles all over Europe -- particularly in Spain and Ireland -- and economies from the Baltic to the Mediterranean went off the rails. Countries like Ireland, Greece, Spain and Portugal saw their GDPs plummet, their banks implode and their unemployment rates reach levels not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Debt levels went through the ceiling.

The response of the EU to the crisis was a carbon copy of the so-called "Washington consensus" that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) applied to indebted Latin American countries during the 1990s: massive cutbacks in government spending, widespread layoffs and double digit tax raises on consumers.

Instead of lower debt levels and jumpstarting economies, however, the IMF strictures for Latin America did exactly the opposite. Cutbacks, layoffs, and high taxes impoverished the majority, which in turn tanked economies and raised debt levels. The formula was a catastrophe that Latin America is still digging itself out from.

But the strategy was very good for a narrow stratum, led by banks, speculators, and multinational corporations. U.S, British, German, Dutch and French banks helped inflate real estate bubbles by pouring low interest money into building binges. The banks certainly knew they were feeding a bubble -- land prices in Spain and Ireland jumped 500 percent.

However, as economist Joseph Stiglitz points out, the banks had a trick: their private debts would be paid for by the public. Taxpayers did pick up the tab, but only by borrowing money from the Troika -- the IMF, the European Central Bank, and the European Commission -- and accepting the same conditions that tanked Latin American in the 1990s. Needless to say, history was replicated on another continent.

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The upcoming elections will pit the policies of the Troika against anti-austerity movements in Portugal, Greece, Spain and Ireland. If these movements are to succeed, they will first have to confront the mythology that the current economic crisis springs from avaricious pensioners, entitled trade unionists, and free spending bureaucracies, rather than irresponsible speculation by banks and financiers. And they will have to do so in a political arena in which their opponents control virtually all of the mass media.

Never have so few controlled so much that informs so many.

The election terrain is enormously complex and, while resistance to austerity gives these movements a common goal, the political geography is different in each country. Plus the Left essentially has to fight on two fronts: one, against the policies of the Troika, and two, against a rising tide of racist, xenophobic and increasingly violent right-wing movements that have opportunistically adopted anti-austerity rhetoric. The openly Nazi Golden Dawn in Greece and the fascist National Front in France may attack the policies of the EU, but their programs have nothing in common with organizations like Greece's Syriza, Ireland's Sinn Fein, Spain's Podemos, or Portugal's Left Bloc.

Size counts in this coming battle. Because Greece makes up only 1.3 percent of the EU's GDP, the Troika could force Greece to make a choice between, in the words of former Syriza economic minister Yanis Varoufakis, "suicide or execution" -- suicide if Syriza accepted another round of austerity, execution of the country's banks and financial structure if it did not. Because it is small, Greece's death would scarcely cause a ripple in the EU. A similar situation exists for Ireland and Portugal.

But not for Spain. Spain is the 14th largest economy in the world and the fifth largest economy in the EU. Bankrupting it or driving it out of the Eurozone -- the 19 countries that use the euro instead of a national currency -- would cause more than a ripple, it could sink the entire enterprise. That is why the austerity measures the Troika impressed on Spain were severe, but not as onerous as those inflicted on Ireland, Portugal and Greece.

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Besides trying to ameliorate the worst aspects of the Troika program, the anti-austerity Left faces an existential question: should their indebted countries remain in the Eurozone, or should they call for withdrawal and a return to national currencies?

The Eurozone has been a disaster for most its members, except Germany, and, to a certain extent, Austria and the Netherlands. While the currency is common, there is no shared responsibility for the results of economic unevenness. In the U.S., big economies like California help pay the way for Mississippi, under the assumption that a common interstate market is a good thing and why shouldn't the wealthier states help the less fortunate? In the Eurozone, it is every man for himself, and if you're in trouble, talk to the Troika loan sharks.

Since the euro is controlled by the European Central Bank -- read Germany -- countries can't manipulate their currencies to help get themselves out of trouble the way the U.S., China, Russia, India, Brazil, Great Britain, and others do. A currency union doesn't work without a political union, and such a union is a bad idea when it puts countries like Germany and Greece on the same playing field. In the end, the big dogs dominate.

While the issues throughout the Eurozone may be similar, each country is different. A short scorecard:

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http://dispatchesfromtheedgeblog.wordpress.com
Conn M. Hallinan is a columnist for Foreign Policy In Focus, "A Think Tank Without Walls, and an independent journalist. He holds a PhD in Anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley. He oversaw the (more...)
 

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