Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Greece's debt strategy - democratic politics should be reinstated in Europe

In Analyze Greece appeared on 22 February 2015 an interesting article by Manolis Melissaris that sheds light on the strategy of the new Greek government in its debt talks with European finance ministers. One of its aims was to change the terms of the debate. According to Melissaris the Greek government has succeeded in introducing a democratic and social agenda in the technocratic discussions.

The Greek negotiation strategy as democratic disruption

Manolis Melissaris
February 22, 2015

So a Eurogroup deal has been struck and the hatchets are buried under a thin coat of dust for now. What are we to make of this?

SYRIZA’s top realistic priorities seem to have been, or at least should always have been, the following. First, to relax austerity to the highest degree possible and thus address the humanitarian crisis. Secondly, to get some breathing space which would allow the government to implement its fiscally neutral (though of course not fiscally indifferent) social agenda. Thirdly, to push mainstream political discourse in Europe in a new direction.

The deal does not fully achieve the first aim and being overjoyed about the deal in this respect is probably ill advised. Austerity will still have to be practiced and many of the measures might still be largely at the expense of the lower and middle social strata. This is not the whole story though. That the Greek government can now autonomously determine reforms, unlike any other government of the crisis years, means that it can redirect reforms in a way that shifts burdens towards those who have remained unaffected both by the crisis itself and the policies of the past five years. At the time of writing this brief comment the proposed reforms have not been announced so the jury’s still out on this.

The aim of implementing the social agenda must still be pursued and it must be achieved. The government’s mandate is not exhausted in the immediately urgent issue of debt. This may have, disappointingly, monopolised political discourse in Greece for a long time, but it is only part of the picture. Immigration, security and penal policy, human rights, the structure of political discourse, the regulation of media ownership, the restoration of the rule of law, institutional design and maintenance and many other issues are just as pressing and significant. For example, a day after the deal, protesters outside the illegal immigrant concentration camp of Amygdaleza were dealt with very heavy-handedly by the police. It is of the utmost urgency that such practices change.

But what I would like to focus on is the third aim. Many, from the New Yorker to the Guardian, seem to believe that Greece overplayed its hand during the Eurogroup negotiations. They say that its initial demands were maximalistic. Therefore, under the pressure of the blackmail openly exercised by the German government and its satellites, the inevitable retreat became a bigger defeat than it could have been.

We should not be too quick to buy into that reading of events and I’ll explain why. From the very outset, the Greek government emphasised the predicament of the Greek people caused by the years of austerity. It highlighted how counterproductive the inequality generated by the post-crisis economic policy has been. It proposed concrete measures, which would not have aggravated the fiscal situation. It also unfailingly flagged up the unequivocal mandate that it had so recently been given by the Greek people.

When arguing against, and rejecting, the ‘maximalistic’ Greek requests Germany and its satellites inevitably faced all these claims too. Much was disclosed in this process. Here are only a few of many examples. As it was reported, the Spanish and Portuguese governments tried to undermine the whole deal. They were concerned with things back home. They did not want to appear to accept that there may be an alternative to the policies that they have been following, a concession which would be wind in the sails of domestic opposition. Wolfgang Schäuble tried to intervene in domestic Greek politics on a number of occasions (feeling ‘sorry’ for the Greek people for having elected an ‘irresponsible’ government and then apparently feeling sorry for the Greek government for the difficulties it would face explaining the deal to the Greek people). His move is transparent. He tried openly to blackmail not just the Greeks but all European peoples and governments and to appear domestically tough with those who do not share the ‘right’ vision of Europe. On a deeper level, he was trying to establish that vision of Europe as the only alternative, therefore one that remains unaffected by democratic or principled tests. Jeroen Dijsselbloem lost his cool when Paul Mason, the Economics Editor of Channel 4 News in the UK, asked him what he says to the Greek people “whose democracy you’ve just trashed”.

What is significant about all this is that it happened within a European institutional setting. Whereas the same arguments have been made in civil society and the public sphere at large numerous times in the past, the Greek negotiation strategy disrupted technocratic discourse with democratic politics for the first time ever. It forced on the institutional table the antinomy between democratic legitimacy and economic power. It highlighted the deepest contradiction of the European institutional structure: on the one hand distributive policies presuppose popular sovereignty and, on the other, this is made impossible by the economic governance of the EU.

This democratic disruption will eventually have systemic effects. Perhaps through the emergence of the language of democracy and social justice in official documents, a language which can then play a part in determining the interpretation and implementation of European policies. Perhaps through the implementation of the social justice oriented policies that are not incompatible with the terms of the deal. Perhaps through the fiscally neutral social agenda, which can at the very least re-frame the fiscally onerous measures.

But it can also have a short-term, external effect. It can reveal to the people of Europe that the clash is not between them and the Greeks or other European peoples but rather between two visions of Europe, one of which leaves them out of the picture altogether. It can disclose that domestic democratic politics is not sufficient to counter global economic forces and that isolationism cannot be the answer. It can make the need for a European political sphere felt more strongly than ever. It is telling that, as soon as Schäuble and the rest realised that this is the way things are going, they engaged in a last minute attempt at character assassination, at discrediting the Greek government and presenting its representatives as irresponsible and incompetent. This was quite obviously an attempt at dragging Greece back into the technocratic game of efficiency and number-crunching. But it was already too late for that.

In his address to the Greek people the day after the deal Alexis Tsipras said that a battle was won but the war is still waging. If this is really a war, its central theatre is political and the main stake is to reinstate democratic politics in the heart of Europe. The EU does not currently have the appropriate institutional structure for the voice of the people of Europe, now re-animated by the institutional democratic disruption, to be translated directly into norm-determination. But it can be heard through social movements, in civil society, in the public sphere. And this can only strengthen the disruption until it becomes a rupture.

Manolis Melissaris teaches and writes on legal and political philosophy and criminal law (@EMelissaris)

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