23 Feb 2015

Greece: a debt colony with a bit of ‘home rule’

On Friday night the Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, averted total surrender to a German led demand for Greece to implement the total austerity programme of its former conservative government. He did so by signing up immediately to a compromise that, in his mind, retained about 20 per cent of the programme Syriza was elected on.

But the entire deal depends on the Greek government submitting a list of proposed reforms to EU finance ministers today, and it being approved tomorrow by teleconference.

But the timing is appalling. By late Friday, I and other journalists were aware of a rapid uptick in Greek deposit withdrawals. The ECB, which effectively controls the Greek banks, told Varoufakis he would have to limit both ATM withdrawals and movement of money abroad on Tuesday morning, after today’s bank holiday in Greece.

That’s why the substantive deal was designed to be done tonight. When I asked Varoufakis, at a late night press conference, if the banks would open Tuesday he said: “Tuesday, Wednesday and ad infinitem”.

If Friday’s deal holds then Greece – which Varoufakis describes as a “debt colony” will effectively be a debt colony with a bit more “home rule” – and, to continue the analogy, minus what development theorists used to call the “comprador bourgeoisie”.

Syriza revolt

But two factors could destabilise that. First the revolt within Syriza at the scale of the climbdown. Syriza’s veteran MEP, war resistance hero Manolis Glezos, who tore down the Swastika from the Acropolis in 1941, called for mass mobilisations to resist the agreement.

But Mr Glezos is not as crucial as the organised Left Platform within Syriza, led by the economy minister Panagiotis Lafazanis, and backed by London SOAS professor, turned MP, Costas Lapavitsas. If the Left Platform were to formally oppose the deal in the Greek parliament, Syriza would have to rely on centrist votes to get it through – and Lafazanis (and possibly some junior ministers) would have to leave the government.

Over the weekend there were reports that Greece is seeking leeway to enact around €8bn of anti-austerity measures, paid for by a crackdown on tax evasion, a new tax on ship owners, and the collection of tax arrears.

If the eurozone’s finance ministers OK this, I would expect there to be a four month grace period, in which Syriza will remain in office to implement the non-fiscal aspects of its programme, which are a mystery to financial journalists clustered in Brussels but very close to the hearts of the 42 per cent of Greeks who backed Syriza and, to its left, the communist KKE.

Sea change

However, there is a sea change going on within Syriza. In the past 48 hours I’ve heard people who were staunch believers in the “good euro” – a euro that can accommodate by negotiation a radical left government – say, effectively, they were wrong.

I would expect the cost of a non-rebellion by left MPs in Syriza to be a rapid and overt move towards a “friendly default and exit” strategy. The “New Drachma” notes circulated as spoofs three weeks ago look more and more like becoming reality – though as with all economic shocks, it may take weeks for ordinary people to understand what is happening.

Though it’s happening to a stricken country, on the edge of Europe, the choices presented to Greece are being understood throughout Europe – and will resonate with the British electorate. What Germany did to Greece on Friday can be done to any country: obey or leave. And it can apply not just to the eurozone but to the European Union itself, or to the Schengen and Dublin Treaties on migration, or to Court of Human Rights.

To stick with the “debt colony” analogy: the old British empire, faced with successful revolts, was adept at saying “you’ve won, now let’s manage the path to independence smoothly”. We’re about to find out what a Europe dominated by Germany, backed by Finland, Slovakia and Latvia, can muster by way of diplomatic largesse.

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