22 Jun 2015

Why the words ‘civil war’ are no longer a joke in Greece

Here’s the situation as the Eurogroup on Greece is underway. On Sunday the Greek cabinet met and decided to make a further retreat on the fiscal targets their lenders want them to meet.

There’s a gap of about €2bn between the two sides, and this latest move fills €1bn of it. This is by putting up the VAT rate on electricity, cutting the pensions of better-off pensioners, reducing early retirement rights quicker than planned, a one-off tax on companies with turnover above half a million, and closing tax loopholes.

However, the real change is in the tone on debt relief. Alexis Tsipras has always argued that any deal done now should form the framework of a future discussion on rescheduling Greece’s debts. Until Sunday this was a red-line issue. Now I understand the Greek government would accept a form of words that pledged to address this in future; and an un-named EU official has said this is likely.

The problem is, these extra measures are effectively “left austerity” – changes of the kind the lenders don’t like, hitting the rich harder than the poor. So even if they accept they could help balance Greece’s books, they might still object that they are not sustainable.

But the background to this final concession is ominous.

Tsipras (pictured above) and his team are under huge pressure from within Syriza, and from within the 47 per cent of voters who, when polled last week, said they would vote for Syriza. The pressure comes verbally, in constant text messages from constituents, and from a group within the parliamentary party known as the 53 group.

These are grassroots “modernised” left-wingers – and their 53+ MPs, combined with around 30 or so from the pro-Grexit Left Platform, have enough support and willpower to reject any deal that looks like humiliation.

Controlling Syntagma Square

So Tsipras and his cabinet went to Brussels to make one more big concession, but fully prepared to endure an unwilling “rupture” with lenders, leading to the imposition of capital controls and a default, if they judge lenders are actually trying to humiliate them and force them to the exit.

They understand the likely chaos would not just be economic. The second of the pro-euro demonstrations is due to be held tonight. So far has the mood darkened between this essentially right-wing, pro-austerity movement and the mass base of Syriza that it has in the past week become routine for people to start throwing around the words “civil war”, and no longer in the jokey way they used to.

People fear, sooner or later, that the left and right will stop alternating their demonstrations in Syntagma Square and start vying for control of it.

As I’ve explained before, this is because the election of Syriza triggered kind of recovered memory syndrome on both sides of politics, about the cold war and fascist collaboration and dictatorship in the 1970s.

‘Not ready’

Syriza as a party faces a dilemma. It knows that, should the banks close, there would soon be queues at supermarkets and pharmacies. It knows there could be social chaos into which the grassroots party structures would have to intervene – if only to expand their soup kitchen and advice centres and try to calm things down.

But its entire evolution as a left-wing party has been away from confrontation with the state and towards the “long march” through the institutional strategy of the New Left, as advocated by Syriza’s intellectual guru, the late Marxist intellectual Nicos Poulantzas. (coincidentally, in a debate with Ed Miliband’s father).

So while, as a party, its members are in their majority minded to demand rejection of the coming deal, they also know – as several activists have put it to me – that they are “not ready” for the situation.

And, of course, neither are those of the right and centre-right. One person going on tonight’s pro-EU demo, and fearful of the passions being expressed on both sides, told me: thank god we have social media – we can fight each other there.

All sides in tonight’s Eurogroup need to understand that, if today’s talks fail, and fail so badly that the ECB pulls the plug on the system, this will stop being a story about economics and become, front and centre, a story of civil society, politics and the rule of law.

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