It seems certain that the political economy textbooks of the future will include a chapter on the experience of Greece in 2015.
July 5, 2015, the people of Greece overwhelmingly voted NO to the Troika’s austerity ultimatum. According to the Greek government, “61.31% of the votes for the 5th of July Referendum voted “NO” whereas 38.69% voted “YES”. There was also a 5.8% of invalid/blank votes. Turnout was 62.5%.”
The Greek government, led by its prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, refused to accept Troika dictates. Instead, recognizing how important the decision was, he put the Troika’s “take it or leave it” ultimatum up to referendum. Win or lose, that was an inspiring vote of confidence in the Greek people. And by the extent of their participation and choice in the vote the Greek people showed that his confidence was not misplaced.
Background To The Referendum
Greece has experienced six consecutive years of recession and the social costs have been enormous. The following charts provide only the barest glimpse into the human suffering:
While the Troika has always been eager to blame this outcome on the bungling and dishonesty of successive Greek governments and even the Greek people, the fact is that it is Troika policies that are primarily responsible. In broad brush, Greece grew rapidly over the 2000s in large part thanks to government borrowing, especially from French and German banks. When the global financial crisis hit in late 2008, Greece was quickly thrown into recession and the Greek government found its revenue in steep decline and its ability to borrow sharply limited. By 2010, without its own national currency, it faced bankruptcy.
Enter the Troika. In 2010, the European Commission, European Central Bank, and the IMF penned the first bailout agreement with the Greek government. The Greek government received new loans in exchange for its acceptance of austerity policies and monitoring by the IMF. Most of the new money went back out of the country, largely to its bank creditors. And the massive cuts in public spending deepened the country’s recession. By 2011 it had become clear that the Troika’s policies were self-defeating. The deeper recession further reduced tax revenues, making it harder for the Greek government to pay its debts. Thus in 2012 the Troika again extended loans to the Greek government as part of a second bailout which included . . . wait for it . . . yet new austerity measures.
Not surprisingly, the outcome was more of the same. By then, French and German banks were off the hook. It was now the European governments and the International Monetary Fund that worried about repayment. And the Greek economy continued its downward ascent.
Significantly, in 2012, IMF staff eventually acknowledged that the institution’s support for austerity in 2010 was a mistake. Simply put, if you ask a government to cut spending during a period of recession you will only worsen the recession. And a country in recession will not be able to pay its debts. It was a pretty clear and obvious conclusion.
But, significantly this acknowledgement did little to change Troika policy to Greece.
By the end of 2014, the Greek people were fed up. Their government had done most of what was demanded of it and yet the economy continued to worsen and the country was deeper in debt than it had been at the start of the bailouts. And, once again, the Greek government was unable to make its debt payments, now to Troika institutions, without access to new loans. So, they elected Syriza in January 2015 because of the party’s commitment to negotiate a new understanding with the Troika, one that would enable the country to return to growth, which meant an end to austerity and debt relief.
Syriza entered the negotiations hopeful that the lessons of the past had been learned. But no, the Troika refused all additional financial support unless Syriza agreed to implement yet another round of austerity. What started out as negotiations quickly turned into a one way scolding. The Troika continued to demand significant cuts in public spending to boost Greek government revenue for debt repayment. Syriza eventually won a compromise that limited the size of the primary surplus required, but when they proposed achieving it by tax increases on corporations and the wealthy rather than spending cuts, they were rebuffed, principally by the IMF.
The Troika demanded cuts in pensions, again to reduce government spending. When Syriza countered with an offer to boost contributions rather than slash the benefits going to those at the bottom of the income distribution, they were again rebuffed. On and on it went. Even the previous head of the IMF penned an intervention warning that the IMF was in danger of repeating its past mistakes, but to no avail.
Finally on June 25, the Troika made its final offer. It would provide additional funds to Greece, enough to enable it to make its debt payments over the next five months in exchange for more austerity. However, as the Greek government recognized, this would just be “kicking the can down the road.” In five months the country would again be forced to ask for more money and accept more austerity. No wonder the Greek Prime Minister announced he was done, that he would take this offer to the Greek people with a recommendation of a no vote.
Here is the New York Times version of events:
ATHENS — Last Friday morning [June 26], the Greek prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, gathered his closest advisers in a Brussels hotel room for a meeting that was meant to be secret. All the participants had to leave their phones outside the door to prevent leaks.
A week of tense negotiations between Greece and its creditors was coming to an end. And it was becoming increasingly clear to the left-leaning prime minister that he could not accept the tough economic terms that his lenders were demanding in exchange for new loans.
As Mr. Tsipras paced and listened on the 25th floor of the hotel, his top aides argued that neither Germany nor the International Monetary Fund wanted an agreement and that they were instead pushing Greece into default and out of the euro.
The night before, at a meeting of eurozone leaders at the European Union’s headquarters, Mr. Tsipras had asked Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany about including debt relief with a deal, only to be rebuffed again.
This is going nowhere, the 40-year-old Greek leader said in frustration, according to people who were in the room with him. The more we move toward them, the more they are moving away from us, Mr. Tsipras said.
After hours of arguing back and forth about possible responses, Mr. Tsipras made a decision to get on a plane and go home to call a referendum, according to the people who were in the room. . . .
But a close look at the events of the last week — based on interviews with some of the participants and others briefed on the discussions — reveals an accumulation of slights, insults and missed opportunities between Greece and its creditors that led the prime minister to conclude that a deal was not possible, regardless of any concessions he might make.
Greece’s creditors see it differently, of course. In their view, Mr. Tsipras, who swept into power on a wave of anti-austerity support, was only interested in a deal that would go light on austerity measures and deliver maximum debt relief. He could not and would not comply with any agreement that required more sacrifices from the Greek people.
Still, for a week that ended with so much enmity, its start was auspicious.
That Monday, June 22, Greece’s technical team in Brussels submitted an eight-page proposal to their counterparts. The paper was an effort to bridge a six-month divide on how Greece planned to sort out its future finances.
For political reasons, the Tsipras government had said it would not cut pensions or do away with tax breaks that favored businesses serving tourists on the Greek islands. Instead, the new Greek plan envisaged a series of tax increases and increases in pension contributions to be borne by corporations.
The initial response seemed positive. Both Pierre Moscovici, a senior finance official at the European Commission who is known to be sympathetic toward Greece, and Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the head of Europe’s working group of finance ministers who is one of Greece’s harshest critics, said on Tuesday that the plan was promising.
The Greek team was elated. For the first time, the Greek numbers were adding up.
The next morning, though, that optimism evaporated.
Greece’s creditors — the I.M.F., the other eurozone nations and the European Central Bank — sent the Greek paper back and marked it in red where there were disagreements.
The criticisms were everywhere: too many tax increases, unifying value-added taxes, not enough spending cuts and more cuts needed on pension reforms.
The Greek team couldn’t believe it. The creditors had seemed to dial everything back to where the talks were six months ago. . . .
Instead of bending as the deadline neared for Greece to make a payment of 1.5 billion euros to the I.M.F., Germany and the fund appeared to be hardening their positions.
On Wednesday night, Greece was presented with a counterproposal. At the behest of the I.M.F., the tax increases had been reduced and, crucially, the government was told that it needed to increase value-added taxes on hotels.
Moreover, several requests by the Greeks to discuss debt relief had been rejected — you need to agree to reforms first, they were told.
On Thursday, Mr. Varoufakis and Mr. Tsipras agreed that they could not present this latest proposal to their cabinet back in Athens. In recent weeks, radical factions within the ruling Syriza party in Greece had become more vocal in opposing any deal that crossed certain lines on pensions and taxes.
Moreover, some within Syriza were even pushing Mr. Tsipras to walk away from Europe altogether and return to the drachma, an approach that the prime minister and Mr. Varoufakis had promised never to consider. . . .
Mr. Schäuble began criticizing Mr. Moscovici, the senior European Commission official, over his positive comments regarding the Greek offer.
Even the latest proposal from the creditors was too lenient toward the Greeks, Mr. Schäuble argued, saying that he saw little chance that he could get it past the German Bundestag, the national parliament of the Federal Republic of Germany.
The only solution here is capital controls, he said, his voice rising.
But Mr. Varoufakis persisted on the issue of Greece’s staggering debt load, ignoring the admonitions of Mr. Dijsselbloem and others.
Then Mr. Varoufakis turned on Christine Lagarde, the French director of the I.M.F.
Five years ago, the fund had given its blessing to the first bailout, doling out loans alongside Europe despite internal misgivings that Greece would be in no position to repay them.
Now the I.M.F. was pushing Greece to sign up to yet another austerity program to access more loans even though the fund had now concluded that their initial misgivings were correct: Greece’s debt was unsustainable.
I have a question for Christine, Mr. Varoufakis said to the packed hall: Can the I.M.F. formally state in this meeting that this proposal we are being asked to sign will make the Greek debt sustainable?
Yanis has a point, Ms. Lagarde responded — the question of the debt needs to be addressed. (A spokesman for the fund later said that this was not an accurate description of the exchange.)
But before she could explain, she was interrupted by Mr. Dijsselbloem.
It’s a take it or leave it offer, Yanis, the Dutch official said, peering at him through rimless spectacles.
In the end, Greece would leave it.
Almost immediately after the Greek government announced its plans for a referendum, the leaders of the Troika intervened in the Greek debate. For example, as the New York Times reported:
By long-established diplomatic tradition, leaders and international institutions do not meddle in the domestic politics of other countries. But under cover of a referendum in which the rest of Europe has a clear stake, European leaders who have found Mr. Tsipras difficult to deal with have been clear about the outcome they prefer.
Many are openly opposing him on the referendum, which could very possibly make way for a new government and a new approach to finding a compromise. The situation in Greece, analysts said, is not the first time that European politics have crossed borders, but it is the most open instance and the one with the greatest potential effect so far on European unity. . . .
Martin Schulz, a German who is president of the European Parliament, offered at one point to travel to Greece to campaign for the “yes” forces, those in favor of taking a deal along the lines offered by the
On Thursday, Mr. Schulz was on television making clear that he had little regard for Mr. Tsipras and his government. “We will help the Greek people but most certainly not the government,” he said.
European leaders actually actively worked to distort the terms of the referendum. Greeks were voting on whether to accept or reject Troika austerity policies yet the Troika leaders claimed the vote was on whether Greece should remain in the Eurozone. In fact, there is no mechanism for kicking a country out of the Eurozone and Syriza was always clear that it was not seeking to leave the zone. As the Guardian explained:
One day before Greece’s bailout ends and the country’s financial lifeline melts away, Europe’s big guns have lined up one after another to tell the Greeks unequivocally that voting no in Sunday’s referendum means saying goodbye to the euro.
There was no mistaking the gravity of the situation now facing both Greece and Europe on Monday. Leaders were by turns ashen-faced, resigned, desperate and pleading with Athens to think again and pull back from the abyss.
There were also bitter attacks on Alexis Tsipras, the young Greek prime minister whose brinkmanship has gone further than anyone believed possible and left the eurozone’s leaders reeling.
One measure of the seriousness of the situation could be gleaned from the leaders’ schedules. In Berlin, Brussels, Paris and London, a chancellor, two presidents and a prime minister convened various meetings of cabinet, party leaders and top officials devoted solely to Greece.
The French president, François Hollande, was to the fore. “It’s the Greek people’s right to say what they want their future to be,” he said. “It’s about whether the Greeks want to stay in the eurozone or take the risk of leaving.”
Athens insists that this is not what is at stake in the highly complicated question the Greek government has drafted for the referendum, but Berlin, Paris and Brussels made plain that the 5 July vote will mean either staying in the euro on their tough terms or returning to the drachma.
In what was arguably the biggest speech of his career, the president of the European commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, appeared before a packed press hall in Brussels against a giant backdrop of the Greek and EU flags.
He was impassioned, bitter and disingenuous in appealing to the Greek people to vote yes to the euro and his bailout terms, arguing that he and the creditors – rather than the Syriza government – had the best interests of Greeks at heart.
Tsipras had lied to his people, deceived and betrayed Europe’s negotiators and distorted the bailout terms that were shredded when the negotiations collapsed and the referendum was called, he said.
“I feel betrayed. The Greek people are very close to my heart. I know their hardship … they have to know the truth,” he said.
“I’d like to ask the Greek people to vote yes … no would mean that Greece is saying no to Europe.”
In a country where the hardship wrought by austerity brought a sharp increase in suicides, Juncker offered unfortunate advice. “I say to the Greeks, don’t commit suicide because you’re afraid of dying,” he said.
Juncker’s extraordinary performance sounded and looked as if he were already mourning the passing of a Europe to which he has dedicated his long political career. His 45-minute speech was both proprietorial and poignant about his vision, which seems to be giving way to a rawer and rowdier place.
That was clear from the trenchant remarks of Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s vice-chancellor and the head of the country’s Social Democratic party. He coupled the Greek situation with last week’s foul tempers over immigration and said that Europe faces its worst crisis since the EU’s founding treaty was signed in Rome in 1957.
Gabriel was the first leading European politician to voice what many think and say privately about Tsipras – that the Greek leader represents a threat to the European order, that his radicalism is directed at the politics of mainstream Europe and that he wants to force everyone else to rewrite the rules underpinning the single currency.
The unspoken message was that Tsipras is a dangerous man on a mission who has to be stopped.
Standing alongside his boss, Angela Merkel, as if to send a joint nonpartisan national signal from Germany, Gabriel said that if the Greek people vote no on Sunday, they would be voting “against remaining in the euro”.
Unlike Juncker and Hollande, who pleaded with the Greek people to reject Tsipras’s urging of a no vote, the German leaders sounded calmly resigned to the rupture.
For Merkel, it was clear that the single currency’s rulebook was much more important than Greece. In this colossal battle of wills, Tsipras could not be allowed to prevail.
Having whipped up popular fears of an end to the euro, some Greeks began talking their money out of the banks. On June 28, the European Central Bank then took the aggressive step of limiting its support to the Greek financial system.
This was a very significant and highly political step. Eurozone governments do not print their own money or control their own monetary systems. The European Central Bank is in charge of regional monetary policy and is duty bound to support the stability of the region’s financial system. By limiting its support for Greek banks it forced the Greek government to limit bank withdrawals which only worsened economic conditions and heightened fears about an economic collapse. This was, as reported by the New York Times, a clear attempt to influence the vote, one might even say an act of economic terrorism:
Some experts say the timing of the European Central Bank action in capping emergency funding to Greek banks this week appeared to be part of a campaign to influence voters.
“I don’t see how anybody can believe that the timing of this was coincidence,” said Mark Weisbrot, an economist and a co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington. “When you restrict the flow of cash enough to close the banks during the week of a referendum, this is a very deliberate move to scare people.”
Then on July 2, 3 days before the referendum, an IMF staff report on Greece was made public. Echos of 2010, the report made clear that Troika austerity demands were counterproductive. Greece needed massive new loans and debt forgiveness. The Bruegel Institute, a European think tank, offered the following summary and analysis of the report:
On July 2, the IMF released its analysis of whether Greek debt was sustainable or not. The report said that Greek debt was not sustainable and deep debt relief along with substantial new financing were needed to stabilize Greece. In reaching this new assessment, the IMF stated it had learned many lessons. Among them: Greeks would not take adequate structural reforms to spur growth, they would not sell enough of their assets to repay their debt, and they were unable to undertake sufficient fiscal austerity. That left no choice but to grant Greece greater debt relief and to provide new financing to tide Greece over till it could stand on its own feet. The relief, the IMF, says must be provided by European creditors while the IMF is repaid in whole.
The IMF’s report is important because it reveals that the creditors negotiated with Greece in bad faith. For months, a haze was allowed to settle over the question of Greek debt sustainability. The timing of the report’s release—on the eve of a historic Greek referendum, well after the technical negotiations have broken down—suggests that there was no intention to allow a sober analysis of the Greek debt burden. Paul Taylor of Reuters tells us that the European authorities worked hard to suppress it and Landon Thomas of the New York Times reports that, until a few days ago, the IMF had played along.
As a result, the entire burden of adjustment was to fall on the Greeks before any debt reduction could even be contemplated. This conclusion was based on indefensible economic logic and the absence of the IMF’s debt sustainability analysis intentionally biased the negotiations. . . .
But, of course, as the IMF now makes clear, if a country has to repay about 4 percent of its income each year over the next 40 years and that country has poor growth prospects precisely because repaying that debt will lower growth, then debt is not sustainable. If this report had been made public earlier, the tone of the public debate and the media’s boorish stereotyping of Greeks and its government would have been balanced by greater clarity on the Greek position.
But the problem with the IMF report is much more serious. Its claims to having learned lessons from the past years are as self-serving as its call on other creditors to provide the debt relief. The report insistently points at the Greek failings but fails to ask if the creditors misdiagnosed the Greek patient and continued to damage Greek economic recovery. Protected by the authority and respect that the IMF commands, it is easy to lay the blame on the Greeks whose rebuttals are treated as more hysterical outbursts of an (ultra) “radical” government. . . .
This is why the IMF’s latest report is disingenuous. The report says that growth in Greece has failed to materialize because Greeks are incapable of undertaking sustained structural reforms. There is so much that is wrong with that statement. First, my colleague Zsolt Darvas of Bruegel argues persuasively that the Greeks have, in fact, undertaken significant structural reform. He notes that the “Doing Business” index has improved materially and labor markets are now more flexible than in Germany. Second, the IMF had set unrealistically high expectations of structural reforms: productivity was to jump from the lowest in the euro area to among the highest in a short period of time and labor participation rates were to jump to the German level. Again, the IMF’s own research department cautions that the dividends from structural reforms are weak and take time to work their way through (see box 3.5 in this link). The debt-deflation cycle works immediately. If it has taken decades for Greece to reach its low efficiency levels, it was irresponsible to assume that early reforms would turn it around in a few years. Finally, when an economy spirals down in a debt-deflation cycle, demand falls and that, in itself, will show up in the less productive use of resources. So, it is even possible that productivity has increased more but is being drowned by shrinking demand.
In other words, the leaders of the Troika were insisting on policies that the IMF’s own staff viewed as misguided. Moreover, as noted above, European leaders desperately but unsuccessfully tried to kill the report. Only one conclusion is possible: the negotiations were a sham.
The Troika’s goals were political: they wanted to destroy Syriza because it represented a threat to a status quo in which working people suffer to generate profits for the region’s leading corporations. It apparently didn’t matter to them that what they were demanding was disastrous for the people of Greece. In fact, quite the opposite was likely true: punishing Greece was part of their plan to ensure that voters would reject insurgent movements in other countries, especially Spain.
And despite, or perhaps because of all of the interventions and threats highlighted above, the Greek people stood firm. As the headlines of a Bloomberg news story proclaimed: “Varoufakis: Greeks Said ‘No’ to Five Years of Hypocrisy.”
The Greek vote was a huge victory for working people everywhere.
Now, we need to learn the lessons of this experience. Among the most important are: those who speak for dominant capitalist interests are not to be trusted. Our strength is in organization and collective action. Our efforts can shape alternatives.