With all the talk of Brexit it is easy to forget about Greece and the terrible cost that county continues to pay for its Eurozone membership. [For more on the Greek crisis and political responses to it see my article The Pitfalls and Possibilities of Socialist Transformation: The Case of Greece.] Unfortunately, the UK vote to leave the European Union has done nothing to encourage EU leaders to modify their view that the economically weaker European country governments must continue to impose austerity on their respective populations.
Matthew C Klein, in a Financial Times blog post, illustrates what EU-imposed austerity has meant for Greece. As he comments, “The collapse of the Greek economy is almost without precedent.”
As we see in the figure below, real household consumption has fallen 27 percent since its peak. Consumption only fell by 6 percent during the period of the global financial crisis.
As a result of mass unemployment, wage cuts, and tax increases, Greek disposable household income has fallen even more. The collapse in consumption was “moderated” only by massive dissaving. From 2006 to 2009 the personal savings rate averaged 6 percent. In 2015, Klein reports, it was -6 percent.
Since mid-2011, Greek households have suffered a €19 billion decline in savings. This includes, as shown in the next figure, a decline of €36 billion in household deposits and cash, including deposits in non-Greek banks and foreign currency. One has to wonder how many Greeks have already run out of savings.
Greek spending on housing and consumer durables, what Klein calls household investment, has fallen from about one-fifth of disposable income in 2007 to just 2 percent in 2015. This spending is too low to offset depreciation. “After accounting for wear and tear, Greek household spending on housing, cars, etc is now running at a rate of -5 per cent of household incomes.”
Greek business has also been disinvesting. And until recently so was the government. “The combined effect [of household, business and government disinvestment] is Greece’s capital stock has been shrinking by about 6 to 7 per cent of output since 2012.”
According to Sharmini Peries, the executive producer of The Real News Network:
With the Brexit vote clinched by those who voted to leave the E.U., the possibility of a Grexit has reemerged in the minds of some. Greece has far more reason to leave the E.U. than the U.K. In a recent survey done by Pew Research, E.U.’s favorability has dropped by double digits in the continent. In Greece more than any other E.U. country, 71 percent of those who took part in the survey said that they had unfavorable views of the E.U.–far higher than the U.K. Further, more than 90 percent disapprove the way in which the E.U. has handled economic issues and the migrant crisis, where the Greeks bear the brunt of that burden.
So, how has the EU responded to the UK vote and Greece’s continuing economic unraveling?
In the words of Dimitri Lascaris, who Peries interviewed for perspective on the impact of Brexit on Grexit:
Well, I think the Greeks would be wildly supportive of anything that results in a relaxation of the austerity policies. As we’ve seen, however, the electorate of the Greek will has virtually no impact on policymaking in the E.U. That was demonstrated in rather brutal fashion in July of last year after over 60 percent of Greeks rejected a less severe austerity program than was ultimately imposed on them.
So it’s interesting, it’s very instructive to look at how the E.U. elite has reacted to the Brexit vote, in particular in the context of Portugal, because Portugal late last year elected a government, a socialist minority government, that appears to have some level of support from leftist parties and the Greens, enough to maintain power for the time being. And initially that party said that they were going to roll back the severe austerity that had been imposed on Portugal. And Portugal is widely viewed as being the country that is most at risk after Greece in the eurozone because of the debt and austerity and the rest of it.
So what happened with the last 48 hours, well after the E.U. elite in the IMF had time to digest the results in Britain? The IMF issued a statement urging the Portuguese government to redouble its commitment to austerity. And Wolfgang Wolfgang Schäuble, the finance minister of Germany, caused quite an uproar when he told the press in the last couple of days that if Portugal didn’t stick by the austerity dictates of the current bailout, it would be forced to come hat-in-hand to the E.U. to beg for yet another bailout. And that caused quite a bit of outrage in Portugal.
So at this stage there’s absolutely no indication, as far as I can see, that the E.U. elite has learned any lessons from the Greek referendum in July of last year or the Brexit vote, both of which were certainly, at least to some degree–this isn’t the whole story, I think, but to some degree they were an expression of discontent with the economic policies of the E.U. and with the fundamentally antidemocratic character of the E.U. So at this stage there’s little reason to believe that the E.U. elite is going to draw the lessons that ought to be drawn from these two votes.
Of course, it is also possible that the EU elite have correctly understood the political moment. After all, imposed austerity policies have enabled them to shift much of the costs of the recent crisis and ongoing economic stagnation onto working people in Europe’s so-called periphery and blunt potential political challenges to existing European relations of power. Human suffering doesn’t appear to figure prominently in their calculations.