5 June 2010

'We are all Greeks now'

By Trevor Phillips

I am revisiting Greece next week, where I always feel immensely comfortable as a fellow European. Greek 'philoxenia' (friendship to foreigners) won my affections long ago, so I shall closely observe how the world crisis of unregulated finance markets is unfolding in Greece.

The EU/IMF (International Monetary Fund)'s 'rescue package' for Greece seems set to deepen recession. The IMF is demanding severe cuts in public services and 50% cuts in pensions. Taxes will rise, as will prices - even for education and medicine. It will be easier to sack people, so low Greek wages will worsen further. A mass exodus of young talent is expected. (There has already been an exodus of the tax-evaded profits and savings of the wealthy, much of it to London).

So what should Greeks do? Nobody wants disgusting fire-bomb deaths or self defeating violence. Should ordinary Greeks pay for a crisis created by banks and rotten politicians? Can the token strikes and protests become a coordinated resistance linked to specific demands - such as regulation and control of financial capital - or will the Greek working class and civil society back off if the left fails to describe such alternatives?

Greeks famously once declared 'Ohi!' (No!) to Mussolini's demands for submission. If they resist the IMF similarly, should we offer solidarity? What if strikes are met with government hostility and - heaven forbid - troops? Or do we watch passively and hope the crisis stops at Greece or Spain and doesn't reach our shores?

Today's Greece may be tomorrow's Ireland, Portugal, Spain or Britain if financiers take advantage of vulnerability. The pound may not escape the speculators currently targeting the Euro. Speculators are not restrained by national borders - that is partly the cause of this crisis. So is it possible for ordinary British citizens to protect their interests while disengaging from concern about what's happening to others?

Prime Minister David Cameron recently rejected a Euro-zone appeal for UK funds to help stabilise the crisis of Greece and the Euro-zone. Perhaps he believes that 22 miles of the so-called English Channel can resist a run on the pound. A united European response, he said, was contrary to the interests of British people. But which British people? His fellow millionaire, former members of Eton and the Bullingdon Club? Or the elderly, the low paid and the unemployed on the estates of North Norwich and Great Yarmouth? Will he share out austerity according to capacity to endure? A 5% cut in cabinet salaries hardly equals the loss of a council worker's job, youth employment training or a pensioner's health visitor.

As the crisis or 'recovery programme' unfolds, the wealthy of Greece, Britain and elsewhere can cushion potential discomfort with their property and savings, investment incomes, financial mobility and accountants. They will not feel increased student fees and council tax, VAT at 20% or more and longer hospital queues. Closure of community centres won't impact on the lives of the well off, British or Greek.

I shall watch England's progress in the football World Cup in bars in Greece next week and cheer for England. I may even wave a flag while urging on Wayne Rooney. But I have no illusions that waving the same flag as David Cameron, cheering the same football team or sharing his nationality means my interests are the same as his or his class.

Britishness won't protect Britain’s economy and currency if speculators target them. So like it or not we are all Greeks now: their fate is ours. Pretty soon we may all be Irish, Portuguese and Spanish. And we may realise we are united not by flags and football teams or a spurious version of 'national interest' but by the interests and humanity of people in the same boat as us - wherever they live. And we may wish we had supported their resistance earlier.

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