An article by SYRIZA President Alexis Tsipras is published in the French newspaper “Le Monde” on Thursday, April 2, where the former Greek Prime Minister speaks without mincing his words about Europe and the wrong path it has chosen once again in yet another crisis, that of the coronavirus pandemic.
Alexis Tsipras’ article:
For Whom the Bell Tolls (II)
“The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.” J. M. Keynes, 1936
When in 2015 Greece faced the absurdity of punitive austerity that had already led, after two failed IMF programs, much of the Greek people on the brink of a humanitarian crisis, most in Europe believed that “this small country” would remain an exception. Something like an example of punishment so that other countries do not follow the slippery slope of big deficits.
What if the newly elected government of the Left had nothing to do with those who created the deficits. What if it had no intention of favoring, like the previous ones, the rich Greeks who had taken their money to Swiss banks and systematically avoided taxation. The majority of the public, especially in the countries of the affluent North, had been poisoned by ideologies of “wasteful and lazy Greeks who want to live well, beyond their means, with the money of hard-working Northern Europeans”.
The SYRIZA government has tried to overturn these stereotypes and propose alternatives to harsh austerity, in the context of European solidarity and dialogue. However, it was treated by conservative governments in the EU as a threat to the rules that must apply “until the sun rises from the West”, while even progressive forces had initially eyed it with suspicion: “Who are those to fight for something we have not even attempted?”. Later, of course, they sympathized with David’s efforts against Goliath. As the then President of the European Parliament told me after my first speech as Prime Minister at the plenary session, “our hearts are with you but our logic is not”. And what was the absurdity? To change the rules when they don’t work.
In fact, everyone understood that the “absurd” was not to change the drug, when instead of curing it worsened the patient’s condition, but to pretend that you did not see the obvious. On the other hand, no one considered it “reasonable” for a small country to change the rules. Even if it was absolutely right. And in the back of many people’s minds, it was the perception that this absurdity would never affect their own countries. They believed that Greece would be just an exception.
At one of the first European Council meetings I attended, I tried to persuade my colleagues, reminding them of Ernest Hemingway’s excellent novel, “For Whom the Bell Tolls”. I wanted to tell them that if this is the method to deal with the crisis in Greece, the time will come when their countries will have to face the same “logic”.
Later, as the negotiations took a dramatic turn, I informed the European public about the uncompromising stance of the institutions, through the pages of Le Monde, with an article that had the title of Ernest Hemingway’s famous book. In this context, I concluded that the issue we were facing was not only about Greece, but was the focus of the conflict between two different strategies for the future of Europe. One was focused on political integration based on equality and solidarity. The other led to fragmentation and division.
I do not know how prophetic this article will prove to be, in light of today’s developments. And I also don’t know to what extent I managed to convince my colleagues then. Although the governments of France and Italy supported Greece, I do not think they did so because they believed that there was a real danger that the “tolls” would ring one day for them. In any case, despite French efforts, dialogue on Europe’s future has proved short-lived.
Until there comes a time that is reminiscent of that of the Hemingway novel period. No, we do not have a real war today. But it’s like having a war. Our economies are shrinking symmetrically and in absolute terms. The priority, however, is to save human lives. Lives do not come back. Debts are repaid or written off, as was the case after the real war, in 1953. Lives, however, does not come back.
In these dramatic emergency conditions we are experiencing, we realize that part of the European leadership has come to the wrong conclusions about previous crises and insists on the wrong recipes. Instead of everyone stepping aside in front of the magnitude of the threat and advocate solidarity and mutual aid, they continue with the same logic: “We will not pay the price of the squanderers of the South”. In short, no thought of reciprocity with regard to the debt, everyone by themselves and “whoever wants to borrow, let them go to the register to give them the bill”. As was the case with Greece. But as we said, “rules are rules”.
I am afraid that this extreme demonstration of immorality and intransigence by European leaders – such as Mark Rutte, who has failed to spot any changes in recent days that could lead his country to adopt new economic instruments – may be fatal for the unit of the Union itself. Because unity is not only based on economic conditions, but also on common values. Because for the citizens, the idea of a United Europe takes shape when, for example, doctors from Hungary come to Italy to help Italian patients or when Dutch doctors go to Greece to help Greek patients. Instead, we only saw volunteer doctors from Cuba and China arrive to treat Italian patients. And as if that wasn’t enough, we witnessed the great technocrat Regling telling the Italians, the Spaniards, and – soon – the French, that “of course they can borrow, but with conditions”, that is, with a program. When all this is happening then it is clear that – regardless of financial calculations – something has broken in the relations of the Member States. Because life is not just about money, it’s about dignity.
I know very well, after 4.5 years in the European Council, that Europe is moving slowly, with small ruptures and big compromises. I hope that such a compromise will be reached in the coming days. And the big responsibility lies with Angela Merkel, who has to choose between her notoriety as a European leader and her national audience, which has been infected for years by the virus of chauvinism.
If the problem is the symbolism of the Eurobond, there are solutions. There are always technical alternatives with the same result but with a different name. It could, for example, be agreed to issue a major ESM bond. The ESM has the creditworthiness of borrowing on exceptional terms, a large but necessary amount of capital – equivalent, for example, to the amount agreed by Republicans and Democrats to protect the US economy. Based on this bond, the ESM could then create an open credit line to the Member States, without any other condition other than being used to deal with the health and economic crises.
There are solutions, as Keynes said during the interwar period. I do not know if there is political will to leave the old ideas behind. In any case, Member States that have signed the letter together with the President of the European Council, requesting the Eurobond, must be prepared to continue the next negotiation, not only to record their disagreement, but also to impose a European solution. And if Angela Merkel, in the end, prefers the positive comments of the German press, from the transgression of a leader for the unity of the eurozone, then these countries should not hesitate to take the next steps together.
A Eurobond without Germany and the Netherlands, of course, will not be as strong, but let’s not forget that the other member states, together, represent more than two-thirds of the EU’s GDP. So long as they have the will to move forward. After all, this might be the only way for Europe to move forward./ibna