Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Syriza not crushed yet

By Michael Burke

A majority of European leaders have opted to try to strangle the Syriza-led government slowly rather than immediately crush it. In order to survive the Syriza leadership has had to make a series of compromises. The burden of these new measures offered in the latest negotiations is overwhelmingly tax increases and they mainly fall on companies and the higher paid. But, unless there is a breakthrough on debt reduction, there is no progress on ending austerity.

One faction, led by German finance minister Schauble and supported by his Irish and Spanish counterparts wanted to organise a run on the banks and overthrow the government in a re-run of the crisis that was provoked in Cyprus in 2012. Reports suggest that US Treasury Secretary Lew was instrumental in pursuing a line of compromise instead. But all the institutions ultimately represent the interests of big capital and Greece’s creditors. As a result they remain committed to austerity and the ultimate destruction of all anti-austerity forces in Europe, including the Athens government. What they dare not risk is the possibility of European and possibly global financial market turmoil from a disorderly ‘Grexit’.

The new tax measures Syriza has offered are significant. According to the Financial Times, “More than 90 per cent of the €7.9bn fiscal package would be covered by increases in tax and social security contributions. The tax measures include a special levy on medium-sized companies’ profits, higher value added tax rates, a rise in corporation tax and a wealth tax on household incomes above €30,000 a year.” According to Eurostat, median household net incomes in Greece were €7,680 in 2014.

Other reports suggest that even this is not acceptable to the IMF, which represents US interests. They want the burden of taxation shifted from business to cuts in social security payments. While the US holds no Greek government debt, it is the biggest foreign owner of Greek listed shares.

It is clearly preferable that the fiscal burden is borne by companies and the higher-paid. But there is nothing in the current agreement which improves the position of the mass of the population. The effect of the concessions will be slower growth, even if most workers and the poor have largely been shielded from the worst direct effects.

Further details have yet to be hammered out. The focus on the primary surplus (the balance of government income and spending excluding debt interest payments) is meaningless as it is based on the false premise that spending cuts or tax increases will lead to equivalent savings, ignoring the economic effect of slower growth on both government spending and tax revenues. The only possibility for measures to boost growth via investment is if there is significant debt reduction and lower interest payments. On this, the IMF representing the US is more willing to support debt reduction precisely because almost nothing is owed to the US. For the opposite reason, hostility to debt reduction is most ferocious among some of the European governments.

The majority line among the institutions is clearly based on political considerations. Immediate crisis and turmoil has been avoided because of the wider risks to a fragile set of advanced industrialised economies. But undermining Syriza and demoralising its supporters remains the aim. The latest set-backs are only the first steps and the institutions will welcome any splits in the government.

But Syriza still has room, and some time to act. It can improve the balance of forces domestically and internationally by taking unilateral anti-austerity measures using the resources of the Greek oligarchs, possibly supplemented by overseas investment. It is now obvious that it must have measures to protect bank deposits from another bank run provoked by the ECB and others. The institutions will return with further demands in future, when this new measure fails to produce growth and improved government finances. Syriza should prepare for that inevitability.

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