Euro crisis: Greece heads for the exit

Eurozone convulsed by turbulent economic forces and political upheavals

Ten governments have been overturned since 2008, with the rejection of austerity policies. There have been a continuous series of public-sector strikes, general strikes, protests and riots. Now, many eurozone leaders fear that the possible victory on 17 June of an anti-austerity, Syriza-led government in Greece could trigger the departure of Greece from the eurozone, with incalculable repercussions.

Even before the election, the run on the Greek banks, as depositors began to withdraw their cash or transfer it to other more stable eurozone countries, could trigger a separation. Currently, the Greek banking system is being propped up by €96 billion ‘emergency liquidity assistance’ from the Greek central bank, supported by the European Central Bank. But more than €75 billion has been taken out of Greek banks since December 2009. Moreover, eurozone leaders fear the danger of ‘contagion’, that there will be a similar flight of capital from Spanish, Italian, Portuguese banks, etc.

The taboo has been broken. Although eurozone leaders, including Germany’s Angela Merkel, proclaim that they regard Greece as a permanent member of the eurozone, there are active preparations for Greece’s departure. This was recently admitted by the European trade commissioner, Karel De Gucht: “Today there are, both within the European Central Bank and the European Commission, services that are working on emergency scenarios in case Greece doesn’t make it”. (International Herald Tribune, 19 May)

According to some reports, new drachma notes are already being printed. The multinational corporations are clearing their deposits out of Greek banks, and quite likely out of Spanish and other shaky banking systems. The euro stands on the edge of a death spiral, which could have devastating effects on the world capitalist economy. None of the capitalist leaders wants a chaotic disintegration of the eurozone, but none of them has any policies capable of resolving the crisis.

According to opinion polls, Syriza could emerge from the 17 June elections as the biggest party. Its leader, Alexis Tsipras, has rightly described Greece as a “social hell”, where the workers and large sections of the middle class have been subject to barbarous austerity measures. Tsipras has correctly rejected the austerity package of the Troika – European Central Bank, European Commission and International Monetary Fund – and repudiated the payment of unbearable debts, hugely inflated by Troika loans used to bail out the banks.

Repudiation of the Troika’s ‘rescue’ package, however, would lead to the expulsion of Greece from the eurozone. Under pressure from US president, Barack Obama, and the recently elected François Hollande in France, Merkel has softened her tone, conceding that Germany would consider some measures to boost growth. These have not been specified. But, at the same time, she has made it crystal clear that acceptance of the austerity package is the precondition of any further assistance. Yet in reality, such savage austerity measures rule out economic recovery.

What kind of Grexit?

EUROPE’S CAPITALIST LEADERS are struggling with a number of scenarios: New elections in Greece could (they hope) produce a pro-austerity government based on the right-wing New Democracy. This could result from the campaign by the leaders of New Democracy and the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (Pasok), together with eurozone leaders, to make the general election a referendum on Greece staying in the euro. Merkel even proposed a referendum in a phone conversation with the Greek president, Karolos Papoulias. While there is overwhelming rejection of the austerity measures, there is still a big majority (in the region of 80%) in favour of staying with the euro. This reflects fear of Greece, a small country, being isolated outside the eurozone, and slipping back to the backward economic conditions that prevailed before.

However, even if a new Greek government swallows the austerity measures, that would only provide temporary respite – because the debt loaded onto Greece is unsustainable, and the savage austerity measures will produce further mass movements against them. In any case, it is possible that Greece’s position within the eurozone could be undermined even before the elections by a massive run on the banks. The ECB will not be able to sustain the current level of support indefinitely. The collapse of major banks in Greece would make it impossible for Greece to stay in the eurozone.

Alternatively, Greece could be forced out of the eurozone in the near future. Some eurozone strategists are advocating a controlled exit from Greece, while others fear a chaotic separation.

A controlled exit would require an orderly transition from the euro to a new drachma, which would be exchanged at a lower value. This would still require massive Troika funding to support the Greek banks to prevent a collapse. In spite of further repudiation of its debts, the major eurozone economies would have to give support to Greece to prevent a meltdown of society.

Devastating chain reaction

GIVEN THE DISARRAY of eurozone leaders, however, it is perhaps more likely that there will be a completely chaotic exit of Greece, either as a result of a massive bank run or the election of an anti-austerity government. This would aggravate the European banking crisis. Many banks have already sold their Greek government bonds, which have been taken over by the ECB. But French and German banks would still be burned by a further default by Greece. This in turn would hit banks in Britain and other countries which have shareholdings in banks based in France, Spain, etc. There would be a chain reaction.

A major eurozone crisis, more intense than anything so far, would have a devastating effect on the European and global economy. Various estimates indicate that the eurozone GDP could fall by between 5% and 10%. This in turn would have a devastating impact on countries like Britain and also the United States, for which the eurozone is a major export market.

The unfolding of the eurozone crisis, moreover, is taking place against the background of continued stagnation in the world economy. There is a recession in the eurozone itself, with only very feeble growth in Germany, the biggest economy. The almost undetectable ‘recovery’ in the US is faltering. The recent huge losses by the investment bank JPMorgan Chase, which has lost up to $4 billion in speculative activity, shows the continued vulnerability of the finance sector, regardless of the eurozone crisis. Even the IPO (initial public offering) of Facebook, which was heralded as a great success for the hi-tech, consumer sector, proved to be a huge disappointment to investors, as its shares fell immediately after they were issued. Facebook indicates the fragility of the bubble economy that still continues.

The recent G8 summit in the United States, moreover, once again exposed the bankruptcy of capitalist leaders. Obama, supported by Hollande, called for policies to promote ‘growth and jobs’. But these were vague exhortations, with no concrete measures. Merkel made some verbal concessions to the idea of promoting growth, but made it clear that her primary concern is the implementation of austerity measures – outside Germany – despite the fact that they have ensured the prolongation of recession throughout most of Europe.

A trap for the working class

EXIT FROM THE eurozone will not provide a way out of crisis for Greek society. Repudiation of the debt would lift an immediate burden. Devaluation of a new national currency would boost exports. However, Greece is not in the same situation as Argentina in 2001: Argentina could rely on exports of food and other commodities, boosted by a devalued peso, against the backdrop of the pre-2008 world upswing. Greece does not have such raw materials, and also has very weak domestic industries. At the same time, Greece has been highly dependent on imports of fuel, food and consumer goods, which would become more expensive through devaluation of the Greek currency.

Moreover, the crisis in Argentina is a warning to the Greek working class. Most of the burden of the transition from the peso pegged to the US dollar to a devalued Argentine peso was thrown onto the working class and the middle class. Bank accounts were frozen and the value of peso deposits was drastically devalued. There was mass unemployment and a huge rise in absolute poverty. Only after several years of crisis did the Argentinean economy begin to recover, under more favourable global economic conditions than prevail at the present time.

There is no way out for the Greek working class within capitalism, either in the eurozone or outside. A national, ‘siege economy’ would be a trap for the working class. Any solution requires socialist economic measures under the democratic control of the working class.

If Greece leaves the eurozone, or is forced out, it is likely that other member states will follow. Spanish banks, for instance, are on the edge of insolvency. The Spanish government was recently forced to nationalise 40% of Bankia. Other banks in Italy, Portugal, Ireland, etc, are just as shaky. The €700 billion of Europe’s stability fund is not enough to stabilise the eurozone banking system.

Greece is not the cause of the eurozone crisis but one of its symptoms. But Greece may act as a detonator, triggering an explosion or perhaps a slower disintegration. This process is an expression of the organic crisis of the eurozone and the European Union itself.

Overcoming national limitations

THE CAPITALIST LEADERS who pushed for a common currency argued that it would consolidate the single market of the EU. The EU was intended to secure peace in Europe, stability and economic prosperity. The capitalist europhiles were under the illusion that they could overcome the national borders of capitalism, which ultimately act as a fetter on economic development. But everything has turned into its opposite.

Europe has sunk into economic stagnation and the common currency has accentuated the differences between the national economies rather than bringing about a convergence. Resentment at austerity policies has led to the growth of nationalist forces and far-right trends (one example being the growth in support for Golden Dawn in Greece). These developments confirm our view that the capitalist class cannot overcome its national limitations: that is a task for the working class, which can only be accomplished on socialist lines.

The Independent newspaper recently carried a front-page headline: ‘Capitalism at a Crossroads’ (19 May). It correctly sees the eurozone crisis as one aspect of a global crisis in the system. The crisis is reflected in the massive movements of the working class that have been taking place continuously throughout Europe and elsewhere. There is no doubt that many millions of workers reject capitalist austerity and are questioning the viability of the system. What is required is a clear alternative, a socialist planned economy, run under workers’ democracy, and with the international perspective of building a global planned economy.

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May 2012