Notes from the front – of the week 25/2/2015

Greece: EU still trying to impose austerity

The new Greek government’s struggle with the EU has started to unfold with the outcome of the first round of negotiations with the EU institutions. This has seen Syriza forced to make a number of concessions on their anti-austerity programme.

The Syriza government is in a fight with hugely powerful forces – Germany, the IMF, European capital – which made it clear to Greece they were prepared to unleash a whirlwind if its government does not comply. The clearest threat was of an engineered run on the Greek banks which would have brought the tills to a standstill and led to an immediate chaotic social and economic crisis. The consequences would have made the 2013 Cyprus crisis look like a walk in the park.


If no agreement had been reached and Greece’s credit dried up – reinforced by the EU’s ban on it raising new government bonds without agreement – then the government would have been forced to accept greater EU interference in its internal affairs, almost certainly meaning even harsher austerity.

A significant risk was a disorderly and unplanned exit from the Euro – which the Greek people did not vote for. The parties advocating Greek exit from the Euro won tiny shares of the vote in the Greek election. Syriza explicitly ran its election campaign rejecting the claim by the right that if it came to government Greece would be forced out of the Euro.

Moreover the crisis provoked by a forced Grexit – with no alternative currency in place, no mechanism for transferring personal Greek bank accounts held in Euros into any new currency, government liquidity drying up until it could raise new international loans – would mean an extended period of deepening hardship in Greece before the situation could begin to be turned around. Rather than leading to progress in the class struggle in Greece, with a growth in support for a left government, there is good reason for considering it might strengthen the extreme right.

Of course there have been concerns expressed because Syriza has had to retreat so far and so quickly. But any serious assessment of this has to be based on an assessment of relationship of forces between the Greek government and the EU institutions it confronts. This requires an assessment of the interrelationship of all the forces engaged in this fight, in Greece itself but also in the rest of Europe. This informs any judgement of the character of Syriza’s retreat.

It is true that round one in this battle has on balance gone to the EU institutions. But this is set to be a prolonged struggle. Greece’s fight against the EU’s austerity impositions has only started. It remains to be seen whether retreat turns into a rout, or whether meaningful concessions can be won which will open up the space for renewed battles.

And even the terms of the first round are not yet finalised. The recent proposals from the Greek government have been published and are reported on here. But the wrangling over the terms of these proposals will take place right up to the deadline of 28 February when the next tranche of EU funding is due.

And the fight will continue after February, as details of an agreement are expected to continue to be negotiated on through out March.

Syriza’s focus has been on what it calls the humanitarian crisis, which is correct given the scale of the fall in living standards. But unless there is also some mechanism to fund increased investment there can be no sustainable improvement in economic conditions as whole.

If further evidence were needed, the events of the last week have underlined that the entrenched position of European big capital is to continue with austerity on a continent-wide basis for some considerable time to come. This is incompatible with growth and therefore the economic crisis in Europe will continue.

But it was also a reminder that the power of the Eurogroup and the institutions ranged against Syriza is not immutable. For example, a key component of anti-Syriza bloc is the social democrats who are in government – alone or in coalition – in all three of the largest countries in the Euro: Germany, France and Italy. Or, for example, the spineless governments of other crisis ridden countries, especially in Spain and Ireland, are also desperate for Syriza to fail in case they suffer the same fate as New Democracy and PASOK.

The task of supporting an end to austerity in Greece is urgent, led by the international call to the drop the debt. This fight will be a long one and anti-austerity militants across Europe and beyond will need to stay the course and step up solidarity with Greece’s fight against austerity.


Venezuela: right-wing violence steps up after foiled coup

Last week saw a resurgence of right-wing violence in Venezuela, with some of the groups responsible for last year’s protests that killed 43 people back in activity.

In the wealthy Caracas neighbourhood of Chacao a group of masked youth set up barricades, hurled rocks at passing vehicles and then assaulted an unarmed official of the Bolivarian Air Force. In a separate incident two journalists covering the right-wing violence were also attacked. And in the state of Tachira, the residence of the Socialist Governor came under mortar fire whilst it was being visited by 150 plus children on a school trip.

Further details have now been released by Venezuelan authorities about the foiled 12 February plot to topple the government. Following the seizure of computers and the confession of a general, the government has obtained the coup’s detailed plans including maps of the targets that were due to be bombed. They have also been able to identify the US Embassy personnel who assisted the plans, plus a British diplomat and a Royal Canadian Mounted Police official who were also involved.

President Maduro has called on the US to stop interfering in Venezuelan affairs and has been supported by the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) that has denounced the planned coup.

In Britain an open letter in the Guardian called on Western governments to respect Venezuelan democracy and to condemn the coup attempt.


The consolidation of eastern Ukraine does not threaten the West

Kiev last week suffered a defeat as it was forced to withdraw from the enclave around Debaltseve. Despite the 12 February Minsk agreement, Kiev failed to pull back to a ceasefire line outside of the eastern controlled area and instead waged a fruitless campaign to hold on to this piece of territory located within the east.

Whilst the West European states that helped broker the recent agreement would prefer a ceasefire to take firm hold the US, not a party to the agreement, is encouraging Poroshenko to maintain military pressure on the east. So, as with last September’s Minsk agreement, Kiev has again not pulled back its heavy artillery. The US is sending a battalion of its own troops for ‘training’, with Britain also sending a contingent, which will begin arriving in Ukraine next month.

To justify NATO’s increased intervention Western governments are wildly exaggerating the objectives of the Russian-backed rebels. The latter are seeking to ensure their self-proclaimed state is sustainable and able to defend itself. So they have some limited objectives focussed on strategic transport and energy hubs, like Debaltseve and Mariupol.

There is no Russian threat to attack the Ukraine. If there was such an absurd proposal the matter would be settled quickly as Russia’s relative military strength is huge, spending 50 times more on its army than Ukraine does.

Neither are there Russian threats to other states in eastern or central Europe, contrary to all the NATO propaganda. Britain’s Defence Secretary Michael Fallon’s suggestion last week that the Baltic states (Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia) face a ‘a very real and present danger’ is just another part of this fiction being promoted. The jingoism is to justify NATO’s recent decision to establish more military bases further east and used to fuel the campaign pressing on the Tories and Labour to commit to maintaining high levels of military expenditure.


Media’s new found abhorrence of UKIP is just for the election.

With predictable hypocrisy, just as the general election approaches the media has suddenly discovered that UKIP has a reactionary agenda and some of its members hold sexist, racist and homophobic views. For most of the past couple of years UKIP has been promoted at every opportunity. Now the priority is to help the Tories win back some lost support. That is why the Tory supporting press is promoting stories that illustrate UKIP extremism. It is not because the press has just suddenly become aware of this.

Last week news reports included the UKIP councillor caught saying she has ‘a problem’ with black people and since expelled. Prominence was given to the photograph of Nigel Farage standing with one of the Chelsea fans at the centre of the recent Paris Metro racism incident. The football fan had also been pictured amongst the Chelsea supporters chanting ‘We’re racist and that’s the way we like it’ as a French black man was pushed off the Metro train he was trying to get on. Also last week Channel 4 broadcast a drama-documentary ‘UKIP: The First 100 Days’ which showed the economy crumbling, race riots breaking out and migrants being forcibly repatriated following a UKIP election victory.

These exposés of UKIP are having some effect, with its support taking a knocking. According to Lord Ashcroft’s polling UKIP fell five per cent in the polls last week to 11 per cent, with the Tories picking up two points to reach 32 per cent. But this is still well short of the minimum the Tories need to be the largest party, so this type of media offensive against UKIP will continue.

We can be sure that after 7 May these attacks on UKIP will stop. Pushing down UKIP is only a short term priority of the Tory media. As soon as the election is over it will return to promoting UKIP in order to pressure Labour, in particular, to make further concessions to the scapegoating agenda. With Labour most likely leading a government from May, a vicious racist campaign to bolster the right can be expected.

Building a movement to fight against racism, fascism, the far-right and in defence of migrants will remain an important issue for the foreseeable future. That is why everyone should be on the Stand Up To Racism march on 21 March (UN Anti Racism Day).