Category Archives: EU

Almost a Revolution

The outline of Europe’s five-year crisis is clear. What started in Greece in 2010 came to a head in Greece in 2015.

We know the big picture, and the main turning points this far. What we do not know so well are the stories behind the scenes and the alternatives, that almost became turning points in the big picture.

One of the stories where a lot is still to be known is what happened in the week following the Greek referendum of July 5th, and during the long weekend of 10-13th in particular.

Today’s Financial Times has given a dramatic glimpse of what was about to happen then. But before turning into that, let us summarize the past and the present of the eurocrisis.

For the crisis the pivotal moment was spring 2010, when Greece received its first bailout package. What followed in Greece, in other indebted countries, and all around Europe and its institutions, are by and large direct consequences of those decisions and principles laid out then.

The heart of the matter was Europe’s banking system and the credibility of the euro as a currency. The stability of these were to be maintained with the least possible political and economic costs in the short term.

Trouble became to mount when the short term became longer and longer.

The current and ongoing discussions about the need for Greece’s debt relief, and of the strengthening of the EMU’s institutional and governance structure, are also consequences of the same decisions and events of spring 2010.

After the short term became the long term, discussions about the long term could not be avoided. But they can take a long time.

All the above is well known, and a lot has been written about it.

We can imagine how all this probably ends. Greece will eventually receive debt relief in the form of extended maturities for its loans. While this creates permanent income transfers from creditors to Greece for decades to come, it will not be acknowledged as such – at least not among the EU’s northern members.

Instead an acrimonius debate between those, led by France, who want to develop the EMU towards a genuine economic union, and those who are opposed to it, in the beginning led by Germany, will go on well into the 2020s. The outcome will be largely settled when the Germans decide what kind of an EMU, and Europe, they want.

The twists and turns of this process will be material for histories and historians of Europe long in to the future. In the meantime the unknown histories of the eurocrisis will be written from the trenches, where the  battle for the euro showed its ugliest face.

A lot remains to be studied on what happened in Greece under Syriza, what its prime minister Alexis Tsipras tried to achieve, and what happened within his loosely formed, eurorevolutionary party. The study of the doings and thinkings of his finance minister Giannis Varoufakis will likely have its own subgenre.

The Balkans has always been competitive in exporting history to the rest of the continent, but Greece is now clearly in the lead.

Tsipras’s character is interesting for a historian because of the presence of opposites: idealism and opportunism shake hands in his person in way that keeps everyone guessing what may transpire next. We are thrilled to follow his act, even when we know, or strongly suspect, where it all probably leads him.

No less interesting are the minor characters and the internal dynamics of Syriza. From its election victory onwards and the months-long so called negotiations with Greece’s eurocreditors, it was difficult to tell what they were trying to achieve. Maybe they honestly believed the creditors would change course (and their ideology) and Greece would lead a general leftward turn in the eurogroup.

But when months passed and it must have become clear that this was not going to happen, it seemed that the only plausible explanation for Syriza’s behaviour was that they were preparing to lead Greece towards a profound economic and social transformation, nothing less than a revolution.

This would have included removing Greece from the euro, one way or another. But what did Tsipras think of all this?

According to today’s Financial Times, the hard left of Syriza had indeed readied itself for a takeover that would have restored the drakhma and established a heavily state-controlled economy in Greece.

This would have meant taking control of the Greek central bank, arrest its general director, take hold of its reserves and the mint to produce the currency.

What the planners of this Pancho Villa -style revolution did not foresee was that the European Central Bank would immediately have declared the euros produced in Greece as counterfeit money. Then they would have cut Greek banks off life support. Syriza would not have been able to finance their country’s elementary needs in the months it would have needed to start printing drakhmas. The Varoufakis IOU’s would not  have worked in such a scheme.

At least not without external assistance in large scale, from outside the EU.

The consequences of cutting Greece abruptly off from the international banking and financial system would have effectively meant a socialist revolution. But of course this is not what happened. As is known, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras made his U-turn and in the Greek parliament drove through the harsh terms of its third bailout package.

Varoufakis’s resignation happened precisely at the same time when the Syriza’s revolutionaries’ plans came to a head. A good question is if he resigned since he did not want to be a part of such a scheme. Or did he resign since he wanted to be a part of it, but saw it not happening?

The revolution that almost happened may be a form of revolution that is the most common in history. In the critical moment there just is not enough daring, foolhardiness, or external incitement and support, to make it happen.

These are the histories of the eurocrisis that did not run their full course, but happened nearly enough to make them histories we want to learn more about.

In particular as they may have sequels.


Good for Germany, good for Finland?

Was temporary Grexit the Finnish government’s default position as last weekend’s negotiations started on Greece’s third bailout in Brussels?

There appears to be more than one truth out about this. The question is important, since it is indicative of the Finnish government’s wider EU-strategy. To advocate the break-up of the eurozone without a German-style long term vision of a gradually deepening and federalizing EU, places any member state  easily in the ultra-EU-skeptic camp.

It is also the more pressing since Finland today has a government coalition led by the Centre Party, which in 1998 opposed Finland’s eurozone membership. In 1994 many of its MPs voted against Finland’s joining the  EU, despite a positive referendum mere weeks before. It also contains pro-EU politicians, such as ex-commissioner Olli Rehn, which means that EU-policy is a potentially disruptive issue for the party.

The second party in the coalition is the populist, anti-immigration and anti-EU Perussuomalaiset. It has views on the EU that resemble  those of UKIP in Britain. It is vehemently against any further integration in the EU beyond free trade. It does not, however, push for Finland’s leaving the EU.

Both the Centre Party and the Perussuomalaiset are also against Finland’s NATO-membership. In this case they are classically isolationist. Both believe strongly in Finland’s independent defence capacity and the ability to withstand Russian pressure, if need be.

The third government party is the Coalition Party, a centre-right conservative party. Led by Alexander Stubb, it is both strongly pro-EU and pro-NATO. With these views, it is an important balancing force in the government, and finds allies among the pro-Europeans in the Centre Party.

But the internal balance of the government’s EU-views appears fluid, and therefore the policy positions it takes prior to EU-summits gives us important information where the balance at any given moment is.

This far the government has been notably pragmatic in EU-issues. Not enthusastic, but not overtly critical either in most EU-policy areas. The moment of truth, however, is what to do with Greece.

What do we know of the Finnish position on the temporary Grexit plan?

Finance Minister Alexander Stubb says that a temporary Grexit was but one alternative considered by the Finnish government at the start of the negotiations. Be that as it may, the Parliament’s EU Affairs committee minutes tell a different story. According to the documents, Finland responded to Greece’s offer with supporting the temporary Grexit plan.

As is well known, the plan originated from Germany. By showing the door to the Greeks, Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble generated significant pressure to the Greek government but also to the insitutions, the infamous troika, and all other eurozone countries to exact more stringent conditions for the bailout. Germany’s uncompromising stance came as a surprise at least to the French and the Italians, who had hoped  for a more lenient solution.

What happened next, is also well known. But what is not as clear, is what happened behind the scenes in various EU-capitals.

Most EU-countries do not have such transparency as Finland has in its EU-policy. As the Finnish government must clear the outlines of its EU-policies in advance in the Parliament’s EU-Affairs committee, we usually know what those are. Due to the exceptional circumstances of last week’s negotiations, the Finnish government kept the minutes and its positions confidential for almost a week (sic). In this way it behaved in the same way most other EU-countries behave, with the exception that their confidential position papers will be declassified in most cases in the 2040s.

We therefore know that the German Shäuble-plan became Finnish government policy more or less immediately as it reached Helsinki. It is likely that many other Northern and Eastern eurozone countries did the same. The difference is that Finland and the Netherlands have done much more of the talking and the dirty work around eurogroup tables.

What this tells about Finnish EU-policy is simply that it is willing to support Germany even when that support contains significant political, economic and reputational risks. But this probably applies only to German positions that are critical for increasing joint liabilities in the eurozone.

It is unclear where the limits of this German-Finnish understanding or an alliance are, and how explicitly the terms of the alliance have been discussed between leaders and top-officials between the countries.

We know what Germany gains from it: allies in the coalition of the willing in its battle against the spendrift southerners in the eurozone.

Finland’s gains are in the realization of its own goals, that at least in the overall handling of the Greek crisis are well aligned with Germany.

But outside the coalition of the willing, Finland also gains a reputation of being a critic of European integration as a reality as well as an idea. That reputation may be unfair, but given the composition of the government and the gravity of the single issue of Greece’s eurozone membership, it is just what it is.

Furthermore, this is a reputation that is a wholly different story for a small, peripheral latecomer in EU-integration, than it is a for an old European great power, that has a more or less unblemished history of contibution to the European project since the first plans saw the light of day in the 1940s.

An old great power such as the Netherlands.

Grexit no cure for Greece

Following decisions made by the eurozone countries in mid-July on Greece’s third bailout, the country’s membership in the euroclub seems secured. At least for the time being.

During a hectic weekend of negotiations, Greece’s ejection from the common currency was nonetheless considered. It is known that at least Finland and Germany – especially the latter’s austere finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble – entertained these views. Remarkably enough, Grexit was the Finnish government’s first option when the negotiations began.

While this did not come to pass, the debate on Greece’s future in the eurozone is far from over. It also appears that other plans to develop, that is to say, deepen the eurozone towards a tighter economic and political union, have no chances to proceed until Greece restores the basic health of its economy and stops being the euroarea’s black hole of joint liabilities.

Leaving the wider repercussions aside, what would Greece itself benefit from its exit from the common currency?

There seems to be a broad understanding that Greece would be better off outside the euro. Many economists see that a return to drakhma would enable Greece to devalue massively. Maybe as much as 50 or 75 per cent, which is what Iceland and Argentina did in their crises previously. This would help Greece’s exports to be competetive in world markets. A return to own currency would also in all likelihood lead to a large scale resettlement of Greece’s state debts.

After initial pain, this would lead Greece back to sustainable economic and social development. But would it, really?

It is true, that the bailouts are no cure for the real ills of Greece. But neither is Grexit, for the following reasons.

Besides its tourism industry, Greece has no large export sectors that would benefit from a devaluation of that scale. Its shipping industry appears to be competetive already, and the same goes with tourism.  With devaluation it would just sell these goods to its customers on bargain prices, and receive less in return.

On the other hand, the rest of Greece’s economy depends heavily on imported goods, energy and fuels. With devaluation, these would become dearer. This would have a negative impact on any economic activity relying on imported goods, not to speak of Greek customers buying imported goods with dramatically higher prices. The already weak purchasing power of ordinary Greeks would be weaker, and there would be less to spend on domestic goods as well.

As is the case with devaluations, inflation would hike up in Greece. Certainly, deflation would vanish, but with a high price. In fact, one of the main motivations to join the euro to begin with in Greece was to  fight the country’s perennial economic problem, inflation. The simultaneous impact of leaving the euro and devaluation would make it certain, that inflation would return and soon undo the competivity gains brought by the devaluation. To fight the inflation the central bank would have to resort to higher interest rates. And these would hurt Greek customers and investors alike.

At the same time Greece’s competitors would enjoy lower inflation and interest rates secured by the eurozone.

So, after initial pain, there would be more pain to come. This time, without the euro. Yes, without the euro, finally! But would that be an achievement of any lasting value?

With the euro comes the European Central Bank, that runs the currency. What would Greece have? The Greek Central Bank, running the drakhma. Fighting Greek inflation with Greek interest rates.

What would be the credibility of the Greek Central Bank, and the stability of the drakhma? How would the Greek government and politicians play the situation?

Some observers were astonished that Greece’s Syriza-led government eventually caved in and accepted the harsh terms of its third bailout.

Given the alternative, this may not be that astonishing, after all.

The madness that is killing Greece is the madness of the growth stifling economic policies imposed on it, and the deficiencies of a half-baked economic and monetary union.

The talk of Grexit is talk, that seeks to hide these realities.

Syriza ja Kreikan vaalit

Eurooppa odottaa henkeään pidätellen Kreikan sunnuntaina 25.1. pidettäviä vaaleja. Vaaleista on tulossa jännittävät, mutta ehkei silti aivan niin dramaattiset kuin mitä edellisissä vaaleissa 2012 nähtiin. Puheet poliittisesta kriisistä muun EU:n kanssa ja Kreikan mahdollisesta euroerosta ovat nekin ampuneet yli maalin.

Mielipidemittaukset näyttävät Radikaalin vasemmiston liitolle (Syriza) hyvää menestystä. Yli 30 % ääniosuudella se voi nousta suurimmaksi puolueeksi. Kaulaa toisena olevaan keskustaoikeistolaiseen pääministeripuolueeseen Uuteen Demokratiaan on jo jonkin aikaa ollut muutaman prosenttiyksikön verran. Nämä kaksi puoluetta jakanevat keskenään yli 60 % äänistä. Samaan hallitukseen ne eivät mahdu.

Loput äänet jakautuvat pikkupuolueille, joista tuskin kukaan yltää yli 10 % ääniosuuteen. Useimmat jäävät reilusti sen alle. Näihin lukeutuu myös takavuosikymmenien mahtipuolue, vuonna 1974 oikeistodiktatuurin jälkeen perustettu sosiaalidemokraattinen Pasok.

Pasokin käsissä Kreikkaa johdettiin pitkiä aikoja 1980- ja 1990-luvuilla. Nykyinen talouskriisikin alkoi sen komennossa. Puolueen kohtalo on eurokriisin tuoksinassa ollut kova. Kreikan poliittisen kentän myllerrys ja tavallisten kreikkalaisten tympääntyminen ja epäluottamus entisiä vallanpitäjiä ja vanhoja puolueita kohtaan on kohdistunut erityisesti keskustavasemmistoon. Pasok, joka on toiminut viime vuodet hallituskoalition pienempänä kumppanina, on hajonnut sisältä ja taistelee olemassaolostaan.

Pasokin jäämistöllä on useita muita poliittisia puolueita ja ryhmittymiä, jotka kalastelevat siltä orvoiksi jääviä äänestäjiä. Syrizan kannattajissa on paljon entisiä Pasokin äänestäjiä. Sen entinen puheenjohtaja ja Kreikan pääministeri Georgios Papandreou on muutama viikko sitten perustanut uuden sosiaalidemokraattisen puolueen (Demokraattisen sosialistien liike). Tällä hän yrittää paluuta politiikkaan. Puolueelle ennustetaan muutaman prosentin kannatusta ja jännittämistä riittää ylittääkö se parlamenttivaalien 3 % äänikynnyksen.

Pasokin perinteinen kilpakumppani ja Syrizan kovin vastustaja, keskustaoikeistolainen Uusi Demokratia on myös kärsinyt tappioita. Nyt nähdään minkälaiseen torjuntavoittoon se yltää. Vuonna siitä 2010 lohkesi kansallismielinen oikeistopopulistipuolue Itsenäiset kreikkalaiset, joka on vastustanut ns. troikan Kreikalle asettamia vaatimuksia. Se on kuitenkin kärsimässä nyt vaalitappion ja on joutumassa mahdollisesti jopa ulos parlamentista. Uusi Demokratia kokoaa tehokkaasti Kreikan maltillisen oikeiston ääniä.

Väriä vaaleihin antavat myös vasemman laidan marxilainen kommunistipuolue, ja kauimpana oikealla uusfasistinen Kultainen Sarastus. Keskustassakin on pientä kuhinaa. Vajaa vuosi sitten perustettu To Potami on keskustaliberaali, sosiaalidemokraattisia ideoita kannattava EU-myönteinen puolue, jonka puheenjohtajana on tunnettu TV-toimittaja Stavros Theodorakis. To Potami pärjäsi hyvin kevään 2014 Euroopan parlamenttivaaleissa, jossa se sai läpi 2 meppiä. Strasbourgissa se lukeutuu keskustavasemmiston S&D ryhmään.

To Potamista voi tulla sunnuntain vaalien yllättäjä. Mikäli se pääsee suurimman pikkupuolueen asemaan, voi tuleva hallituspuolue olla kiinnostunut yhteistyöstä sen kanssa. EU-myönteisellä maltillisella tukipuolueella voi olla hyvinkin Syrizan tiukimpia kantoja liudentava vaikutus.

Vaalien tuloksessa on muutakin kiinnostavaa. Kultainen Sarastus on vahvistunut äärioikealla, mutta sen kasvun rajat ovat ehkä tulossa vastaan. Eniten silti jännitetään sitä, kuinka suuren vaalivoiton Aléxsis Tsipraksen johtama Syriza sunnuntaina saa ja kuinka monta edustajaa se saa 300-vahvuiseen parlamenttiin.

Paljon on edelleen niitä, jotka eivät noin viikkoa ennen vaaleja olleet äänestyspäätöstään vielä tehneet (n. 20 %). Kentällä on myös paljon puolueista riippumattomia ehdokkaita.

Mitä vaalituloksesta on odotettavissa? Hallitusneuvotteluista voi tulla vaikeat. Syriza tuskin saa enemmistöä parlamenttiin, vaan joutuu neuvottelemaan muiden puolueiden kanssa joko hallituskumppanuudesta tai muusta tuesta.

Poissuljettua ei ole sekään, että vaalit eivät tuota selkeää tulosta ja edessä ovat uudet vaalit. Edelliset vaalit pidettiin kahteenkin otteeseen 2012, jolloin nykyinen hallituskoalitio sai nipin napin toimivan enemmistön parlamenttiin. Pasokin alamäki on tehnyt nykyisestä hallituspohjasta hyvin hataran.

Syriza on myös sisäisesti hajanainen. Kuinka johdonmukaiseen hallituspolitiikkaan nopeasti kasvanut puolue kykenee, on suuri kysymysmerkki. Tiivein ryhmittymä Syrizan sisällä on kovan linjan vasemmisto, mutta mukana on myös entisiä pasokilaisia ja kirjava kokoelma muita pienryhmiä.

Ilmeisesti monet vasemmistopolitiikot ja -ryhmittymät ovat mukana Syrizassa taktisista syistä. Yhdistymällä voimansa he voivat voittaa vaalit ja päästä päähallituspuolueeksi. Mutta kuinka tämä liitto pysyy kasassa hallituspuolueena? Minkälaista linjaa se kykenee ajamaan Kreikan sisällä ja EU:n suuntaan?

Ennen vaaleja on keskusteltu Kreikan mahdollisesta euroerosta, Grexitistä, mutta se ei ole tällä hetkellä polttavin kysymys. Mikäli Syriza voittaa vaalit ja kykenee muodostamaan hallitukseen, heittää se haasteen muun EU:n suuntaan.

Syriza ehdottaa ja etsii vasemmistolaista vaihtoehtoa nykyiselle talouskriisipolitiikalle. Lisäksi se haluaa lisää talouspoliittista liikkumavaraa ja vapautta toimia julkisen talouden hoidossa. Käytännössä se testaa sitä, kuinka elvyttävää politiikkaa EU:ssa nykyoloissa voidaan noudattaa ja miten ja minkälaisia rakenteellisia uudistuksia samanaikaisesti tehdään. Tästä syystä vaalien tulosta seurataan tarkasti ainakin Italiassa, Espanjassa ja Ranskassa.

Syriza pyrkii tarjoamaan uskottavan vaihtoehdon nykyiselle uudistuslinjalle, jossa säästöt ja muut uudistukset kohdentuvat eri tavoin kuin tähän asti. Brysselissäkin on pidetty Tsipraksen tiukasta retoriikasta verojärjestelmän uudistamisesta ja korruption kitkemisestä. Terminologiaan kuuluu mm. Kreikan omien ”oligarkkien” pistäminen ruotuun. Jotkut nykyiset julkisten menojen leikkaukset Syriza haluaa peruuttaa.

Asetelmissa on arvailemista, mutta kaikkiaan Kreikan tämänkertaisia vaaleja on dramatisoitu liikaa. Syrizan voittaessa Kreikkaan saattaa tulla sen johtama hallitus, joka tukeutuu maltillisiin vasemmisto- ja keskustavoimiin. Tällöin emme välttämättä näe radikaalia muutosta Kreikan suhteessa EU:n antamiin tukipaketteihin ja niiden ehtoihin.

Kreikan uusi hallitus pyrkii käynnistämään neuvottelut, jotta se voisi jonkin verran muuttaa omaa talouspolitiikkansa suuntaa elvyttävämmäksi, toimeenpanna toisenlaisia reformeja kuin edeltävä hallitus ja saada myös helpotuksia lainojensa takaisinmaksuun. Talous on Kreikassa kääntynyt varovaiseen nousuun ja voi olla että laman pahimmasta kuopasta ollaan jo nousemassa ylös. Kreikan kansankin ääntä on kuultava jo pelkästään unionin demokraattisen uskottavuuden nimissä.

Toiveissa varmasti on, että Kreikalle lainojen mukana määrättyjä ehtoja höllennetään ja myöhemmin palataan lainojen takaisinmaksuun ja helpotuksiin. Ymmärrystä löytynee EU:n sisältä Ranskasta, Italiasta ja Espanjasta ja ehkä muualtakin. Vastustusta on myös tiedossa, ainakin jos vanhat merkit pitävät, kaukaa unionin maantieteelliseltä koilliskulmalta. Se on toisen blogauksen aihe.