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Featured Greek NewsGreece and the Brexit by Professor Robert Zaller

Greece and the Brexit by Professor Robert Zaller

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Here we are again. Once again, Greece is facing a default in July without an additional European Union bailout. Once again, large cuts in wages and pensions, plus tax increases, have been demanded as a precondition of receiving it. Once again, Greece’s Parliament has yielded to the demands of its so-called creditors.

It needs to be remembered, once again, that Greece’s debt crisis was deliberately imposed on it by Germany, which arbitrarily declared its debt-to-GDP ratio unacceptable, although no international standard for such an action exists and no legislative enactment authorized it. Remember, too, that almost none of the funds from previous bailouts have actually reached Greece. They have simply been an accounting gimmick by which private creditors—the same banks and speculators who brought on the international financial crisis eight years ago—have been recapitalized out of EU funds, which in turn have been recouped from countries whose economies have been targeted to take the hit.

This time around, there has been a dance between the International Monetary Fund, whose staff declared last summer that Greece’s economic situation had become “highly unsustainable,” and the German government of Chancellor Angela Merkel, which refuses to ease the terms it has imposed. It’s a dance because the IMF itself is controlled by Germany and its European Union satellites, plus the United States. What the IMF’s economists think, therefore, has nothing to do with what its governing board actually decides. The idea of a rift between the IMF and Germany, therefore, is simply a sham. It’s business as usual in pulverizing Greece.

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Last year, the Greek government of Alexis Tsipras—if it deserves to be called a government—bluffed on a default that would almost certainly have led to a Greek exit from the eurozone, then caved in ignominiously to demands that bind Greece hand and foot far into this century. This time, it has capitulated with far less fuss. There is no more talk of a Grexit.

A Grexit last year would have been of no great economic consequence to the European Union, of whose GDP it now represents less than 2%. Politically, however, it could have been unpredictably destabilizing. But nothing Greece could have done approaches the magnitude of the effect that the British vote on whether or not to remain within the European Union itself will have when it takes place on June 23. Britain has never been a member of the eurozone, and so has been spared some of the fiscal bullying inflicted on other states. But the British feel they have endured enough from the Brussels bureaucrats and their masters in Berlin. Various concessions have been offered them, but a good half of the British public doesn’t want better terms from the EU: it wants separation from it. Whether it will actually vote that way remains to be seen.

I don’t think it’s possible to overestimate the damage to the EU that a Brexit would pose. It’s been a very long time since the EU seemed to herald Europe’s bright future. It’s understood now to represent German hegemony. London’s former mayor, Boris Johnson, one of the most prominent figures in Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party and a man known for speaking his mind, let the rhetorical cat of the bag when he said the other day that the EU had accomplished for Germany what Hitler had been unable to: to reduce the entire continent, Britain included, to German overlordship.

I don’t often find myself on the same side of an issue with Mr. Johnson, but I can hardly disagree with him on this point, since it is the same one that I have myself been making for the past several years. In fact, it’s hardly even a novelty by now; most commentators on European affairs routinely acknowledge that Germany is Europe’s hegemon. The difference is that they wish it to be a benevolent one, and hope that by speaking nicely to it they can help persuade it to be one. The record, though, indicates quite otherwise. The prolonged depression that has crippled Europe’s economy since 2008, and crushed that of Greece, is Germany’s doing and no one else’s, and the beneficiary of this policy has been Germany as well. The Germans, in short, simply run Europe to their own advantage. This is perfectly well to the liking of the other power with a major influence in European affairs, the United States, which is why Barack Obama, on his recent visit to Britain, bluntly threatened the country with economic warfare if it dared to extricate itself from the EU.

So much for the celebrated special relationship between Britain and the U.S., the one cemented in defeating Germany in World Wars I and II. So much for Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill proclaiming the Atlantic Charter to all the world on the deck of the U.S.S. Augusta seventy-five years ago. No American president had threatened Britain similarly since Abraham Lincoln warned the British he would blow their ships out of the water if they aided the Confederacy during the American Civil War. Just so the Brits should know where they stand now.

Maybe it’s a pretty good thing that Barack Obama wasn’t President of the United States back in 1940 and 1941. He might have waved the Blitz right on.

Boris Johnson didn’t just compare Germany’s present-day rule over Europe to that of Hitler. He mentioned Napoleon too, that other would-be conqueror, who’s not vastly more popular in Britain than Hitler. People got the general message, though. Britain hasn’t looked kindly on would-be masters of Europe since the days of Philip II of Spain and Louis XIV of France. Angela Merkel may not seem to be in the same league with kings and conquerors, but then you don’t run things by leading armies into battle these days. It’s enough if you lead bankers.

David Cameron has staked his own prestige, such as it is, on keeping Britain in the EU, even if he couldn’t have appreciated Obama strong-arming his recalcitrant countrymen: it’s unpleasant to be publicly reduced to a vassal. The scare tactics may work; we’ll know soon enough. But the damage, in some senses, has already been done. Cameron yielded to the idea of a referendum on the EU because the public demand for it, including the demand in his own party, was too great for him to resist. The mere fact that one of the EU’s largest states is seriously contemplating secession is going to have a long-term effect, perhaps a permanent one. And a failed rebellion is perhaps only slightly less damaging than a successful one.

Some of Britain’s smoldering anger toward the EU is based on a sense of economic disadvantage in the policies imposed on it by Brussels, and some of it by resentment at its perceived loss of national sovereignty. Cameron’s austerity policies, which have closely tracked the Berlin model, are deeply unpopular outside the London financial district; racial tensions with Britain’s black and Muslim populations are high, and the pressure to admit Syrian refugees has made a bad situation worse. London has already experienced the kind of terrorist attacks that exploded last year in Paris and Brussels, and the staggering ineptitude of Continental security has prompted calls to close Britain’s borders. There is a vivid sense in Europe generally that the EU itself is a general target of ISIS strategists, and that their goal is not merely to break up the Union but to shatter national unity within its constituent states. This is not a far-fetched idea; the attack last fall on Brussels has exacerbated the perennial resentments between Belgium’s Flemish and Walloon populations that are never far from the surface of its political life, and even led to calls for the breakup of the country. It is not difficult to see similar tensions being fanned with the Basque populations of northern Spain and southern France, and, of course, Muslim minorities are now widely dispersed across Europe. Britain itself was nearly divided—formally—by the recent vote for Scots independence, which many in Britain believe was a result of hoped-for largesse from the EU. (The vote failed only when it became clear that this was a pipe dream. The EU is very much out of the business of building national economies up; as in Greece and Spain, it is now all about tearing them down.)

The original purpose of the European Union was to create a common political and economic culture in Europe; at least, that was the idea that was sold. The actual effect has been to sow disunity both between and within member states. This is not simply the short-term result of growing pains such as can be expected in any large federal experiment; it is endemic to the EU enterprise as such. Part of the difficulty can be attributed to the structural tensions of uniting parties disparate in their national traditions and levels of development without general political accountability in the system as a whole. But part of it has been the actual outcome of that system in practice, whether by accident or design: Germany runs it. Resentment of that outcome runs deep, and in Britain it has reached a flashpoint. Angela Merkel was elected Chancellor of Germany, but in virtue of that fact she is also Chancellor of Europe, a position to which no one elected her.

The irony of postwar European democracy is that there is less actual democracy in it than there was nearly a hundred years ago, when the architects of the Versailles Treaty set up nominally democratic governments throughout Europe. That experiment, of course, failed terribly under the twin pressures of fascism and communism. The great postwar success story of Europe was supposed to be the achievement of stable democracy in Germany under the watchful eye of the U.S. The actual result is that German democracy is the de facto government of Europe as a whole; it is now the only democracy on the continent.

The irony of this will be particularly rich for Greece itself. More than 2400 years ago, the world’s first democracy, that of ancient Athens, created an empire that resulted in a devastating civil war that fatally weakened both its protagonists, Athens and Sparta, and led to the conquest of Greece as a whole first by the empires of Alexander the Great and his successors, and then by Rome. The modern German state isn’t the descendant of Solon and Pericles; it is rather that of Prussian militarism and Hitler’s tyranny. If the Germans tread more carefully in their Fourth Reich than in their Second or Third ones, their foot falls no less heavily where it comes down: ask the Athenians of today.

We will soon know the result of our latter-day Battle of Britain, which will be decided, this time, by ballots rather than bombs. I will be (pleasantly) surprised if the British do vote to leave the EU. They have been duly warned by the U.S., which has now officially placed its partnership with Germany—so critical to the new Cold War being ramped up against Russia—over its long, one-sided alliance with Britain. The old special relationship between Washington and London was originally predicated on a common front against Imperial Germany. It was not a relationship between equals, but at least the British still had an empire in those days, and a navy that backed it up. Britain bulks far less large in world affairs now than it did back then, or even in European ones. The Brits will survive if they do vote to leave the EU, but they will pay a price: independence always costs something. It may be a bigger bill than they wish to pay, at least for the present.

Still, a Brexit would have been inconceivable a few years ago, and it is at least close to a reality today. Were it to actually happen, it would certainly have a profound effect on France, which chafes at its own “special” (and equally one-sided) relationship with Germany. The Franco-German alliance was critical to the formation of the European Union, and remains so today to its survival. The French originally promoted it, out of fear of a resurgent Germany and of being left out of the joint German-American condominium already being developed through NATO. But resentment of Germany is high in France too, and a Brexit could prove contagious. All of this is quite speculative, of course. The bottom line for Greece, though, is that the European Union is essential to the maintenance of the eurozone, and it is the stranglehold of a single currency controlled by Germany that has kept Greece from taking the most obvious steps to economic recovery, namely the devaluation of a sovereign currency of its own and a determination of its own trade policies. So, I’ll be pulling hard for British independence—or xenophobia, or call it what you will—on June 23. In any event, the closer the vote for a Brexit, the greater the blow against Europe’s thralldom to Germany.   If it’s under 40%, we can say that fear and political pressure have triumphed. But if it’s as high as the vote for Scots independence was—45%–Europe will look very different the next day. And no country will have better reason to celebrate than Greece.


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