Rounding another turn on the collision course

February 10, 2015

The European political and financial elite reacted with horror to Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras' opening speech to parliament in which he ruled out an extension of the financial bailout and the accompanying harsh austerity measures that have plunged the economy into a 1930s-style depression. On Monday, one European leader after another lined up to warn the SYRIZA government that its proposals, which have included an at least partial write-off of the country's immense foreign debt, would be rejected when finance ministers from the Eurozone meet this coming Wednesday.

But SYRIZA won a landslide victory in elections two weeks ago on the strength of its commitment to reverse the austerity agenda that has inflicted so much suffering in Greece. Members of SYRIZA report that support for the new government is strong after its first two weeks--and so is the sentiment that SYRIZA leaders must back up their promises with immediate action on issues like raising the minimum wage, and not retreat in the confrontation with the European Union.

Here, we publish the commentary of author Stathis Kouvelakis, a member of SYRIZA's Central Committee and supporter of the Left Platform. The article appeared at Jacobin.

GREEK PRIME Minister Alexis Tsipras' inaugural policy speech before parliament was followed particularly attentively within Greece, as much as in the European chancelleries--and no doubt in the White House, too. Within Greece, after the European Central Bank's blackmail and the continual attacks by the European leaders, there is a spreading mood of mobilization, of regained dignity, of a desire both to support the government in the face of the blackmail and to put pressure on it to halt any retreat.

Externally, and more specifically within the governing European circles, every word and above all every measure announced were weighed to gauge the determination of the prime minister and his government. Most expected a significant shift, prefiguring a retreat, which would facilitate a "compromise" during the European summits this coming week, which would in reality signify Greece's submission to their diktats.

In this, they were undoubtedly disappointed. For Alexis Tsipras, in truth, made no fundamental concessions. To be sure, he avoided using the term "cancellation of the debt." But he strongly insisted on its unviable character and demanded its "reduction" and "restructuring." True, he also failed to announce the immediate reinstatement of the minimum wage to its 2009 level (751 euros). But he did commit to doing so during 2015.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras presents SYRIZA's program in parliament
Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras presents SYRIZA's program in parliament

As for the rest, he went through all the points of the Thessaloniki Program: emergency measures to deal with the humanitarian disaster (food, reconnecting electricity, transport and medical coverage for all), reinstatement of labor legislation, disbandment of unjust land taxes, fiscal reform to make the rich pay, an increase in the income tax threshold to 12,000 euros, a rehiring of the sacked public sector workers, an end to privileges for the private media companies, a reconstitution of the ERT (the public radio and TV company), an activation of the powers that the state has as a shareholder in the banks, an end to the auctioning off of public assets (ports, infrastructures, energy), an end to police repression of demonstrations.

There was one very symbolic reform: the nationality law, which accords citizenship to all immigrant children born in Greece, about whom he waxed lyrical. He also stressed at some length the role of the newly created ministry of immigration, whose mission is to protect human rights and personal dignity, while also demanding a change in European policy in this area. Proof, if it was needed, that the participation of the Independent Greeks (ANEL) in the government has not modified Syriza's position on these questions.

IN REALITY, the hard core of the Memorandums was swept away. The break with austerity politics is effective. And Tsipras drove the point home in several ways.

First, he explicitly referred to the role of mobilizations in Greece and to international solidarity, which he saluted emphatically, in the battle that the government is waging. He was very firm that the reestablishment of national and democratic sovereignty and of the dignity of the Greek people are non-negotiable. In the current context, this is the equivalent of calling on the people to take to the streets to demonstrate, and I have no doubt that it will be heard both in Greece and in the rest of Europe.

Moreover, at the end of his speech--which Helena Smith aptly characterized as "defiant" in the Guardian--after a long tribute to the Greek people's history of struggles, he put back on the table the question of German war reparations and placed Manolis Glezos at the head of the government's push for such payments. We are all aware that this subject is like a red rag to a bull for the German governing classes.

Broadly speaking, Tsipras sent a message of firmness and combativeness, both internally and externally. He has disproved those who were already wagering on a slippery slope towards capitulation. It seems out of the question that the European leaders will tolerate in any shape or form the policies that he proposed to the Greek parliament.

We are thus indeed in a situation of outright confrontation, which will take a decisive turn during the coming week, with the conjunction of European summits and street demonstrations. We are indubitably on the eve of great events, events which may transform the current course of things in Greece and in Europe.

With the combination of the determination of the Greek governmental leadership, the mobilization of the people and international solidarity, the "magic equation" of a possible victory is now at hand.

Also published at Jacobin, where this text was taken from.

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