Will Europe accept Tsipras' surrender?

Lee Sustar and Alan Maass analyze the European imperial power play against Greece--and Alexis Tsipras' decision to accept the harsh austerity opposed by his party.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis TsiprasGreek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras

AMID THE news of an early-morning deal on a Greek bailout package following a July 12 European Union (EU) meeting in Brussels, it was unclear if and how Greece would bow to the European authorities' sweeping demands for further drastic austerity--to be imposed on a society already plunged into a desperate economic depression.

As this article was being written, EU officials announced an agreement with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras on new loans to Greece in exchange for sweeping austerity measures.

Over the course of the night, Tsipras reportedly pushed back some of the EU's most outrageous demands--such as a scheme to give unelected European bureaucrats in a German-dominated foundation effective control over 50 billion euros ($56 billion) worth of assets of the Greek economy. But in the end, Tsipras apparently bowed to even more austerity measures than he had proposed just days earlier.

The naked extortion tactics used by European political leaders and revered international financial institutions alike make a mockery of all the rhetoric we hear about democracy, freedom and the wonders of the free market.

Nevertheless, it's clear that Tsipras is prepared to cave even further to the demands of the EU blackmailers--even at the cost of splitting the ruling left-wing SYRIZA party in Greece and having to form a government of "national unity" with pro-austerity parties.

According to press reports, European officials are giving the Greek government two to three days to pass a series of drastic measures that would cut pensions and raise the retirement age, ratchet up the value-added sales tax and accelerate privatization of government-run enterprises and services.

Then--and only then--will the European powers consider Greece's request for as much as 86 billion euros ($96 billion) in emergency funding for the government and the Greek financial system, including further payments on Greece's international debt of 323 billion euros ($360 billion).

With a slow-motion run on the banks forcing a closure of bank branches on July 3 and the government's available funds nearly vanished, Greece is more vulnerable than ever to the extortion demands of the creditors. The European Central Bank (ECB), which began limiting credit lines to Greek banks after SYRIZA won January 25 national elections and formed a new government, raised the costs of that credit further when the banks closed, deepening the crisis.

As journalist Paul Mason put it, Greece resembles a country under a "sanctions regime"--like Saddam Hussein's Iraq in the 1990s, when the U.S. and other powerful nations imposed measures to crush the country economically.

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IN SPITE of all this, Tsipras is reportedly prepared to champion the worst austerity measures yet asked of Greece--and push them through parliament.

Just days after the landslide "no" vote in a national referendum on austerity on July 5, Tsipras made an offer to Greece's European creditors that included most, if not all, of the measures that voters had rejected. In Tsipras' view, this was the price of obtaining additional bailout funds to keep Greece's battered economy functioning--so it can remain part of the 19-nation eurozone that shares the common currency.

Despite criticisms from SYRIZA's left wing, the Greek parliament backed Tsipras' proposal, with pro-austerity parties--including the center-right New Democracy and center-left PASOK, which negotiated the first two bailouts and the so-called "Memorandums" of austerity measures that accompanied them--giving it a victory by a wide margin.

Speaker of Parliament Zoe Konstantopoulou, Energy Minister Panagiotis Lafazanis--the best-known figure of SYRIZA's Left Platform--and Deputy Social Security Minister Dimitris Stratoulis all refused endorse the government's plans. In all, eight SYRIZA members of parliament abstained from the vote, two--both supporters of the Red Network--voted against, and seven members weren't present.

That deprives Tsipras of a majority in parliament for the SYRIZA government, operating in coalition with the smaller Independent Greeks. What's more, another 15 SYRIZA members of parliament stated they were prepared to vote for Tsipras' proposal last week, out of fear that the government would fall otherwise--but that they would oppose particular austerity measures if and when they came to a vote.

In a statement issued on the eve of the vote in parliament late last week, the Red Network--one of the main forces in SYRIZA's Left Platform--explained its stance:

Within a few days, the government and the leadership of SYRIZA have turned the stunning "no" vote in the referendum into a clear "yes" to the lenders--with huge implications for SYRIZA, the working class movement and the left...

[The course of events show] why the government and party leadership never wanted to consider a break with the lenders and the eurozone, and instead sought an "honorable compromise"--the reason is that they did not believe in the potential of the working class movement and the left to rise to the challenge...

We are voting against the new Memorandum, not only in all bodies inside SYRIZA, but in the parliament. We will continue to mobilize with all our abilities for the movement and the struggles against austerity and the state authoritarianism.

As we did yesterday, so today and tomorrow, we will organize from the ranks of the left with one aim: to achieve the immediate and historical interests of the working class and the poor, all of the exploited and oppressed. We are accountable to them.

The struggle continues for "no"--in society and within the party of SYRIZA. We will not retreat in the fight against the Memorandums, austerity and the extortion of the EU!

The authors of this statement are reportedly under threat of being expelled from SYRIZA, along with other supporters of the Left Platform who voiced their opposition to the government's proposal.

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THE FRANTIC negotiations and wild speculation around the summit of Euro leaders in Brussels--which in the early morning hours were reduced to a proverbial backroom, containing Tsipras, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President François Hollande and European Council President Donald Tusk--couldn't have been a more stark contrast to a week before, when the news of a landslide "no" vote in the referendum on austerity brought huge numbers of people into the streets in Athens and other cities of Greece to celebrate.

No one expected such a lopsided "no" vote when the referendum was announced by Tsipras on June 26. The referendum was forced on the prime minister in part because Europe refused to take "yes" for an answer. When representatives of the Greek government went to Brussels earlier in the month hoping for a fresh start in talks, their expectations were dashed by European officials demanding even deeper austerity.

This is the same pattern of the past five months. Tsipras took over the Greek government after SYRIZA won the January 25 general elections by a strong margin. The radical left party that emerged from single digits less than three years before won almost enough votes to govern with an outright majority.

But Tsipras showed the direction of the new government from the start. As he and former Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis opened negotiations with the lenders, Varoufakis promised that Greece's debt repayments--on an outstanding international debt that currently stands at 175 percent of Greece's total economic output for an entire year--would be made "in full and on time."

In February, Tsipras and Varoufakis agreed to an extension of the current bailout package--and of the austerity measures that go with it. This was a wholesale retreat from the promises made by SYRIZA when it campaigned before the January election, promising that it would immediately and unilaterally enact measures to aid working people and the poor suffering from nearly five years of the Memorandums.

But this wasn't enough for the rulers of Europe. Political and financial officials refused to release funds to Greece--even money that was owed to the government by the EU--until the government proved it would carry out the austerity measures it promised to continue. And, of course, no proof was ever good enough.

So the hostility of the European elite was one reason that Tsipras felt he had to call the referendum on austerity. But there was another reason: The influence of the left inside SYRIZA, which had been mobilizing against the government's retreats.

Greece's left--inside SYRIZA, among the forces in the Left Platform, and outside it, in organizations such as the anti-capitalist alliance ANTARSYA--turned the widespread bitterness at the blackmailers into a determined message of resistance on July 5. The vote was a clear mandate for the government to pursue a new direction against austerity.

But Tsipras made it clear that he intended to use the voice of the people as a bargaining chip. The conservative president of Greece Prokopis Pavlopoulos convened a meeting of the leaders of the seven main political parties in Greece to put their stamp of approval--Tsipras and SYRIZA included, of course--on a plan to return to negotiations with the commitment of staying in the euro and finding an "honorable compromise."

Then the government put forward its new proposal to the blackmailers--conceding on almost every point that the Europeans had insisted on the month before. As the left in SYRIZA protested, this was nothing more than a third Memorandum--put forward by the political party that owed its rise to power as an opponent of the previous two.

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TWO FACTORS have driven Tsipras toward abject surrender: The increasingly aggressive imperial moves of Germany, via the European "institutions"--and the political perspectives of the SYRIZA majority, which has made membership in the EU and the eurozone an overriding priority.

It isn't surprising that the German government--a coalition dominated by conservative Chancellor Merkel--would be hostile to the left-wing SYRIZA-led government in Greece.

But Tsipras, who comes from the old "Eurocommunist" wing that split with the Greek Communist Party decades ago, has long looked to the European Union as a mechanism through which economic development could be linked to social progress. In Greece, nationalism has traditionally been used by the right to attack the left--from the civil war of the late 1940s to the military dictatorship of 1967-74.

SYRIZA was formed from various leftist traditions in Greece, ranging from the Communist Party to Trotskyists and Maoists. The party's left wing is rooted in the social movements and workers' struggles that produced more than 30 general strikes in the face of the debt crisis. The left wing of SYRIZA looks toward workers' militancy, struggle and confrontation with capital as the central means to reverse the impact of austerity.

But the majority of the party is made up of moderate Eurocommunists like Tsipras, who believed that socialism could be achieved through radical reforms rather than workers' revolution. They saw the EU as a means to contain the Greek right while providing resources and Europe-wide connections to bring pro-worker reforms to Greece.

In this view, the election of SYRIZA would push back the pro-austerity forces in Europe and compel European political leaders to act on the stated EU goals of solidarity. To that end, Tsipras attempted to drive a wedge between, on one side, the dominant German and French governments, and Italy and Spain on the other. In particular, Spain, hobbled by its own debt crisis, has seen the rise of the anti-austerity party Podemos. This, Tsipras apparently believed, would give Greece greater leverage.

Thus, Greece has steadily drained government resources to pay its debts, calculating that the European powers would make concessions rather than risk "Grexit"--a Greek exit from the eurozone. Instead, however, Tsipras has for nearly six months confronted a united front of European powers pressing for further austerity as a condition for the release of the bailout funds.

Tsipras finally did succeed in splitting the creditors in these latest negotiations, pitting France, Italy and the IMF against Germany and its hardline allies such as Slovenia, Finland and the Netherlands--but only after embracing further austerity in the wake of the "no" vote in the referendum. Tsipras explained his logic in his speech to the European Parliament last week:

In these proposals we have evidently undertaken a powerful commitment to achieve the fiscal goals that are required on the basis of the rules, because we recognize, and respect, the fact that the eurozone has rules.

French President François Hollande backed Tsipras' proposal in which Greece agreed to knuckle under to more austerity in exchange for a write-down in the total amount of debt. The Financial Times reported bitter disputes among the Eurogroup ministers: "At one point, arguments got so heated that one participant described the atmosphere among finance ministers as 'violent.' The Eurogroup meeting on Saturday night [July 11] was suspended after German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble lashed out at Mario Draghi, the European Central Bank's president, during a tense stand-off."

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BUT DESPITE the squabbling among the European powers over the risks of Grexit and the destruction of the Greek economy, the creditors are united in the view that the Greek working class must pay for the economic policies cooked up by the Greek capitalist class and its collaborators in the EU.

During the boom years, Germany could use the eurozone to boost exports and emerge as the overwhelming economic power on the continent. Despite the Great Recession and the debt crisis--not only in Greece, but in several other European countries--Germany is determined to preserve that setup, even at the risk of Grexit. If Greece does leave the eurozone, Germany is determined that it does so with the maximum possible economic damage, so as to discipline other countries that might seek relief from debt burdens.

By intensifying the Greek economic crisis, Germany and its allies hope to destroy SYRIZA as a challenger in Greece and as a pole of attraction for other anti-austerity forces across Europe. That's why Tsipras, even after he made an offer of surrender, was subjected to what one EU official described as "extensive mental waterboarding" to extract guarantees that Greece would implement further austerity.

If the creditors believed that they could extract more from SYRIZA, it is because the party "has managed to squander the powerful injection of political capital from the referendum in record time," wrote Stathis Kouvelakis, a member of the party's Central Committee and supporter of the Left Platform.

There are many twists and turns still to come. It is even possible that the European authorities won't accept anything other than unconditional surrender from Greece--and that the Greek parliament could reject such measures.

But it's already certain that Tsipras and the SYRIZA leadership have compounded Greece's economic and political crisis. A new direction is urgently needed. A statement by SYRIZA's Left Platform, issued in response to Tsipras' proposal last week, points to some key tasks, including nationalizing the banks under social control, a reversal of all austerity measures and an exit from the eurozone:

It is now clear that our government has been essentially forced to exit the euro because of the EU's final refusal to accept reasonable proposals on debt relief, the lifting of austerity, and the rescue the Greek economy and society, as demonstrated by the new ultimatum sent after the referendum.

Tsipras has made it clear that he is unwilling to pursue such a course. It will be up to the left of SYRIZA to mobilize the party's base and push for confrontation with the European powers and the Greek capitalist class.