The Moral Question of Blame in the Greek Crisisby Ed Hall on 07/04/15
As those Greek pensioners form lines in the heat outside their banks to withdraw less than a hundred pounds, it is a statement of the obvious that they are facing a real and personal crisis. There is chaos in the operation of the single currency in Europe, and the people most affected by it are those who have little or no influence over the current games of strategic brinkmanship being played out between bankers and politicians.
How can you shout at a tearful retired school teacher who has sold her furniture to survive and now cannot withdraw enough money to shop for food (she was on the BBC yesterday)? It seems almost childishly simple to answer in terms of right and wrong, of black and white logic, and the question I was asked by Caron was whether or not the Greek people are to blame? To say yes in the context of that example seems inhuman, unfeeling and capitalist in the sense that Karl Marx would have understood.
So as I sat down and thought about this I went back to question some basic pillars of my understanding about the modern Western world. Greece is a democracy: Germany is a democracy, so what is a democracy? Are we collectively responsible for the actions of the governments we elect? Is that the point of democracy, it is after all what it means - government by the people? If the people are the government, then presumably the responsibility for the actions of that government rests with them. If not with them, then with whom? Does democracy mean the removal of national responsibility and accountability?
I thought back to a few examples of democratic catastrophes to puzzle through this dilemma. Adolf Hitler was elected by the German people, and not just once. Of course not all Germans voted for him, and many that did will have done so through fear, but the actions that Germany took in the 1930s and 40s were widely perceived at the time as German actions. The Nazi philosophy was not reflective of all Germans, but the actions that Germany was taking as a nation, legitimised the military response of countries who felt the very real threat posed by the Third Reich. We were, in the famous line, 'at war with Germany'.
The question in that example would be whether or not Germany was responsible for the actions that were carried out in its name, and if so, were the German people responsible for that? Can you actually think about a nation and its people in an entirely separate way? Can a concept of Germany exist without Germans? The way in which modern Germany responded to its history by building a strong and peace-loving country which effectively bans all forms of extreme neo-Nazi Right-Wing politics suggests that the German people themselves feel the pain of that history, and have made a conscious and deliberate move in a different direction, embracing internationalism and trans-national government.
So what about our own more recent history? Modern Germany did not support the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and said so. France also made its views against the war loud and clear at the UN and within Europe. We took a different view. I said 'we' there, and by that I obviously mean the British. I personally supported the war, believing that Saddam Hussein posed a very real threat to the UK. I have to accept that my position then looks, in retrospect, as though it was wrong. Many of my friends protested strongly about the war at the time, and maybe they were right, but the elected government of our country voted for war (and went on to win another election). If the time ever comes where we were required to take responsibility for the actions in Iraq, and pay reparations, would those national bills be paid by the Britain that conducted the war, or just by the people that voted for MPs that supported the motion?
If we live in a democracy (famously described as the worst form of government but that there is nothing better) then surely we have to accept that we are responsible for the actions of the governments we elect? When we had monarchs they carried the can for what they did: ask Charles I or Louis XVI if you don't believe me (Or oddly I guess you could ask Saddam Hussein or Colonel Gaddafi). We seem to have little problem conceding that dictators and kings are responsible for their actions, and by definition the actions of their governments, but what about democracies? Does the fact that I voted Tory and you voted Labour mean that neither of us are responsible for the actions of the government we create if the Lib Dems get in? It can't surely be the intention of democracy that it absolves all involved of accountability for the actions of their countries? If the people are in charge, then the people are surely accountable.
And so back to now. Both Greece and Germany have held elections and voted for governments whose views about the EU and the single currency were clear. Both have a legitimate democratic mandate. In fact 28 European countries have elected governments, none of whom are morally or legally superior over any other. The Greek government was elected on a mandate to stick two fingers up to Euro financiers, and seems to me to be doing a jolly fine job of doing exactly that. The Greek people voted them in, and so yes, the Greek people are responsible for the consequences of that, just as they would be if they elected a government with a mandate to invade Turkey.
The issue here seems to be a basic and structural one, and this is the problem: the EU exists outside any real democratic mandate and its unelected institutions have largely created this situation without the consent of any electorate.
Many years ago in 1972 we joined the EEC, which was a dramatic and radical step: for the first time since the 17th Century we had allowed a parliament to take a decision that bound future parliaments. Until then it was very clear and simple, the people (from an ever increasing mandate) voted for MPs, and sovereignty rested in Parliament. No elected government of the UK could bind the hands of a subsequent one. The EU is different, and that is true for every country that joined, the powers that the EU adopts are held in perpetuity, and removed from the list of powers of the member states. This ensures a free and fair market, it helps to protect fisheries, it ensures common environmental standards, but it is not democratic, and its leadership is accountable only to committees of other elected people.
In the case of the single currency this handover of powers to an unelected Euro-elite has been a catastrophe. They wanted it to grow, they wanted it to succeed, they promised a new and stable financial world for member countries, but only if you agreed to a gradual increase in the handover of monetary and fiscal power to a group of officials accountable to another group of officials, accountable to a committee of ministers, accountable to entirely different electorates. Greece elected governments that signed up to that, and we did not (though you could argue that in 1997 we did, but that Gordon Brown changed that). That means the powers to tax, to print money, to borrow or issue bonds were all no longer the sole preserve of the Greek people.
The Euro-fantasists pretended that the Euro countries were all ready to embrace the rules, but they were not. The people of Greece knew that too. The promises and valuation and commitments made when Greece entered the Euro were bonkers. Examples now are sad to read about, but we all know that growth projections, tax receipts, growth in tourism numbers and ability to repay debt were wrong. Seriously wrong. And when economic decline, an inevitable part of any economic cycle, came round the corner, that fantasy of linked countries with economies as diverse as Germany and Greece came home to roost.
So who is responsible for that? That seems to me a much harder question to answer. The post-war generation of Europhile politicians saw stronger economic and political ties as a route to a peaceful future on a fractured continent, and it's difficult to argue with that ambition. But the treaties they signed in Rome and Maastricht, and the changes they made to the government of Europe and the role of individual parliaments changed the whole game. Not many of Europe's voters today have voted on the handover of powers to Europe, and it is possible to argue that many were led to believe the reality was very different to what we have now. The Euro-machine now has a political life of its own, like HAL 9000 gone mad, and even refused to accept a democratic vote in Ireland in 2008 against the Lisbon Treaty, and then spent money on blogging, cinema advertising, 'listening exercises' and advertising in women’s and youth magazines for 12-months to target those NO voters. They then held another referendum which finally went their way.
Can you hold the people of Ireland fully accountable in the same way (or indeed the people of Greece), when HAL 9000 is running a multi-million Euro campaign to persuade people that the moon is made of blue cheese and then succeeds in doing so. Putting an undemocratic element into this process blurs the lines of accountability. MEPs have sod all to do with any of this, but I guess they are the closest we have to a democratic check on the European elite. Perhaps we should be writing strongly-worded letters to them for all the good it will do.
And so who is to blame for the Greek Crisis? Well primarily in a democracy the people: that's the point. And so yes, the Greek people are feeling the consequences of their actions, that is simple, and yes harsh. But the grey areas are wide. We can blame previous generations of politicians that created an unaccountable Euro-elite with carte blanche to spend our money to fulfil their vision of a united Europe, and we can say that no individual Greek voter can be held accountable for that. In fact nobody can be held accountable, which is exactly the reason we had democracy in the first place, and why the democratic deficit in the EU is a structural reason for the catastrophe. The architect of the single currency is now 89, but Jacques Delors, you were wrong: it's about bloody time you said so.
It is always true that the poorest and oldest in society are hardest hit by any financial crisis, and are the least likely to have taken a direct role in recent events. Do I think the Greek people are responsible for the current crisis? Well perhaps accountable would be a better word, as they voted for it. But they share the responsibility with the European Project, and for that we all hold a real measure of responsibility as we voted for it too (or at least our parents and grandparents did). Greece has to change dramatically to fix their broken economy, but as good neighbours and friends we should be opening our arms to help them, and in particular those in distress, as our support for the EU over 45 years (even if I didn't vote for it) helped to get us here too.
So that's my thoughts. Discuss!