Working people in Greece face rising mortality rates, an increase in life-threatening infections and a growing shortage of medical equipment. Today 2.5 million Greeks have no health care coverage, out of a total population of 11 million. These are just a few of the most dramatic reflections of the devastating impact on working people of the yearslong so-called Greek “debt crisis” beginning in 2010.
The insolvency of the Greek government — deepened by unequal trade relations in Europe and relentless pressure for payment on Greek bonds in the hands of banks and private investors worldwide — has worsened years of economic recession. This crisis is exacerbated by the economic impact of the influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Syria, landing in Greece and increasingly refused entry elsewhere in Europe. All of this portends more carnage for workers and farmers.
The possibility of the withdrawal of Greece from the European Union, a so-called Grexit, is once again on the table. Under the political and economic pressure of the slow-burning world capitalist depression, this would deepen already sharpening conflicts in the EU, threatening the breakup of the 28-nation capitalist trade block which was cobbled together in 1993 with Berlin at the helm.
In 2015 the EU, joined by the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, imposed a series of deepening cuts on government social programs and union rights in return for a “bailout package” of international loans.
Though they had been elected earlier that year on an “anti-austerity” platform, the Syriza party — the Coalition of the Radical Left — and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras agreed to virtually every one of the demands of U.S. and European finance capital.
Some of the measures took effect this January. In response, farmers have been blocking highways at a number of Greece’s northern border crossings. On Feb. 14, 2,000 farmers descended on Athens, demanding relief from rising taxes and attacks on their pensions. “Ordinary people support our blockades,” protest leader Vangelis Boutas said.
The $97 billion “bailout” loan Athens accepted in 2015 included a $2 billion cut in the country’s pension system.
The loan arrangement, the third since 2010, ends in 2018. Payments to bondholders of $2.2 billion due in July require the Syriza government to inflict ever more damage on working people.
The IMF says it won’t participate in a further bailout unless some of Greece’s debt to the bondholders is written off. They’ve concluded that the full amount is unpayable, and that continuing to push for it threatens getting the most possible. But the rulers in Berlin are opposed, refusing to forego any of the capital owed to them.
In a mid-January Times of London interview, President Donald Trump accurately said that the EU is basically a vehicle to promote the interests of German capitalists. The Trump administration adds a new wild card to the EU’s problems, on top of Brexit in the U.K. and the Greek crisis.
“Why is Greece again on the brink? It seems like déjà vu. Will it ever end?” Ted Malloch, Trump’s pick for U.S. ambassador to the EU, recently told a Greek TV late night chat show. “I would have to say that the odds are higher that Greece itself will break out of the euro. Whether the eurozone survives I think is a question that is very much on the agenda.”
German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has demanded the Tsipras government implement its current commitments to take more out of the hides of workers and farmers or suffer the consequences.
The IMF and EU bureaucrats, as well as the German government, all agree it is the workers and farmers of Greece that must pay. But for their own reasons, Athens and Brussels, looking over their shoulders at the growing anger of working people, are opposed to the depth of cuts imposed by the IMF.
“We cannot accept IMF insistence on further cuts in pensions,” Greek Labor Minister Effie Achtsioglou said in a letter to the Financial Times. “Insisting on further pension cuts while Greek pensioners barely have enough to live on is not the way to address public discontent.”
As the biggest contributor — making 17.5 percent of all the contributions to the IMF — Washington will have veto power over any action taken by the group over Athens.
The Greek rulers’ unpayable debts are just one result of the ongoing world contraction of capitalist trade and production, exacerbated by the unequal relations between Athens and Berlin that flow from Greece’s lower level of productivity and industrial development. Similar economic disparities also affect Italy, Ireland, Spain and Portugal.
In the European Union, the capitalists everywhere extol the principle of “ever greater union” while they fight to drive down the wages and living conditions of working people within their borders to be more competitive. The ruling classes of the larger powers — like Germany — seek to reinforce their domination, using their greater strength to extract profits at others’ expense, deepening the exploitation of toilers and in their weaker rivals.