Guest Post: Europe’s Soft Coup d’Etat Part 1

20 Feb

Editor’s Note: Mainstream commentators for the Financial Times, like Wolfgang Munchau, are now giving titles to their op-eds like ‘Greece must default if it wants democracy.’ Meanwhile, ECB bankers argue that you have to scare democratic publics into sado-monetarist bailout packages. And finance ministers, like the Netherlands’ Jan Kees de Jager, want to radicalize Europe’s democratic deficit: “I am in favour of more control, more supervision … Money is the thing we can control Greece with.” The conflict between democracy and technocratic management is becoming increasingly clear. Today and tomorrow we run a two part analysis of these developments by James Heartfield, who argues that this tension is embedded in the logic and political structure of the European Union itself, not just the euro and monetary union. James Heartfield is a writer based in London. His most recent book is The Aborigines Protection Society: Humanitarian Imperialism in Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Canada, South Africa, and the Congo, 1837-1909 (Columbia University Press).  

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Europe’s Soft Coup d’Etat Part 1

Winter 2011/12. The Greek parliament is besieged from without by angry protestors. They riot burning down banks and government buildings. The Italian government, too, faces mass opposition – a general strike in protest at government €450 billion spending cuts. InIreland,Spainand many other European countries there are angry protests. But the Greek and Italian governments are not only under pressure from the public. They are answerable to other masters than the electorate.

Greek Prime Minister Lucas Papademos took office on 11 November 2011, though he stood in no election. Before becoming Prime Minister Papademos had been a senior official at the European Central Bank, and an advisor to the outgoing PM George Papandreou. Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti was appointed on 12 November 2011, having been made a life senator three days earlier by President Giorgio Napolitano. Before becoming Prime Minister Mario Monti had been an economics professor and a member of the European Commission. On the face of things, both Papademos and Monti draw their authority from their own parliaments – but everyone knows that is not so. Both of these unelected experts came to power in a ‘Soft Coup’; both deals were brokered by the European Union, in the middle of a harsh public debt crisis.

In the case of Greece, the European Union had been dealing with Prime Minister George Papandreou, leader of the largest, and best-polling political party in the last democratic elections, PASOK, twisting his arm to agree spending cuts. Talks were held between the Greek government, and the ‘Troika’ of the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission. Having agreed one round of cuts after another, Papandreou baulked at just how unpopular these were, and in October said that he would let the people vote on more cuts in a referendum. The European Union was outraged at the idea that the voters should be asked.

‘The announcement has surprised the whole of Europe,’ said French President Nicolas Sarkozy. ‘Giving the people a way to express themselves is always legitimate, but the solidarity of all the euro-zone countries cannot be exercised unless everyone agrees to make the necessary efforts.’ In a parliamentary session in The Hague, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte called the threatened vote a ‘very unfortunate development’ and said ‘we have to do everything to prevent it.’ (Wall Street Journal Europe, 2 November, 2011) After crisis talks Papandreou agreed to cancel the public vote and to suspend normal party politics in favour of a government of ‘national unity’, and to stand down as Prime Minister in favour of Papademos. Robbed of a voice Greek people were more willing to protest and even to riot. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble wants the Greeks to cancel future elections and have a government without any politicians, only ‘experts’.

Around the same time another European leader – of the right in this case – was forced to stand down. Silvio Berlusconi had often been attacked by the European Commission, charged with corruption. But each time the question was put to the polls the wily Berlusconi won over voters. In November 2011, though, the debt crisis gave the Commission the lever it needed to prize Berlusconi out, and he resigned. European Council President Herman van Rompuy told Italians on 11 November 2011 that ‘the country needs reforms, not elections.’ Mario Monti was appointed Prime Minister and, in turn, appointed a ‘Professors’ Cabinet’, or ‘technocratic government’. Monti’s first reforms were to cut spending and to attack trade unions.

In a single week the elected governments of two of Europe’s democracies had been swept aside. At the very moment that Italian and Greek people needed to deal with the problems they faced, they were robbed of the chance. Before they could see their own political representatives argue out the best outcome on party lines, with the parliamentary contest mirroring the contest for votes. The party political system was a lever for ordinary people to push their goals right into the centre of government. But without it, public administration stopped being democratic, or even political. It was called ‘technocratic’ – government as technique, not as a negotiation; mechanical, not through dialogue. Instead of leaders there were experts. Instead of a contest ‘national unity’ was imposed (though many outside did not feel they were a part of it).

The events of November 2011 were called a ‘Soft Coup’, or a ‘coup without tanks’. But what Junta was taking over? Even the angriest protestors were not sure who to blame. If there were no tanks, where was the confrontation?

It would be hard to avoid the role that private financiers played appearing at every corner to warn against any backsliding on cuts. The ‘technocrats’ were not experts in juggling or medicine, but in finance. Mario Monti has been an advisor to Goldman Sachs, Coca Cola and the listing agency Moody’s as well as European Commissioner responsible for the Internal Market, Financial Services and Financial Integration, Customs, and Taxation. Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate Papademos taught economics at Columbia University and even served as senior economist for the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston in 1980, before taking up positions at the National Bank of Greece and the ECB. Not surprisingly the anti-cuts protestors have been outraged to learn that Monti is a member of the secretive Bilderberg Group – all of which adds to the sense that government has been subverted by a secret coup led by high finance. Still, pointing the finger of blame at ‘capitalism’ or finance seems too vague. Down with capitalism, for sure, but does that really tell us any more about the forces arraigned against democracy?

Greek protestors have seen a German hand behind the changes, and they are not wrong. Chancellor Angela Merkel has called loudly for tighter rules on government spending, and for wayward governments to be reined in. In Athensthe protestors have even burned the German flag (and alongside it the Swastika flag to heap on the insults) while the newspaper Demokratia reports the new austerity agreement with a parody of the sign over the gates at the Auschwitz Concentration Camp ‘Memorandum macht frei’. Greeks talk more often of the wartime occupation when the German Wehrmacht starved the country. Pointing the finger at Germanyseems to make sense, except that Angel Merkel is not alone in her demands for Greek probity. Nicolas Sarkozy (whose country was also occupied by Germanyin the Second World War) is so close to Merkel that the press have coined a collective noun Merkozy. Just before he was bundled out of office, Silvio Berlusconi, too was lecturing the Greeks on the need to stick to their promises. Greek protestors wish that their enemy was justGermany’s leaders.

The Coup d’État against democracy inGreeceandItalydoes have a shape, however soft it looks. Its shape is the European Union. The pressure brought to bear on both countries came through the European Union. The ‘Troika’ of the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund brought pressure to bear on the Greek government to change its policies and make-up. Though an ad hoc body, the Troika is reported to be renting an office inAthensto keep an eye on spending there.

The Troika does not just oversee Greek spending. There is a Troika looking at Portugal’s budget, too. Jürgen Kröger, Head of EC mission, Rasmus Rüffer for the ECB and

Poul Thomsen of the IMF visited in May 2011, returning in February 2012 to spend two weeks looking at the budget there before deciding whether to release the latest batch ofPortugal’s €78 billion rescue loan.

In January 2012 all but two of the 27 heads of state at the European Summit agreed to German Chancellor Angel Merkel’s new fiskalpakt with binding limits on budget deficits and quasi-automatic sanctions on countries that breach deficit and debt limits enforced by the European Court of Justice. ‘The debt brakes will be binding and valid forever,’ said Merkel: ‘Never will you be able to change them through a parliamentary majority.’ (Guardian, 31 January 2012). From the European Union viewpoint to put questions of government beyond democratic control is a great success. Binding limits, with automatic sanctions, policed by unelected officials is what they want. ‘Parliamentary majorities’ overriding the expert officials is what is to be avoided.

Nor is it always the case that the enemy is the left. In the same month that the European Council was cooking up the fiscal compact, the European Commission wrote three separate letters of warning to Hungarian President Orban charging him with bringing in ‘undemocratic’ laws. By ‘undemocratic’ they meant that the new constitution put the Central Bank under the control of the democratically elected government, instead of leaving it in the hands of the expert technocrats, while threatening, too, that judges and information commissioners would be subject to the rule of parliament. Step through the looking glass into the EU-world where the rule of the people is dictatorial, but the rule of unelected experts is democracy.

Ex-sixties radical Daniel Cohn-Bendit stood up in the European Parliament to demand that Orban’s constitution be investigated for breaching the EU’s Lisbon Treaty. The man once known as Danny the Red ranted on that the Hungarian leader was striving to beEurope’s equivalent of Hugo Chávez or Fidel Castro (Guardian, 18 January 2012).

Cohn-Bendit as a student radical wrote

“The emergence of bureaucratic tendencies on a world scale, the continuous concentration of capital, and the increasing intervention of the State in economic and social matters, have produced a new managerial class whose fate is no longer bound up with that of the private ownership of the means of production.” (Obsolete Communism, the Left Wing Alternative, London, Penguin, 1969, p 249)

It was far-sighted indeed to spot the very trend towards bureaucratic-managerial rule for which Cohn-Bendit himself would become a spokesman. The only thing he did not foresee was that the bureaucracy that was emerging would be transnational, not just national.


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One Response to “Guest Post: Europe’s Soft Coup d’Etat Part 1”

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  1. Guest Post: Europe’s Soft Coup D’Etat Part 2 « thecurrentmoment - February 21, 2012

    [...] Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two part analysis of the politics of the euro-crisis by James Heartfield. Part 1 found here. [...]

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