Τετάρτη, 11 Φεβρουαρίου 2015
Greece vs. the Eurozone: What Sophocles can teach European politicians
The looming collision between Greece and the Eurozone is forcing both sides to face their moment of truth. On the one hand, the consequences of austerity have been devastating for Greece. No society can live for long with 26% unemployment (50% youth unemployment), 25% contraction of the economy, 40% decrease of spending power, radical cuts in pensions and lots of new taxes that have brought ordinary families to their knees. Mr. Tsipras was elected, as he said in parliament, with “a strong and clear mandate to immediately end austerity and change policies”. For this to happen, the entire bailout agreement needs to be revised. What a better signal to creditors that this is what he intends than rejecting their last aid tranche? It is a bold act of defiance. Mr. Tsipras knows that his main negotiating card is a possible Grexit and the huge problems this is likely going to cause to the Eurozone. The dynamics of a default will be unpredictable. On the other hand, at the other end of the table sits Germany. Greece must keep up its commitments and stick to the bailout agreed, the stern-looking Finance minister of Germany, Wolfgang Schäuble, keeps saying. He knows that Greece urgently needs financing and cannot afford the stand-off too long. A country that is, in effect, bankrupt is weak; its creditors have the upper hand. Playing hardball sounds a good strategy for Germany and its allies. However, the outcome of the recent Greek elections cannot be plausibly ignored. The devastating consequences of austerity need to be acknowledged. Greek society is collapsing, political extremism is rising. Would it not be more reasonable for reality to be acknowledged rather than for ‘the rules’ to be blindly followed? How often did governments get it wrong by sticking to decisions that turned out to be dysfunctional? What more evidence did the late US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara need to see before he could change his mind about the Vietnam War? True leaders need to see the big picture and to look far ahead. I doubt this is happening right now in Europe. Germany blames Greece (“the causes of the problem are to be found in Greece” said Mr. Schäuble recently in Berlin), while Greece blames Germany for imposing harsh austerity. No party can bring itself to see the whole picture: the Eurozone is a badly designed edifice and Greece has a lot to blame itself for its predicament (a corrupt political system, extensive tax evasion, and rampant clientelism). The root cause of the crisis in the Eurozone is the debilitating asymmetry between economics and politics: the euro is not supported by a political community that is willing to share risks. This asymmetry creates a collective action problem: ‘you go first and I will follow’. You first relax austerity and I will then reform, say the Greeks; you first undertake reform and I will then think about debt relief, say the Germans. The Greek crisis is forcing the Eurozone to wake up to its real problems. Will it? I am skeptical, but not hopeless. Positions harden on both sides. What is worrying is self-righteous dogmatism. The Greek crisis is a Eurozone crisis. The institutions supporting the Euro need mending. A political community needs to gradually emerge. Also, countries like Greece that deviate from the European institutional norms need to engage seriously in reform. The superior aim of community-building involves intelligent adjustment on both sides. A compromise is needed. It is not right against wrong, but two rights clashing. The right to stick to rules agreed versus the right of a society to live decently. The art of politics is, partly, the art of crafting principled compromises between conflicting rights. The classical Greeks were aware of the devastating consequences of self-righteous stubbornness. Sophocles’ Antigone is about the tragedy that is caused when the clash between right and right is mishandled. On the one hand there is the right of Creon, the King of Thebes, to formally enforce the law. On the other hand there is the unwritten right of Antigone to bury her dead brother, even if he was a traitor to his city and, according to law, should remain unburried. By each one stubbornly sticking to his or her right, Creon and Antigone bring about tragedy to Thebes. The Messenger in the play notes that Creon’s mishandling “shows the world that of all the ills afflicting men, the worst is lack of judgment”. At the end of the play, having lost his son and his wife, Creon realizes his poor judgment. Tragedy taught him wisdom, but, alas, it is too late! The play ends with the Chorus noting that “the mighty words of the proud are paid in full with mighty blows of fate. And at long last, those blows will teach us wisdom”. Here is the Sophoclean challenge for our politicians: true statesmanship is finding the courage and having the intelligence to be wise without experiencing tragedy - to see the big picture, to revise one’s thinking, to think ahead, and to create space for compromise. Can Eurozone decision makers live up to that challenge?
Posted 9:03 π.μ.