Greece's economic woes remind us what Britain still has to be cheerful about.
By Ian Dunt
As Willem Dafoe says to Tobey Maguire in Spiderman: "Misery, misery, misery. That's what you've chosen."
And rarely has Britain been as miserable as this. Monday January 19th was officially the most depressing day of the year, with weather, debt, no more Christmas, failing new year's resolutions and low motivational levels taking hold. February is here now and things still feel pretty similar.
Politics is no different. An economic downturn, talk of a double-dip, expenses turning the mother of parliaments into an international byword for petty corruption, a seemingly endless war in Afghanistan, an inept government, an uninspiring opposition: Britain is not in a good mood.
But we can comfort ourselves with one thought: these are our issues. We are responsible for them, and we can wreak our vengeance on our elected representatives. That fact happens to be the cornerstone of democracy.
Now let's look at Greece. It has accumulated public debt of 300 billion euros, and a budget deficit of 13% of the national income. It cannot devalue its currency as Britain has been doing, because its currency does not relate to itself as a country. It cannot inflate the debt burden away, or try to attract investment. It is not just tied to a single interest rate through the euro, it is also tied to a common budgetary policy. Only now do we see quite how little sense that makes.
EU leaders meeting today in Brussels have three options. Bring in the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which would be deeply humiliating. Bail out the country, despite the fact this would break Maastricht rules. Or do nothing, which really isn't an option. They will almost certainly pick the second option, and attach conditions to it.
The IMF has done the same thing to developing countries for years, of course. Those conditions were usually highly destructive neo-liberal disgraces which ruined the poor and inflicted a vicious, unadulterated version of capitalism on countries which were in desperate need of a thriving public sector. But the conditions attached to an EU bailout are likely to prompt severe social disruption in Greece, whose citizens are proud and dignified enough to be irritated by other countries interfering in their affairs.
The Greeks are not the only ones affected. The taxpayers of other eurozone countries will have to pay out for something over which they had no control. German citizens - the main losers, in all probability - are well within their rights to be irritated.
This is not about economics. At heart, this is about a democratic deficiency. The only time someone suffers under a power, they should have some say in the formulation of that power. That's how democracy works - ostensibly, at least. We elect representatives and then live under the laws they pass.
Britain's response to the changing world is twofold and problematic. On the one hand, it has devolved power to administrations and talked more and more across party lines about handing greater power to local authorities. On the other, it has increasingly signed up to the European project. In the middle, parliament has become weak and irrelevant.
It's a strange approach to take, but at least we're half right. Local democracy is the most ethical and philosophically coherent way of ensuring democratic accountability. Instead, much of our constitutional reform has concentrated on the Lisbon treaty. It's difficult to summon the appropriate level of despair at the UK government's joy when Brit Cathy Ashton was installed as foreign minister. Sit in a room with her and European president Herman Van Rompuy and you'd presume you were still alone. Their appointment showed Europe didn't want a role on the world stage, or else it would have opted for Tony Blair. It's possible it never wants that role, or perhaps the EU just wants to lie low for a few years while anger dies down over Lisbon and then intends to install someone more charismatic.
Even if the first option is the most likely, we have now created a post. This post which will sit there, barely used, until someone comes along one day, takes it up, and start the process of amassing more power, like a Latin American president calling referendums on extending the presidential term. Except I doubt there'll be a referendum. Europe has already revealed its indifference to popular wishes. Such a leader would have no more democratic legitimacy than Napoleon. He would be a ruler entirely detached from those he rules. The fact so many progressives - people with whom I usually feel considerable sympathy - consider this an acceptable state of affairs is beyond me. I can't think of anything more regressive.
Greece shows us the economic consequences of giving up on the concept of national sovereignty and the principle that power should be localised, as far as possible, to where it is felt.
Plainly, all countries are subject to extraneous forces. Britain is vulnerable to American foreign policy, which it follows like some crack-addicted monkey. The credit rating agencies wield a disgusting and entirely unjustified power over domestic policies here. This is an interdependent world, and countries are not islands. We are part of the whole. And yet, the obvious truth of that does not mean we give up on democratic accountability altogether. Parliament is held in low regard. But we can vote them out. We can punish the policy-makers. We are still, to some degree, responsible for our own affairs.
The budgetary crisis is a tragedy for Greece. They are our European cousins and we should offer help and national sympathy, not for their foolish government, but for their people. It is also an instructive lesson in the things Britain still has to be cheerful about.
"Misery, misery, misery. That's what you've chosen." But at least we chose it. And we can still un-choose it.
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