Haris Golemis: At the time of this interview (12 December 2016), the Greek government is close to completing its second review of the third painful Memorandum of Understanding, which it was forced to agree to on July 2015. I understand that the government’s but also your view is that this evaluation must be completed as soon as possible, so that an agreement on the short-term debt restructuring plan can be reached. This will allow Greece to benefit from the ECB ‘quantitative easing’ (QE), which in turn will lead to restoring confidence in the financial markets. All of this, together with the extensive privatisation programme to which we are committed by the agreement, along with fiscal, social and political stability, is to attract Greek and foreign investment, which will result in growth and reduced unemployment.
My question is whether you think that this policy plan can be integrated into the strategy of a radical left party, or, to be provocative: how is this different from a neoliberal narrative for exiting the crisis?
Euclid Tsakalotos: It’s a good question, and perhaps the most difficult of all to answer. My own view is that what we have agreed to, and what we intend to negotiate, is more complex and less unidirectional than your question implies.
Thus, for instance, we have cut pensions but mostly at the top end of the income scale. We have legislated a basic pension for all and resisted the demands of the institutions that this be means-tested. Our income tax reform was progressive. The efforts we have made to help the poor and the socially excluded, through various measures to confront the humanitarian crisis that we inherited, have put a disproportionate burden on certain sections of the middle classes, including the SMEs and the self-employed. This will be corrected slowly as our various initiatives to deal with tax evasion begin to bear fruit.
Turning now to privatisation, it is true that we are privatising a number of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) as well as leasing out various ports, airports, and land for development, mostly in the area of tourism. On the other hand, we have a new state holding company whose assets, whether real-estate or SOEs, are not necessarily for sale, and half of whose valueadded proceeds do go to our creditors – but half goes for investment in the Greek economy. Through the law regulating the state holding company (HCAP) we have ensured space for Services of General Interest, whether economic – mostly public utilities – or non-economic, such as educational and social services. This allows for non-commercial values to play a role – universality, affordability, users’ rights, equal rights, and so on. At the time of this interview we are negotiating with the institutions the way in which the SOEs will be restructured and integrated into the government’s national, sectoral, and regional development strategy, and the way to operationalise our preference for serving, in any restructuring, the interests of stakeholders and not just shareholders. By comparison, the previous government established an organisation whose only task was to prepare state assets for sale.
Is all of this enough? Perhaps not. But on the other hand we should note two things. The first is that the international political economic environment is, at present, out of balance. I do not see that we are heading towards a return of the kind of neoliberalism that predominated in the years before the crisis. When Theresa May can say to her party conference that what the country needs, after Brexit, is more trade union rights and more state intervention, we see that something serious is afoot. Elites are being challenged more or less every time they face an election or a referendum. The question is whether our kind of left is going to have any role in the new equilibrium that will surely arise, one way or another, in the coming years. And, secondly, a defeat of Syriza would have consequences well beyond Greece’s borders. It could signify that the only alternative to the current elites is right-wing populism, of various levels of nastiness. That suggests to me that we should continue to do our best, even within the very severe constraints that we face.
HG: The ‘first’ Syriza, that is, the political organisation that existed since its establishment until its split on August 2015 due to the signing of the third Memorandum, was a European, if not a world, paradigm of co-existence under the same roof (initially as a coalition and since 2013 as a single party) of political organisations and currents of the left with different ideological references and strategic objectives. Based on your experience, after all that has happened in recent years, do you still believe that this co-existence is possible in Greece and in Europe, and if so, when and how can this be achieved?
ET: Syriza continues to be a meeting place of many left-wing currents, even though it lost a number of these after the crisis of the summer of 2015. Some of them never really accepted the party’s internationalist understanding that in a globalised world, with so many interdependencies (in areas such as the economy, tax evasion, finance, the environment, and so on), it is very difficult to go it alone. Others left, and this was particularly unfortunate in my view, because they stopped believing in the kind of logic I described in answering your first question.
In the period before the first Syriza government I always argued that unity was more important than the correct ‘line’, in part because there were so many lines and cooperation within the left cannot rely on the onceand-for-all determination of the line. But in part because I believe that the lesson from the alterglobal movement was that showing people that we can work together in oppositional movements is a precondition for convincing them that our kind of society will be democratic, pluralistic, and tolerant of different views. All this becomes more difficult in government of course, and it was a contradiction that, as your question implies, was never solved.
In part the problem is one of organisation. We, on the left, have not yet come up with an organisational form that is both democratic and effective, and at the same time attractive, especially to young people. That is why so many of the latter prefer single-issue causes, which are vital but which in the end, by themselves, do not create either a movement that is greater than the sum of its parts nor one that is sustainable in lean times.
The other part is of course political in a different sense. For all of us who have grown up believing in the internationalism of the left, and the ability of the EU to transform itself in a progressive direction, the past years have been a shock. Is it still possible to believe in a Europe of the people, in an EU that gives space to progressive social experimentation, that is more open and democratic? It does not look that likely at the moment, but only time will tell.
HG: Developments in Europe show that the widespread dissatisfaction with neoliberal policies implemented in the EU and especially in the Eurozone not only turn increasing segments of the populations to political apathy and absenteeism, but in many countries strengthen the forces of the extreme, populist, and Eurosceptic right. Do you think that we are facing an unavoidable ‘1989 of really existing European integration’ or that the situation is reversible? In the second case, what in your view should be the aim of the radical left at the national and European levels? In this framework, do you consider Lexit to be an alternative?
ET: There is no doubt that the burden of the crisis fell on the usual suspects. As Marx emphasised, in any crisis the workings of capitalism become more transparent: wages and benefits ‘must’ fall, the contract with the creditors must be respected, while other social contracts – with pensioners, with young people, etc. – ‘must’ be redrawn. The question is whether there are any prospects that workers will participate to some extent in the recovery. If they do not, then the forces you mention in your question, both right-wing and centrifugal with respect to Europe, will surely grow.
That is why we have insisted in the current negotiation that collective bargaining must return in Greece, and that we will not legislate up front new anti-social measures to be implemented in the post-programme period, that is in 2019 and beyond. Should we be unsuccessful, then our government will surely fall. And this will be a signal throughout Europe to workers, but also to sections of the middle class, that the recovery phase has no place for them. My mention of the middle class is significant, because more or less in the last decade inequality has become a middle-class issue as well. Globalisation as it is now does not just affect steel and textile workers but all sorts of previously ‘respectable’ middle-class professions, as well as SMEs.
This is the basis for a new left hegemonic programme. Because only the left can offer such a programme to reduce inequalities while dealing with those issues, such as climate change and tax evasion, which clearly transcend national borders. Or to put it another way: a retreat to the national sphere is unlikely to be something that occurs under the hegemony of the left, and this retreat will in any case be unable to address the above agenda. Whether in the longer term the left’s weakness in this respect can be reversed, and whether, after a period of national retrenchment, we might see a new wave of left cooperation in new ways, I have no idea. As you will appreciate, as Finance Minister I have enough short-term problems to deal with!