My Greek friend
One of my best friends is Greek. We met during his Erasmus exchange program in Brussels ten years ago. We had many discussions, but never on politics. It did not make sense, all the politicians were the same, argued my Greek friend. He had no interest, neither hope in politics. During the first years of the crisis I went to visit him in Athens. He was living in Exarchia, also known as the Greek spirit of resistance, a neighborhood that is home to many anarchists and radical leftists. None of it had an impact on him. He was working for a company and doing his thing, ‘enjoying life’ as he often said. As the crisis got worse he had to move to an island if he wanted to keep his job. He was working full time but because of the austerity measures his wage was cut down to €500. The crisis was not only affecting him but also his friends and family. The last time I met him in Greece, he seemed worried for his future and was looking for ways to leave the country.
Then, suddenly in 2012 things changed. My friend and I started to discuss politics and austerity. One of the reasons was the success of Syriza in 2012 elections. He became politicized and, even though Syriza did not win the elections, my friends now had hope and decided not to leave the country. With the Syriza victory of January 25th in hindsight, maybe he was right.
Meanwhile, Greece is still in a crisis. The austerity measures imposed by IMF, EC and ECB (commonly known as the troika), were not only ineffective to remedy the situation, they actually led to more inequality and poverty. One third of the population lives in poverty. The average Greek became 40% poorer between 2008 and 2013. Cuts in the health system are higher than 40%. Suicide rates have grown with 60%. Youth unemployment is about 55%.
The damages caused by austerity policies are not limited to Greece. According the most recent Eurostat figures, within the EU alone, 25 million Europeans are unemployed. Youth unemployment is at 23% and 125 million people are in risk of poverty.
Failure of democracy
Figures from all over Europe clearly show that austerity has failed to achieve its goals. Ironically, Europe is currently in crisis because of the policy of mainstream political parties that have been chosen to tackle the crisis in the first place. And they are failing spectacularly. Furthermore, recent research conducted by Economist Intelligence Unit shows that we are also suffering from a crisis of democracy. Low turnouts at the polls and sharp falls in the membership of mainstream parties are some of the clearest indicators.
Rise of far-right
Not everybody suffered from the crisis. Far-right populist parties did great business. From Greece to Finland the right-wing is on the rise. Golden Dawn, a Neo Nazi party, is the third largest party in Greece. Front National won the latest election in France with 25% of the votes and polls show that its leader Marine Le Pen would easily win presidential elections in France. Ukip won the European elections in UK with ease. The extreme right Dansk Folkeparti is on the rise in Denmark. Finns Party is already the third largest party in Finland.
These far-right parties use migrants as a scapegoat for the poverty and unemployment figures. The real problem is that mainstream parties have been parroting the same arguments with different words. Unsurprisingly, research by the European Network Against Racism shows that racism and discrimination are on a rise in Europe.
As the mainstream political parties keep failing and with the danger of far-right, what Europe needs today is a clear alternative from the left. So far, the left has been almost invisible. The past 35 years of social democracy in Europe was based on fear. Fear from the right, fear to lose power. In every European country, we notice the move of social democracy to the center-right of the political spectrum. This is because they fail to set the political agenda and no longer believe in or adhere to their principles.
On both national and European level, left-wing parties should return to their original causes. This means a stern rejection of all forms of crippling austerity but also the protection (instead of dismantlement) of the welfare state that the left worked so hard to build.
It is possible to set three principles for the left. Solidarity has always been and should remain a leftist principle. Solidarity among people, classes and nations. A second principle is redistribution. If the left wants a project to tackle poverty and inequality, redistribution of wealth is the answer. The capital is there, but it is concentrated with an elite. According to recent figures by Oxfam, in 2016 the wealthiest 1% will posses as much as 99% of the world population. Equality is the third principle. Equality is essential if left-wing parties want citizens to get involved in political decision-making. Equality should not remain a theoretical discourse, but must also take shape in equal rights and genuine equality of opportunity.
The left needs to do what Syriza did to my friend: politicize people. Show them that politics matter. But also give hope, as hope is needed to believe in a better future. A social and solidary Europe which respects the diversity of people and invests in people is definitely a better Europe than the one we have today.
This article was earlier published on euobserver.com