By Paul Taylor
PARIS Feb 13 Europe's left is torn
between outrage and anxiety over drastic cuts in living
standards and working conditions being imposed on Greeks by the
European Union and the International Monetary Fund.
Indignation at sweeping pay and pension reductions and
public sector job cuts dictated by official creditors in return
for a second bailout of the debt-ridden euro zone state is
strongest in south European countries that fear a similar rod.
Yet there is scant sympathy from centre-left politicians and
labour leaders in northern Europe, where voters are more worried
at the potential cost of bailouts, nor in former communist
central Europe, where people are more inured to hardship.
"What if we all became Greeks?" left-wing French daily
Liberation asked on Monday. "Is what is being imposed today on
this pressured and humiliated country a foretaste of what will
one day be prescribed for Italy, Portugal, and why not France?"
A planned 22 percent cut in the Greek minimum wage, with a
32 percent cut for workers under age 25, is among the most
radical steps backwards inflicted in peacetime in modern Europe.
Only Latvia has endured a similar EU/IMF-mandated "internal
devaluation" cutting living standards.
Public sector pay in Ireland has fallen on average by 15.9
percent since 2009 due to wage cuts and a pension levy, but a 12
percent cut in the minimum wage agreed with lenders was reversed
after the government found savings elsewhere.
The leader of Portugal's largest trade union, Armenio Carlos
of the CGTP, praised Greek workers' "heroic resistance" against
austerity measures and warned that his own country could face a
similar social explosion.
"If the results in Greece were disastrous, without a doubt
they will be no different here," Carlos said last week.
French Socialist politician Segolene Royal, the defeated
presidential candidate in 2007, voiced outrage at the way
austerity was targeting the poorest Greeks while the rich were
still able to evade taxes with impunity.
Accusing European leaders of "cowardice", she singled out
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso for criticism.
"Athens is burning ... Where is Mr Barroso? - the
ultra-liberal politician chosen to head the Commission - that
was a very grave error. Where is the Council of Ministers? What
is the European parliament doing?" Royal asked in a radio
Yet the reaction of the mainstream European left has been
mostly muted, partly due to exasperation among ordinary citizens
in wealthier countries at having to rescue Greece twice, but
also because many centre-left parties have been associated with
the austerity measures.
In Greece and Portugal, Socialist governments requested the
original EU/IMF bailouts and supported the public spending cuts
and painful pension reforms required as part of their fiscal
Ireland's centre-left Labour party is a junior partner in
the coalition government that is enforcing the country's
austerity plan, which is showing first signs of success.
In Italy and Spain, left-wing parties backed budget cuts,
raising the retirement age and freezes or reductions in public
sector pay as part of austerity programmes enacted to save those
countries from being shut out of capital markets.
Italy's Democratic Party, the largest centre-left political
movement, has supported technocrat Prime Minister Mario Monti's
sweeping pension and structural reforms and austerity measures
despite misgivings about the impact on growth and employment.
That makes the left somewhat schizophrenic about what is
happening in Greece.
"The Greek riots are just the tip of the iceberg of a failed
policy that focuses totally on public accounts and ignores the
real economic issues of growth and jobs," said Stefano Fassina,
the party's top economic adviser.
"The conservative government in Berlin is primarily
responsible for imposing this cure. All of Europe is in
recession because of it," Fassina said.
Germany's opposition Social Democrats (SPD) advocate a
different policy mix to revive growth and jobs but they are
cautious about challenging Chancellor Angela Merkel's tough line
on Greece, which polls show is widely popular.
"A country that is weakened again and again ultimately won't
have the power to service its debt," said Andrea Nahles, the
SPD's general secretary. "This is exactly what is happening now
in Greece. It is a vicious circle that must be broken."
Finland's centre-left Social Democrats and the Left Alliance
are part of a coalition government that has insisted on strict
conditionality and collateral in return for loans to Greece.
Given popular frustration over bailouts it would be
political suicide to sound too sympathetic towards Greek
workers. Instead, they are criticising job cuts by Nokia and
others in Finland.
The European Trade Union Confederation, the umbrella group
for organised labour around the continent, has had little
success in trying to mobilise workers Europe-wide against
austerity. Apart from one big demonstration in Brussels,
protests have largely been confined to national issues.
ETUC Secretary General Bernadette Segol criticised the
so-called troika of European Commission, European Central Bank
and IMF for imposing ever deeper cuts on Greece and said she
feared "a big clash and contagion" if Athens eventually
"It's not the right course, it's not going to lead to a
solution for Greece and the Greek people," Segol said.
There is little solidarity with Greece in central European
countries that lived through a harsh transition from communism
to the market economy in the 1990s and are still poorer per
capita than the Greeks today.
Slovakia refused to contribute to the first Greek bailout
for that reason. A Slovak official noted that even after the
planned minimum wage cut, Greece's would still be higher than
Spain's, which has not had to request assistance, and far higher
In Lithuania, where a centre-right government cut wages and
benefits during a 2009-2010 financial crisis, the leader of the
main centre-left party said Greeks had spent themselves into
this mess and had to take their medicine now.
"Greece has no escape but to implement strict austerity
measures or to face bankruptcy. It can't save itself without
outside assistance," Algirdas Butkevicius, leader of the
Lithuanian Social Democrat Party, said.
"Maybe it's not good to cut the minimum wage, but Greece's
spending on pensions has been very generous compared with the
rest of Europe," he said.