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Of wheels and rhombi – German Financial Geometry

What did it take 76 years ago to drive a continent into despair and destruction? Tanks, guns and fascism. What does it take to drive a country into despair in 2015? A rhombus – Angela Merkel’s signature gesture –, a man in a wheelchair and financial fascism otherwise known as neoliberalism. July 13th 2015 could be the day that Europe died – again. Decades of freedom, the common market, free movement of labour, the fall of the iron curtain, the abolishment of passport controls etc. all jeopardized to prove that only one ideology can be right. The measures Greece has to implement, some of them within two days (!) let you wonder if either Merkel or Schäuble or Juncker have ever opened a history book let aside a contemporary book on economics or development studies. Raising VAT, privatisation, opening of the financial and bank sector – that sounds more like the World Bank and the IMF in the 1990s but it’s a reality in July 2015. The IMF has learned its lesson by the way and recommended a bailout.

Greece shall flourish again economically speaking. So what is the best thing you do? You raise VAT because then people will spend more money, right? Privatisation will of course help create jobs because private companies are known for their generosity and their willingness to keep the money in the country. Just one example, FRAPORT one of the world’s largest airport managing companies has been negotiating the takeover of Athen’s airport for months. Negotiations stopped a few months ago due to current events but now after the deal in Brussels has been struck they will be happy to resume negotiations because never will there be a chance to get an international airport cheaper. According to Merkel’s and Schäuble’s logic this will benefit the Greek economy – I doubt it. I wonder what all those in Germany would say who applauded yesterday’s decision if Germany were urged to privatise its railway, airports and other infrastructure etc. Would they still clap their hands – not really.

I am astonished by many Germans’ loss of memory. Denouncing and bullying Greeks for their supposed laziness and their supposed inability to deal with taxes and finances seems to be a favourite pastime of my fellow countrymen. Let’s recollect two events in younger history. After World War II Germany (and Europe) was reconstructed by the help of the Marshall Plan. This involved a heavy bailout among other measures. Let’s remember 1990. Germany was to be reunified, which involved massive financial transfers to East Germany. Today we know that financially it was a disaster, but politically and for the good of the German people it was one of the greatest things ever happened. But after all it showed solidarity, which is the one thing I miss so dearly in the current situation. Mind you though that it also involved massive privatisations which lead to mass unemployment and today East Germany’s unemployment rate is still higher than in West Germany and people earn less in the East that in the West. Yet, for Greece it seems to be just the right measure.

Speaking of loss of memory – Germany’s secretary of finances, Wolfgang Schäuble, apparently praised by many Germans and German media for his hard line on Greece has a financial history that is far from being kosher. Around the turn of the millennium his conservative CDU party was deeply stricken into a scandal about illegal party donations. As of today Schäuble won’t explain why he met a certain arms dealer and where a suitcase with 100 000 Deutschmark that was in his possession has disappeared. Yet this is the same man who tells the Greek how deal with their financial affairs.

I can’t shake off the feeling that the deal is not about restoring Greece’s economy but about keeping them in a system from which Germany and other major European countries have benefited over decades. Germany’s economic “success” is to a large extent based on exports. This has helped us to get through the financial crisis with little damage but it also meant that more and more Germans depend on social benefits and wage subsidies. It is far from being a sustainable economic model yet it also explains why the German government was never truly interested in a Grexit. The simply need Greece as a market for cheap export goods.

Let’s not forget that Greece is only one of Europe’s current problems. Ukraine, the EU referendum in UK and most important the crisis at Europe’s borders. 26 years ago we successfully tore down a wall in the name of freedom yet these days Europe is building new walls on its southern shores. It worries me that Hungary, which was the first country to open the iron curtain has started building a fence against “illegal” immigrants. I recently went to Calais to catch the ferry to the UK. What I saw made me angry and left me in despair. You don’t need to go to Greece, Lampedusa or Melilla. No, right in the heart of Europe you find people living in shacks separated by a double fence reinforced with barbed wire to keep them away from the ferry port. These days I am deeply worried and wonder if the European idea has died as Belgian MEP Philippe Lambert has put it on Monday. At school and at university I was taught that Europe after 1945 is about an idea – freedom, cooperation, solidarity. Did it all end yesterday?

Kevin Grecksch

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