‘Europe has been kidnapped’

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Historic moments do a lot more to shape Europe than treaties do. And Brussels’ response to the Greek ‘No’ vote on 5 July 2015 demonstrated its moral bankruptcy. The euro now appeared not as an instrument for exchange among Europeans, but as a totem in the name of which whole peoples can be sacrificed. Beyond being a financial crisis, this is a political earthquake.


During the campaign for the referendum in Greece. © Reuters

by Christian Salmon, translated by David Broder
Originally appeared on Mediapart

The Greek crisis has reactivated a recurrent question that has long haunted the European project. What is the European idea? In The Art of the Novel (Gallimard, 1986) Milan Kundera offers the witty and paradoxical response that a ‘European [is] one who is nostalgic for Europe’. Is Europe a matter of the past? Is the project for monetary economic union not the caricature of the Europe that has survived its own death, and is now pursuing its path beyond its own history, in the manner of a ghost or a zombie?

When the Russian army entered Budapest in autumn 1956, the director of the Hungarian press agency sent a desperate message to the whole world via Telex, a few minutes before his office was destroyed by artillery fire. It ended with the words, ‘We will die for Hungary and for Europe’. This episode of the Hungarian insurrection again came to my mind on 3 July in Athens, two days before the Greek referendum, in the office of the Sto Kokkino radio station director Kostas Arvanitis. Of course, in this case there were no tanks surrounding the station – banks having now replaced tanks – but in July 2015 the director of the pro-Syriza radio spoke the same language as the Hungarian press agency director in autumn 1956. He did not only talk about the debt or the Troika, but of Europe, the Europe of the Enlightenment and the France ‘that was always at our side when we fought the dictatorship’ – and now he felt betrayed. ‘Here in Athens we have statues of the philosophers of the Enlightenment era, because it’s them we have to thank for the idea of an independent Greek state. Today we feel abandoned by Europe. Worse – Europe has become our enemy. It is waging a financial war against us, with the goal of wiping us off the map of Europe. Now it is a bitter experience for us to hear La chanson de Gavroche’. He mumbles the words in Greek, ‘Si je suis tombé par terre, c’est la faute à Voltaire. Le nez dans le ruisseau, c’est la faute à Rousseau’ [‘If I fall on the ground, it’s Voltaire’s fault. My nose in the gutter, it’s Rousseau’s fault…’]

Returning to Paris, I remembered that I had read the story of the director of the Hungarian press agency in an article by Milan Kundera, published in Le Débat magazine in 1983. In this article entitled ‘Un Occident kidnappé ou la tragédie de l’Europe centrale’  [‘The West kidnapped, or the tragedy of Central Europe’] Kundera protested against the artificial division of Europe into two parts, the effect of which was to deport the mosaic of small nations geographically located in the centre of Europe to the East. Culturally in the West and politically in the East, these nations were thus projected outside of their own history. ‘A small nation’, Kundera wrote, ‘is a nation whose very existence can be placed in question at any moment; a nation that can disappear, and knows it’. The thing that small nations have in common is not an identity or a language, but an experience of weakness faced with the great empires surrounding them. Not a single exclusive belonging, but a similar experience of fragility and troubled existence – an experience reflected in the great central-European novels. Indeed, the small nations confronted with great empires are the nations that are most compelled to problematise their collective existence. That is why the questions of the state’s and the individual’s sovereignty, of the relation to the Other, to language, to History – all the great philosophical questions of the twentieth century examined by linguistics, psychoanalysis and the novels of Musil, Broch and Kafka – encountered their chosen territory in central Europe.

Viewed through the prism of central Europe, Europe suddenly appeared not as a continental empire being consolidated and unified, nor even as a federal structure destined gradually to absorb the states that compose it, but as a seismic zone where two ways of ‘doing Europe’ clashed – the ‘imperial’ manner, meaning forced unification, the imposition of rules and the harmonisation of norms, and then the ‘resistant’ manner, namely that of the peoples who have risen up against this attempt at domination since the nineteenth century, and indeed defeated it. This unstable and paradoxical situation explains why in the postwar period Europe’s contradictions were concentrated in central Europe: from the Hungarian revolt of 1956 to the Prague Spring and the occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Polish revolts of 1956, 1968, 1970 and the 1980s… This was ‘a chain of profoundly democratic revolts’, Kundera wrote, ‘carried forth by the whole people’ and clashing with the political régimes supported by the Soviet Union, which suffocated each of these rebellions, before suffering the backlash effect in 1989 when the revolts synchronised and brought down the Berlin Wall.  

These historic moments do a lot more to shape Europe than treaties do. But how can we recognise them when they happen? Journalists say they have to ‘cover the events’, but that is exactly what becomes difficult when events overflow and overwhelm all our capacity to predict and to analyse them. Nothing is more difficult than being ‘present’ when History accelerates and time goes out of joint. Our tactical intelligence is not up to the task. History turns its back to chronology and, above all, the signs of what is going to happen start to diverge. The events overflow the scenarios that had been written in advance – and this is the signature of a History that is writing itself. Peoples’ history again steals a march on the storytelling of the powerful…

The ‘financial coup d’état’

I spent ten days in Athens, as a ‘special correspondent’ in a city undergoing a media siege, hanging on the results of a referendum that there was nothing to expect from, if we knew a little something of the desperate situation of Greece’s finances. Nothing, except an untamed expression of the desire for freedom. Events contradicted each other and turned each other upside-down, wrong-footing interpretation and making a mockery of the world’s TV correspondents and reporters, who massed around cash machines, followed the pensioners round the side of the banks, and made up the numbers by photographing or filming themselves, imitating the queues of desperate savers in a sort of involuntary selfie, a derisory parody of misery.

There was the CNN reporter shouting and waving around wads of euro notes in order to draw the curious over to an ATM; there was the photo of an elderly victim of the 1999 Turkish earthquake, exhumed from the ruins in order to bear witness to the poverty of the pensioner-victims of Syriza’s disastrous policy; there were the reporters from the private TV stations, owned by the construction magnates and oil barons, who are now for the first time chronicling the social hardships - which, they claim, have been caused by Alexis Tsipras’s government in just five months. There were the bosses who held back workers’ wages since Syriza’s election, and promised to pay them the Monday after the referendum if ‘Yes’ won. There were the rumours that spread like a vapour trail and rapidly came to nothing, only to be followed by another rumour, which was just as much a fantasy. There was the countdown clock at the top of the TV screens, ticking off the minutes separating Greece from bankruptcy if the Greeks voted ‘No’!

Finally, there was the top functionary from the economics ministry, exhausted and despairing after five months of guerrilla warfare against the Troika (suddenly this name returned to his lips, closer to reality than the euphemistic reference to ‘the institutions’) confiding in us off the record about his frustration and despair faced with the financial asphyxiation and the freezing of liquidity to Greece, organised at the highest levels of the European Union. This was a policy of gradual suffocation, radicalised after the referendum was announced, to the point of pushing the European Central Bank – the guarantor of the stability of the joint currency – to encourage the banking panic and capital flight in order to empty out the country’s reserves and provoke a liquidity haemorrhage, thus forcing the Greek government to shut the banks and introduce capital controls.

What our insider told us was the tale of a ‘hold-up’ perpetrated against an entire country. A few days later Alexis Tsipras would describe the Troika institutions as ‘robbers’. Of course, nothing has gone as they had foreseen. Initially their hold-up looked to take hold of Greece’s public assets with the complicity of the Greek elites, from the country’s roads and motorways to its ports and airports, the Athens and Thessaloniki water companies, the railway concessions, the regional airports, the gas and electricity companies, real estate, numerous government buildings and other things, adding up to a total of €50 billion… And this privatisation plan was at first realised, under various past governments (Papandreou, Samaras…)…

But with Syriza’s election victory, the heist plan took a wrong turn. The victims started to resist. They did not want to be robbed without putting up a fight. There were interminable negotiations over the Troika men-in-black’s entrance; semantic quarrels over what name should be given to the people pillaging Greece; and interpretative disputes over the meaning of the pillage itself. In short, there was a debate over the ‘hold-up’. The ‘victims of the robbery’ felt aggrieved, and placed conditions on the ‘robbers’ regarding the amount of pillage that they were ready to accept. The negotiations dragged on and on. Had we ever seen a hold-up subject to a referendum? That is what the Greeks did, however. Their rebel leader called on the people to vote.

Throughout the whole week leading up to the referendum, the surveys showed a rising ‘Yes’ vote. Syriza seemed to have internalised its defeat. An exhausted Tsipras seemed ready to die on the barricade of time…

The ‘No’ vote’s huge victory on the evening of 5 July was an enormous surprise, and a wind of euphoria swept through Athens. Nothing is blinder than an enthusiastic crowd; and the Greeks’ enthusiasm soon crashed into the lenders’ intransigence. The nervous atmosphere was at its height, having lasted too long already. The rebel leader was called to Brussels, crowned in glory, and, revolver to his head (in the evocative image used by the media) he was told to sign the deal. This time the hold-up turned into a kidnap: the hostages were the Greek government, elected six months previously to put an end to the hold-up perpetrated by the Troika and its men-in-black; and the Greek parliament, reduced to a rubber stamp having to vote right away on texts drawn up in Brussels, without even having had the time to read them, and against both the desire and the mandate of its MPs. This was no longer simply an act of plunder inspired by the ‘natural’ voracity of the markets. It was the ‘financial coup d’état’ that Martine Orange had already anticipated on the Mediapart site on 5 February 2015.

The Brussels ‘monster’

As Greece declared independence, the European Union responded with a colonial occupation. An act of war, as Yanis Varoufakis called it. The authors of the hold-up – in their instinctive violence, in their fury to humiliate a weakened enemy – even broke the icon in whose name they claimed to be acting. The euro now appeared not as an instrument for exchange among Europeans, but as a totem in the name of which whole peoples can be sacrificed. Not as the symbol of a union that is still in gestation, but as a tool of power in the hands of an empire. A common currency? No, it’s a yoke! Never before had the euro – which is meant to protect its members against the erratic fluctuation and speculation that characterise national currencies – been transformed into a weapon against a democratic government. Never had the Eurozone, created in order to offer a zone of stability and solidarity for its members, been revealed to be such a trap, turning the weapon of monetary sovereignty against one of its own members, who had conceded this weapon to it. It was a hold-up against the very idea that the robbers claimed to be upholding, and which had given them some semblance of legitimacy.

Jürgen Habermas was right to denounce the reduction of the debate among EU member states to a confrontation between lenders and borrowers, as if it was some sort of private bankruptcy process. But another step had also been taken. No longer was it just the ‘lender-borrower’ relation that governed the relations between the Greece and the European Union, but the discrimination between friend and enemy so dear to Carl Schmitt, essentialising politics in its hardest form: the polemos [war]. Democratic deliberation had to give way to the construction of an ‘enemy’. The search for a reasonable compromise took a step back, in favour of the desire for an exemplary sacrifice.

However imperfect, the EU had never before appeared as an organisation in the hands of banks and financial markets. A veil was thus torn away. And the conqueror is no longer entirely sure of victory: he has won the battle but lost his democratic legitimacy.  And even if the defeated side has not managed to make his rights count for anything, by putting up a fight he has demystified his opponent, which the German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger has characterised as Brussels, the gentle monster. In his short book, Enzensberger criticised the undemocratic character of the EU, its opacity, its sclerotic language, and its bureaucracy – a bureaucracy that according to Enzensberger has little by little destroyed the ideal governing the construction of the EU, ensuring its defeat. For the German writer, Europe has engaged in an unprecedented project: the first non-violent form of undemocratic government. He calls this régime a modern monster, a ‘kindly’ giant, a friend and enemy, the ‘gentle monster’ in Brussels.

If the Greek crisis has confirmed Enzensberger’s analyses, it has disproven his title. There is nothing gentle about the Brussels monster; it is no friendly giant. And it is not Greece’s friend, but its declared enemy, determined to see it defeated. It is ferocious, aggressive, merciless. The Greek crisis at least served to show us that much:  it tore off the European Union’s mask of civility and politeness. Its nocturnal marathons, without end or meaning; its incomprehensible communiqués drawn up in the language that De Gaulle termed an ‘adapted Esperanto or a Volapük’; and its faceless decision-making, can no longer boast of the goodwill driving the project’s builders, nor the complexity of the tasks it faces.

In his Le Monde diplomatique column, Yanis Varoufakis told of the conditions in which he was excluded from the final Eurogroup meeting on Saturday 27 June, twenty-four hours after the referendum was announced, during which it was decided to unleash the process that would close down the Greek banks. Having sought legal advice he was told that the Eurogroup had no legal existence, being ‘an informal group [with] no written rules to constrain its President’.

‘In my mind’, Varoufakis remarked, these words were ‘the epitaph of the Europe that Adenauer, De Gaulle, Brandt, Giscard, Schmidt, Kohl, Mitterrand etc. had worked towards. Of the Europe that I had always thought of, ever since I was a teenager, as my point of reference, my compass’. He concluded, ‘This episode will go down in European history as the moment when official Europe, using institutions and methods that no Treaty legitimised (e.g. the Eurogroup, the Euro Summit, the threat of eviction from the Euro Area), dealt a major blow at the ideal of an ever-closer democratic union. Greece capitulated but it is Europe that was defeated’. 

A few months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, in an article entitled ‘Europe in Ruins’ this same Enzensberger noted that ‘the more our almost-island is at the centre of the world market and world politics, the more we see a new Eurocentrism making headway. Already a slogan is popping up in debates whose paternity owes to none other than Joseph Goebbels: “Fortress Europe”. In another time, this was understood from a military point of view, and now it returns as an economic and demographic concept.  This fact should make a Europe in the middle of a boom remind itself of the Europe in ruins of just a few decades ago’. Enzensberger thus unveiled a paradox of the European project. The unification of the European market, which places Europe at the heart of world economics and politics, reinforces this Eurocentrism as compared to the rest of the world. And this Eurocentrism is then extended like an umbilical cord within Europe itself, with the dominant role now played by Germany and its satellites in a European Union that, far from becoming ‘a more perfect union’ (as the US constitution’s preamble has it) has, in its handling of the Greek crisis, revealed itself to be ‘the worst union that could exist’.

A supranational leviathan

In a brilliant essay entitled Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism (Verso) the German sociologist Wolfgang Streeck has brought into relief the correlation between the construction of public debt and the suffocation of mass democracy. ‘Parallel to the advance of the neoliberal reshaping of capitalism, citizen participation in democratic contests has retreated continuously and sometimes dramatically, above all among the social layers who ought to be most interested in state benefits and state-imposed economic redistribution from the top to the bottom. This fact helps us take measure of the crushing victory of the capitalism reshaped by neoliberalism over the 1960s-70s capitalism of the social-democratic state’.

So the stakes of the Greek episode are not only limited to a renegotiation of the debt, studded with some rather undiplomatic incidents, humiliations and blackmails. It is at the same time a political earthquake in the heart of Europe; a Eurozone financial crisis; the moral bankrupting of an EU that has shown itself incapable of fulfilling its mission of solidarity with one of its member states; and a financial coup d’état fomented by the Troika, which has revealed itself to be the only true Eurozone government. This is the first European geopolitical episode of a financial war that does not speak its name, a war which, for the first time in Europe, does not mean an opposition among states, alliances or coalitions, but the opposition between a supranational leviathan – which we have seen for the first time in all its omnipotence, unaccountability and blindness – and one of the poorest states in Europe, fiercely attached to its independence and its sovereignty.

This leviathan has kidnapped the European ideal.

In its handling of the Greek crisis, the European project that has for years draped itself in its peaceful intentions, its post-war ‘humanism’, and its values of freedom and democracy, has shown itself to be a blind, freedom-killing monster, driven by an irrational and self-destructive will to power. The non-democratic institutions of the European Union showed that they were in fact dictatorial; the European construction showed itself to be not muddled and impotent but aggressive and hegemonic. It was not Greece that was humiliated, but the fiction of a Europe of solidarity and democracy. No one will now be left unaware that the European Union has behaved toward one of its member states like an empire deals with a dominated vassal state.

This Greek moment is historic for Europe in more than one sense. The great ‘No’ victory in the 5 July referendum would alone suffice to make it historic, for at least three reasons: 1) it exemplifies the rejection of austerity that has been imposed on all Europeans for five years; 2) it marks the return of politics to the European debate, which had been confiscated by the ‘technostructure’ and the Troika; 3) it confirms the non-democratic character of the European institutions and the Troika, and constitutes their first political defeat. The European Union has shown itself to be a trap and a straitjacket for the nations of southern Europe. It has taken on the traits of a Warsaw Pact for the West.

The Greeks’ response to the lenders’ ultimatum is the first act of resistance to the fundamentalist violence of a ‘technostructure’ gone crazy; it is the ‘rogue’ event par excellence, to use the term Jean Baudrillard employed with regard to the French ‘No’ in the 2005 referendum [on the European Constitutional Treaty]. That is to say, it is an instinctive expression that escapes economic calculations and political tactics; the voice of a collective unconscious that transcends the usual political cleavages and which cannot simply be dismissed as ‘populist’. As Baudrillard put it, ‘the more the fundamentalist violence of the system intensifies, the more singularities there will be arraigned against it’. The former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis understood this well, and since his resignation he has been waging another battle, at the level of this historic situation: the battle for another Europe and for another European narrative.

July 2015 will remain a historic date, not only for the Greeks but also for a Europe that has now seen the first demystification of its recent history, the first since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The fact that Greece, the crucible of European democracy, should be made the historical agent of this revelation is not the smallest irony in this story.

Originally appeared on Mediapart.