October 4, 2010
The sovereign debt crisis, which started in Greece, has engulfed Spain, Ireland, Portugal and even Poland and Romania, EU members that are not yet part of the eurozone. The recent Toronto meeting of Western heads of state has sadly contributed to aggravating matters, as it mandated participating political leaders to cut their countries’ budget deficits further, at a time when post-crisis economic recovery is yet to show solid results.
Political myopia seems to have affected most centre-right leaders, who insist on shrinking the size of the public debt to the magical 3 percent deficit limit , a provision of the Maastricht treaty. This has become a veritable Procustian bed for some EU governments. Spending cuts aimed at reaching the 3 percent target are now endangering economic recovery and growth and affecting essential social services, as well as the incomes of police, teaching and medical staff.
European government employees and workers begin season of protests
In the light of the above,it comes as no surprise that government workers from Spain, Portugal, Greece, Poland and Romania took to the streets in their tens of thousands. In September, high unemployment, planned neoliberal pension reforms and austerity have also brought into the streets millions of French protesters, and around 100,000 workers from all over Europe marched in Brussels. The general feeling among union workers is that they are made to pay for the huge government bailouts of the banks at the core of the 2008 financial crisis. More radical protests have endangered the rule of law and have badly shaken the presidential institutions in countries like Romania and even in far-away Ecuador, where police forces mobbed their presidents.
Romanian police surround the presidential palace
On September 23rd a group of 6,000 policemen participating in a strike by Romanian government employees rallying against a whopping 25 percent salary cut, has surrounded the presidential palace in Bucharest. Angry that the president did not show up for talks, the policemen shouted “get out of there, you filthy animal” and could only be convinced to break up the protest with great difficulty by the Cartel Alfa union leaders. The police protests further eroded the effectiveness of the Romanian presidency as an institution, only 3 years after it survived a parliamentary impeachment procedure.
Attempted coup d’état in Ecuador
Austerity has recently forced Rafael Correa, the popular president of Ecuador, to freeze bonuses for the police and military. Consequently, on September 30 striking policemen briefly occupied the Ecuadorian parliament and forced the president to take brief refuge in a Quito hospital. A gun fight with an army commando followed which killed three and wounded at least fifty people.
A junior OPEC member, Ecuador is currently in the process of renegotiating the leases for oil-producing fields with the big oil companies operating in the country, with the intention of increasing state control over them. It is not unthinkable, therefore, for the striking policemen to have been manipulated into staging such a radical protest by Ecuadorian opposition figures interested in defeating Correa’s oil policies and in doing away with welfare payouts to the poor.
As stressed by John Monks, the leader of the European Confederation of Trade Unions, workers’ rallies and strikes against neoliberal austerity measures and planned pension reforms have only just begun. In the weeks to come, the French CGT and CFDT have announced two protests to take place in October, while Romanian unions are gearing up for major protests on the 7th of October.
The huge, global social turmoil provoked by near-sighted austerity measures could have been avoided if political leaders would have understood that budgetary rectitude is the wrong medicine now, for the 27 member countries just out of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Union protests have also intensified this year in China, but the communist leaders there reacted by agreeing to a 20 percent increase in workers’ salaries…
By contrast, misguided austerity policies have led many in Europe to ask themselves if our Western-type neoliberal democracies are merely functioning to benefit a few, at the expense of many. At any rate, the latest austerity drive within EU countries could only contribute to widening the existing confidence gap between political decisionmakers and their electorates – a development that does not bode well for the stability of our political systems. (sources: Le Monde diplomatique, Reuters, AFP, Toronto Sun, EVZ, BBC News)Florian Pantazi