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WANTED: Unity against austerity

The spectre of austerity haunts Europe. It poses no doubt an existential, as well as an economic, political and social threat. The take-up across the continent of impoverishment as an economic policy became a recipe for failure, as much of the trade these countries did between each other broke down. The seams of society are on the verge of breaking, as the economic situation puts many in poverty, thus straining the bonds of solidarity, and feeds long-forsaken tensions, many of which nationalistic. Incumbent governments everywhere around Europe are being voted out, and their replacements are briefed against their aspirations for alternative.

There is an image of unavoidability that is projected in a deliberate attempt to suppress calls for change. But this suppression is increasingly explicit and unacceptable to a silent majority of Europeans whose aspirations to a decent standard of living are being frustrated. As it becomes clear that the European Union, with Angela Merkel as its leading figure, are directly antagonistic to those aspirations, and actively and explicitly defeating them, diffidence and even suspicion against the European project becomes an increasingly popular sentiment.

A unity against Austerity is required to give voice to this silent majority. This unity should come from all sectors of civil society – from political parties and independent citizens. It should come from all sectors of the political spectrum – from the far-left, to the center-left parties of the social democratic tradition, and even including those on the right such as old Christian Democrats who recognize that impoverishment is no solution to this crisis.

This coalition, which some might call a Popular Front, must be as broad as possible. But it must also be firm in its rejection of austerity, of any sort or dimension, anywhere in Europe, and it must be unmoveable in its commitment to an effective welfare state. There is no point in mobilizing against Austerity just to betray the hopes of those we have inspired. In Italy, the lack of cohesiveness of Bersani’s electoral coalition and his own indecisive positions regarding austerity delivered an electoral performance that was far weaker than expected and to post-electoral difficulties in forming a government. Likewise, with Hollande, who flip-flopped on a number of issues, such as the fiscal compact treaty, that severely limited the budgetary discretion of governments, effectively turning his back on all those who had placed hopes on him for a different Europe.

These failed attempts are however evidence that there is some movement toward mobilization. Our mission is none other than to defeat austerity and rescue the future for the 99%. In my home country of Portugal, this is the direction of movement for many leading figures of the Left. Recently, the founding father of Portuguese Democracy, and former President and Prime Minister, Mário Soares, brought together all three major parties to the left of center in a great meeting on ‘defeating Austerity’. While the meeting was powerful, none of the parties made themselves represented by frontbenchers. Meanwhile, Seguro, the Leader of the Opposition, actively considers partnering with the austerity-addicted Right in future governments.

In the Portuguese Right too, much criticism has been made of the Portuguese government’s masochistic lust for pursuing austerity far beyond the troika’s demands. The coalition that holds up the government is fragile, and there is an army of politicians from the right-wing coalition who are standing up and vochally opposing austerity. But many have focused their criticisms not on the government they support but rather on the troika – who manages the bailout. In a recent column Pedro Marques Lopes, an influential liberal commentator who has turned increasingly to the left, wrote that these politicians know that their words are to no avail, and that the government will not change its policy. Marques Lopes criticizes them justly for simply lacking the guts to be any clearer in their criticisms of government policy. While unity of action is getting closer, it is still far away, and will remain so as far as unity of purpose remains disparate.

The biggest threat for anti-austerity unity, in Portugal and indeed across Europe, is the discourse of ‘fiscal credibility’. This spiel, that has infested the Labour Party and a number of other center-left parties across Europe, says that we cannot commit to stopping austerity as we will need to continue to cut down the deficit. Suffice to say it should make any respectable Left-wing actiist livid. First, because we all know it means further privatisation and dismantlement of vital public services. But second, and most importantly, because we know its self-defeating. No country has ever reduced their debt by throwing itself down an abyss of poverty. There is no phrase more accurate to describe austerity than economic suicide, no matter how much ‘lite’ or protracted the austerity is.

More than ever, we need in Europe citizens with the courage to stand up against this false discourse of ‘fiscal credibility’ and reclaim the term for the fight against austerity. The time demands of us that we put aside our differences. This historical moment demands unity of action and unity of purpose. But will Europe and the Europeans rise up to the challenge of its time?

Miguel Costa Matos is a member of the Portuguese Young Socialists.

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