Greece, Portugal, the crisis and the alternative

An interview for the Greek newspaper "Dromos Tis Aristeras" - Athens

European workers are following with attention what the Greek workers’ movement is doing. But, as important as this, European workers are watching what the Greek government is doing, to better understand what they can expect from their own government. And the other governments are watching attentively what the workers of Greece are doing, how far they can go with their fight, in order to anticipate the reactions they can expect at home if they engage in the same kind of austerity measures. Greece is today the laboratory test for all of Europe, both for workers and for capital.

The Portuguese government - of the Socialist party, a brother of PASOK -, had presented to Brussels a Stability and Growth Programme, a little bit softer but in the very same line of the Greek one. But at 7 May, the heads of state and government of the euro area met to finalise procedures to implement the support package for Greece and approve the “European Financial Stabilisation mechanism” and all the previous plans were put in question, further and tougher measures, which they called “significant additional consolidation measures”, were imposed on our peoples and Portugal and Spain had to present at the ECOFIN meeting, last 18th May, a new pack of austerity measures.

This new pack for Portugal include a generalized raise in taxes, namely one point for all the VAT levels (including the reduced tax for basic essential goods), an overtax on revenues, a new special additional tax on the Christmas subsidy, the fourteenth month salary, as we call it, changes in the unemployment subsidy, tolls at roads that were free, more privatizations of public property and services, among many other drastic measures.

The Left is opposing these measures, that we consider not only unfair, but causing more recession and so deepening the crisis. We have presented a lot of alternative measures, both to reduce the State expenditure and to increase the State revenue.

On the side of State revenues, we think they could be increased by making the financial sector profits be taxed at 25%, the same rate as all the other companies (today a bank pays half the tax of a small restaurant or a bookshop, although their profits are increasing during this crisis). We are also in favour of taxing all operations with offshores. The amounts transferred every year to offshores would be more than enough to solve the deficit problem. We proposed also an extraordinary tax from 50 until 75% on the extra-salary bonus paid to managers of big companies. Recently, the CEO of the electricity company got a extra bonus of 3,1 million Euros, the CEO of Portugal Telecom got 2,5 million. And their companies have a participation of the State. The CEO of a small private bank that went bankrupt got a bonus of 8 million on that same year, and he now says that the revenue tax on this bonus should be paid by the bank and not by him, because that’s the agreement he had in his contract.

We have also for a long time defended the need to tax the profits made in the stock markets. Our proposal has been rejected because the prime-minister always said we could not touch business in the stock markets in a period of crisis. But we brought it again back to parliament. The very same day the council of ministers announced the government would introduce this tax.

On the side of State expenditure, we say that drastic cuts in the State budget could be made, but on the excessive representation expenses, on contracts with private expert consultants, on public-private partnerships where the public gets the bone and the private gets the meat. And, most of all, on the military budget. We are not at war with anyone and we don’t see anyone whishing to declare war on Portugal. Even so, we spend millions buying German submarines that will be used only to play a role in NATO exercises. Yes, there is a lot to be cut from the State budget, but not on salaries, not on essential public services.

We are also against drastic cuts in public investment, as the right wing parties are proposing, because in a period of crisis, when private investment is low, reducing public investment will cause a deeper recession. For example, we have proposed a huge programme of housing rehabilitation, mainly on old urban areas, and this could create 60 000 jobs and give work to many small local companies. We are also in favour of a better investment in schools and in health care system, as well as in public transport, mainly railway. We oppose the government perspective to privatise more public companies, as some postal services, airports, energy, railway, ship construction and reparation, and many others.

On the political scene, the most important factor is that the disastrous policy of the government is producing a great disaffection on the popular support for the Socialist Party. This is a major opportunity but also a major responsibility for the Left. The big question is: where will this people go? Towards whom they will turn, when looking for a change? As history shows, they can be a fertile field of recruitment for the right wing populist policies and parties. But it has not to be that way. They can also turn to the Left.

To resist to austerity measures and to fight for their rights, they can turn to the trade union movement; they will certainly go to the streets and participate massively in demonstrations, as will be the case next 29th of May in Portugal.

That’s very important, but it is not enough. Trade unions are not the alternative to the right and centre political parties. It is up to the Left political parties to present the political alternative, the political way out of the present situation. But we must do it in a way that can be understood by the normal worker, by the normal citizen, by this kind of person that has, for a long time, given the support for parties like PASOK or the Portuguese Socialist party, support that led them to the government of our countries. We need that support, but we have to deserve it at the eyes of millions, and we all know this is not that easy.

But we don't think we are condemned, by any mysterious fatality, to be governed by the pro-capitalist parties. If our policies are at the service of the working class, at the service of the majority of the population, there is no reason why we should not aim to win the support of the majority and overcome the present system of exploitation.

We are all living an historical moment. Confronted with this unprecedented attack, workers will continue to react. But, if they don't see any political alternative that appears to them as something clear and understandable, which they can trust, then the field is open for the worst.

Historical moments always demand historical decisions. These are not normal days, when we do just normal politics. The moment is special. After three decades of continuous destruction of the social model built under the very specific geopolitical and economical situation after the Second World War, the neoliberals in Europe have not yet been able to fully get rid of the last social protections and labour laws. Now, they keep talking about this crisis as a moment of opportunity. It is. They will try to use the crisis as the justification to fulfil the construction of a new society of free exploitation, without any constrains, where even the minimal worker's rights may be seen as an outdated memory of an uncompetitive past.

If they can do it in Greece, they will feel capable of doing it anywhere else in Europe. That's why Left militants all over Europe (and quite probably all over the world) have their eyes on you and hope you will play the necessary key political role in the uncertain outcome of this defining moment.

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