Opinion

John Lloyd

The vulnerability of the European elite

John Lloyd
Feb 6, 2013 17:28 UTC

Storms in the Mediterranean, calmed in the latter half of last year, now whip up again. Greece’s woes hardly surface in the rest of the world now, but they’re deep and the people remain restive. Seamen struck last week over unpaid wages and extended the strike this past Sunday. The strike cuts off the many islands around the country, and limits exports and imports. For a country so defined by the sea and shipping, it takes on an iconic quality. A 24-hour general strike has been called for Feb. 20: Golden Dawn, the far-right party that targets immigrants and that stands third in the polls, held a thousands-strong rally in Athens on Saturday. No one can say whether the lid will stay on until matters improve – or, indeed, if matters will improve.

Greece’s recent history makes its troubles largely discounted internationally. But along the world’s most famed stretch of water, from which both European and Middle Eastern civilizations drew their inspiration, is Spain, a much larger economy, a weightier state, one whose Spexit could not be contemplated, which is why its failing banks received special care and attention from the European Central Bank to stay in business.

Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s prime minister, had been neatly packaged by the news media as “dull but honest” – one who would apply himself with patience and a clean conscience to the hard grind of leading Spain out of its post-bubble miseries. That narrative was brought to an end last week with the publication in the daily El Pais of details of the parallel accounts that one of Rajoy’s former colleagues, the onetime treasurer of the center-right People Party (PP), Luis Barcenas, had kept. These purport to show that Barcenas had paid out generous and secret amounts, from a Swiss-based slush fund, to senior party officials, including Rajoy. Barcenas, treasurer from 1990 to 2008, had already resigned because he appears implicated in a separate scandal involving kickbacks to PP officials in return for public contracts.

These and many other scandals now rock the Spanish political scene. The editor of the Spanish edition of Foreign Policy, Cristina Manzano, writes that “this cancer has reached all levels of institutions and society, from the King’s son-in-law to major political parties, from small and large municipalities to NGOs and foundations, from the Chinese mafia to the Russian mafia, from lifelong career politicians to flamenco celebrities.”

Suddenly, Spain, apparently stabilized and in good hands, is fragile under questionable leadership. It’s not clear yet whether Rajoy is guilty of what the Barcenas documents show; he has denied the allegations in unambiguous terms, and his party has a large majority. Yet the European markets lost their cool on Monday, and the Spanish 10-year bond yields zipped up once more to last year’s levels, after having settled down nicely. 

Europe’s reckoning is delayed…but for how long?

John Lloyd
Jun 18, 2012 18:33 UTC

Everything in Europe has a ‘but’ attached to it these days. Spain got a bank bailout last week, but it hasn’t convinced the markets. Mario Monti is a great economist and wise man, but he’s losing support for his premiership of Italy. Angela Merkel is listening to the voices that try to persuade her that Germany should bankroll growth, but she hasn’t done anything yet.

The New Democracy party, a grouping that, broadly, wants Greece to stick with the euro and bear more austerity (though it will bargain hard for less) has won… but what its leader, Antonis Samaras, has just got for himself is the worst political job on the continent, and may not be able to deliver. If, in democracy’s cradle, he can forge a coalition, keep to the terms of the bailout his country has received, enact rapid and deep reforms, and preserve democratic rule, he will deserve a place in the pantheon – a Greek word, after all, meaning a temple for the gods.

And so far, he’s been no god. A fellow countryman, the Yale political scientist Stathis Kalyvas, wrote in Foreign Affairs in June that Samaras “is widely seen as representing the corrupt and ineffective Athens political establishment that led the country to ruin”. Yet it’s this man, with all of his history, faults and frailties, on whom the future of Greece – and by many measures, the future of the European Union – depends.

Europe’s new, suicidal normal

John Lloyd
May 8, 2012 11:44 UTC

The world into which the new president of France, François Hollande, stepped this week is a suicidal one. Searching for a vivid image of Euro-desolation, the news media have lit upon suicides. Two suicides last month have stood out.

A 55-year-old man on the Italian island of Sardinia, who ran a little construction business with his sons in a mountain town called Mamoiada in the interior, killed himself when the business went bust. He was known only by the initials GM, and the town’s mayor says he was an industrious man with a close-knit family. His death shocked everyone.

Earlier in April, an older, Greek man, 77-year-old Dimitris Chrystoulas, a retired pharmacist, staged a more dramatic end to his life. Like GM, he said he wished to die with dignity; also like the Sardinian, he shot himself. But he did so in the central Syntagma Square in Athens, near the parliament, leaving a note that prophesied that the “traitors” who have brought Greece to destitution and enslavement to the will of international finance would be hung upside down in the square where he met his end, much like the way Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini was executed in Milan.

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