The erosion of democracy in southern Europe

The recent closure of Greece’s public broadcaster, the Hellenistic Broadcasting Corp., or ERT, is just the latest turn on a path that seems increasingly destined to lead to fascism, or at least extremism, for much of southern Europe.

To be sure, in the 1970s the channel was used by the totalitarian government as a means to transmit propaganda, but in today’s Greece, where privately owned media outlets have two settings: dead or dying, it represents one of the last bastions of information dissemination to the public. Upon closer examination of the circumstances that have led to its closure, it becomes clear that Samaras sees this as an “easy” (i.e. less painful than the other options) way to make it to the goal of firing 15,000 civil servants, which was part of the terms under which the “Troika” bailed out Greece. Twenty-seven hundred civil servants have lost their jobs in one fell swoop; while this does indeed go a long way toward achieving the questionable goal of 15,000 firings, one may wonder if it is the best course of action to pump even more unemployed into a floundering economy. Greece’s civil service was bloated, but the government will now have to pay more in entitlements, and now more people will lose jobs because unemployed people make lousy consumers.

But economic concerns are not even the central issue here. The media performs a crucial function in a democracy, and if it is allowed to go silent, a breeding ground for extremism and other undemocratic ghouls will be created. Greece’s third most popular party is already the terrifying Golden Dawn, a neo-Nazi party with xenophobic and fascist inclinations that exploits agrarian Greeks’ ignorance of Greek history, according to the Guardian. Shutting down the ERT will only exacerbate ignorance in the absence of reliable information about national affairs.

The part of this story that stings the worst is that Samaras did not just wake up and decide that the ERT was no longer providing a useful service in the Greek democracy. Samaras has been forced to take this decision by the aforementioned Troika: the European Commission, the IMF, and European Central Bank. Essentially what is happening here is that Greece’s politicians are being forced to take decisions that neither they nor Greek citizens want–this is an egregious affront to Greek sovereignty, as Greece is now being run by groups that Greeks did not even elect!

When countries joined the Euro currency, they explicitly agreed to give up power over monetary policy, thus implicitly sacrificing a small measure of sovereignty. However, recent events have made it clear that in many cases this arrangement means giving up much of their political sovereignty, as when a country falls on hard times and cannot compensate by adjusting monetary policy or devaluing its currency (Greece’s former favorite party trick), it must appeal to the Troika for help and in turn play by its austere rules. Few foresaw a situation quite so acute as the one that has come to pass, in which an inability to control monetary policy erodes entire democracies.

Portugal’s democracy, too, bears the scars of savage lending requirements. After deeming Portugal’s public service sector heavily bloated, its lenders demanded the Constitution be changed in order to facilitate savage cuts. In this scenario, Portugal’s Constitution is an inconvenient roadblock to the implementation of policies that aren’t aimed at helping Portuguese citizens, but rather at convincing lenders that Portugal is atoning for past (perceived) sins. Eurocrats testily call it the “last socialist constitution in Europe,” but what they seem to mean is that there is no market value to a welfare state.

That austerity cuts are so severe that they are ruled unconstitutional (albeit by “socialist” courts) should be a red flag. Perhaps Portugal’s Constitution is idealist; still, it was drafted by elected officials who had a vision of how they wanted their democracy to look, and now it is threatened with being torn apart by eurocrats unconcerned with the well-being of its citizens, just as long as Portugal projects an image of fiscal responsibility. Unfortunately, this puts Portugal in danger of falling prey to right-wing extremists that harness the populace’s discontent with how they are being treated: these are just the conditions that allowed Hitler to take power in the 1930s!

Unfortunately, Euro membership in hard times necessitates giving up more sovereignty than countries bargained for, and the erosion of sovereignty is proving a threat to democracy in some countries. A policy modification may be on the horizon, seen in the IMF’s changing attitude toward austerity and its handling of bail-outs, but it may not be enough. A half-in, half-out mentality by creditor countries must be eradicated–as Draghi did, they too must commit to doing “whatever it takes” to preserve the Euro, giving more and intervening less in countries’ domestic affairs. Though creditor countries are the beneficiaries of the troubled economies of their neighbors, which keep the Euro down and help exports, they must weigh these benefits against the cost of keeping these neighbors (barely) afloat, along with the unbearable consequences of allowing fascism to flourish in the eurozone.

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