Consider this question about Zimbabwe. Roughly one-tenth of the 330 million dollar debt it “owes” the UK relates to the supply of British-made Land Rovers to the Zimbabwean police. Rates of infection for HIV in Zimbabwe have begun to decline in recent years due to a scale-up in antiretroviral treatment, according the latest United Nations World AIDS Day report. Should patients now forgo life-saving medical care so that bills can be paid back to the former colonial overlord?
In his compelling book Debt: The First 5,000 Years, David Graeber describes how the International Monetary Fund demanded that Madagascar cut a monitoring and eradication programme for malarial mosquitoes in order to settle debts. In the absence of proper monitoring, malaria returned to the highlands of Madagascar, where it was previously thought to have been wiped out. Ten thousand people died, Graeber writes, “in order to ensure that Citibank wouldn’t have to cut its losses on one irresponsible loan that wasn’t particularly important to its balance sheet anyway.”
Africa’s debt is not the hot issue it was in the late 1990s and the early part of the new millennium. But the underlying problems have not disappeared. The way us journalists have shifted our attention away from this persistent crisis is all the more inexcusable, when you consider that there are some parallels between it and the problems we face in Europe.
During the past week, the Dublin government paid 1.25 billion euros to unsecured Anglo Irish Bank bondholders. At the end of March, another 3.1 billion euros is scheduled to be paid by Ireland, largely to please French and German banks who consorted with Anglo in financing reckless speculation by property developers. The 3.1 billion euro sum would be sufficient to fund Ireland’s primary school system for a year, according to the campaign group Debt Justice Action. Children who weren’t even born in 2007, when Anglo approved the loan for the single biggest transaction in the Irish property boom, are being condemned to an inferior education.
A touchy-feely quote on the programme of this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos reads: “The purpose of human life is to serve and to show compassion and the will to help others.” It is attributed to the theologian Albert Schweitzer. Sadly, that sentiment appears alien to the woman who opened the event, Angela Merkel. In her Davos speech, the German chancellor made the case for “more Europe”. What she really desires is a meaner Europe, where remote institutions in Frankfurt, Brussels and Luxembourg have the power to insist that less is spent on essential public services.
Taking capitalism to extremes
On 31 January, Merkel will probably be granted her wish of having a “fiscal compact” treaty for the EU. It will give the European Court of Justice power to fine EU governments that do not keep within rigid deficit limits. Dogmatic principles about how every economy in the Union – with the exception, this time, of Britain – should be run will be enshrined in the agreement rubberstamped at the imminent summit. No matter what type of governments us mere mortals elect in future, they will have to play by these rules. As a result, the Union will be formally committed – under its treaties – to a much more extreme form of capitalism than the United States is under its constitution.
Almost none of the Union’s citizens will have any say on these matters. The idea that they should be consulted is viewed as absurd by Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy. Overstepping their powers, they made sure that George Papandreou abandoned his plan to hold a referendum on the terms of a “bail out” a few months ago. Papandreou’s idea was considered so silly that he had to hand over his job as Greek prime minister to a de facto representative of Goldman Sachs.
“Deficit of public authority”
Ireland, it appears, is the only country that might have a referendum on this “fiscal compact” monster. And I’m sure that Enda Kenny’s government would avoid holding one if it could get away with doing so. The sole reason why Ireland traditionally lets its people say “yes” or “no” to EU treaties is that an economist called Raymond Crotty undertook a court challenge against an attempt to ratify the Single European Act without a referendum in 1987. Crotty died in 1994 but his case established that significant changes to EU treaties necessitated an amendment to the Irish constitution, something that can only be done with public approval.
Rulings of similar significance have been delivered in Germany. In 2009, the federal constitutional court in Karlsruhe gave its verdict on the Lisbon treaty. According to the court, there is “a deficit of public authority when measured against the requirements of democracy.”
To her disgrace, Merkel is now taking actions that will increase that deficit. Ironically, of course, her efforts are being presented as indispensable towards dealing with another type of deficit. Why is tackling fiscal deficits considered a more urgent task than resuscitating democracy?
Around this time last year, mass demonstrations in Cairo caused the downfall of Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship. The protests can be emulated in Europe. When Angela Merkel tries to deprive children of a good education to increase her own stature, resistance becomes imperative. Unless ordinary, decent folk – the 99 percent, to use the slogan of the Occupy Wall Street movement – stand up to her, 31 January 2012 could go down in history as the day when democracy died.
●First published by New Europe, 29 January – 4 February 2012.