Europe’s Revolt Against Austerity

Source: In These Times

Syriza is part of a wave of anti-austerity leftism in Europe, much of it led by young people.

The Great Recession had political consequences across the world, but nowhere greater than in the periphery of Europe. The debt crisis the recession helped trigger allowed elites to impose severe austerity measures in Greece, Spain, Ireland and Portugal. These measures only worsened economic conditions—in Greece alone, GDP fell by more than one fifth and youth unemployment rose to 50 percent.

In response, something happened that few outsiders expected: A massive wave of resistance erupted across the continent. With mainstream parties largely discredited by their support of austerity measures, room opened for radicals to offer a left-wing alternative.

The most dramatic outcome so far is Syriza’s victory in Greece’s late January election, which marks the first time far-left forces in a major European country have formed a ruling coalition. And in Spain, Podemos now polls as the nation’s second leading party; in Ireland, Sinn Fein is making advances; and in Portugal, the center-right government will likely be forced from office—though by forces of the center-left—in September.

Taken as a whole, radicals are seizing a moment that represents the best opening for the Left in Europe since the 1970s.

To discuss the situation in both Portugal and Greece, I interviewed Catarina Príncipe, an organizer with both the Left Bloc in Portugal and Die Linke in Germany. Príncipe, who turned 29 in March, has been a leftist since she was 15, when she joined Portugal’s vibrant student movement. With Príncipe as president of the student union, the students in her high school protested against proposed corporate education reforms and pushed for the introduction of sexual education classes.

Príncipe joined the Left Bloc, a formation founded in 1999 that includes radical elements from across Portugal (and today has eight parliamentary seats) shortly after. She moved to Germany in 2011, forced out of Portugal by the same economic collapse that has brought activists like her to the forefront of European politics.

Príncipe was recently in Athens, joining a wave of young activists who traveled there in the lead-up to and aftermath of Syriza’s election triumph.

Along with Greece, Spain and Ireland, your native Portugal was among the hardest hit by austerity. And like Greece, it has a long established radical Left. So why has Portugal lagged behind perhaps all three in its level of social struggle?

I think there are several differences between what is happening in Greece and what is happening in Portugal. For one, the government learned something from the resistance to austerity in Greece, and so those austerity measures have been applied in Portugal over the past four years in a much slower, more methodical way. Despite some early resistance, that has allowed the measures to go through more smoothly here—even though the effects of austerity are very similar to those in Greece. Portugal has, for example, more poverty now than in the last decade of dictatorship, before the Carnation Revolution in 1974.

The second thing is that, since 2011, we only have had right-wing government. So that has allowed the [centrist] social democrats to capitalize on discontent with austerity and grow in opposition.

And finally, for the last five to 10 years, Greece has been the stage of very intense mobilizations, which have not happened in Portugal in the same way. And those demonstrations have not only introduced an entire generation to politics, but also created the social structures that allowed Syriza to grow.

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