This interview was originally published on July 24, 2015. On Reality Asserts Itself, Ms. Principe says that German workers, who have not yet felt the brunt of the crisis, are starting to realize that they must fight in solidarity with Greek workers.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network. We’re continuing our series of interviews with Catarina Príncipe. And she now joins us in the studio. Catarina, one more time, she works with the Left Bloc in Portugal and Die Linke in Germany, and she’s working on her master’s degree in Germany right now. Thanks for joining us. So the gist–I think most progressive economists certainly agree on this, and many conventional economists–of the European crisis is Germany kept wages down relative to their productive capacity, and as a result flooded very good, cheap products into Greece and Spain and all the peripheral countries, all over Europe, really. I think Germany vies with, or for some time was even ahead of China in terms of the amount of exports. And this kind of demolished a lot of the industrial production and wage rates in the peripheral countries. They get into debt, and there’s shenanigans with Goldman Sachs in Greece, and so on and so on. And now Germany is leading the austerity charge to say, well, you guys better pay your debts, and if you don’t, we’ll destroy your economies, and too bad. Maybe that’s a simplification. At any rate, one would think that there would be amongst the German left and the German workers movement a sense of solidarity and you would see massive protests in terms of their own interests and in terms of solidarity with other European workers. And are we seeing that?
CATARINA PRÍNCIPE, SOCIAL ACTIVIST: Finally, yes. But can I go back just for a second?
JAY: Yeah, please. Yeah.
PRÍNCIPE: I think what you said, I agree with everything that you said, I just wanted to say or to add that actually to understand the crisis and to understand exactly the role of Germany and the Southern European countries, that we tend to say or we tend to define as core and periphery economies, we have to understand, like, what have been 30 years of the so-called European integration and the European project, because actually the European project or European integration meant for Southern European countries actually the destruction of our productive sector in order to form economies of import, so economies that import basically German–or not basically, but a lot of them, German-produced products, and economies of tourism, basically, so services and import economies. And this has been–this is not something new. This has been, like, the logic.
JAY: It actually–you know, it actually sounds like what the Soviet Union used to say to Cuba. You know, you can make sugar, and we’ll do everything else for you.
PRÍNCIPE: Yeah. It’s basically the same. And this establishes a high dependency on the core peripheries in the European Union, because I think, like, this is also important, maybe, to say in the framework of the U.S. is that we Europeans do the same. We talk about Europe as a whole. Europe is not a whole. Europe is a very differentiated thing, especially the European Union, because the European Union was formed to be a bloc, a transnational financial, economic bloc that would be able to compete with China, with the U.S., and so on. But it is a transnational block that functions through competing nationstates. And this is not–this has not changed. So it functions through competing nationstates, where the core states, like Germany, have a stronger economic power and are able to assert themselves and define the economical, but also, at other levels, the general policies of the union. So this is how the European Union functions. So it is true, like, what you said is totally correct. So this could only be done by the compression of wages in Germany. And, actually, wages have not–there hasn’t been any rise of wages in Germany for the last 13 or 14 years. So, actually, wages have been actually, like, literally dropping.
JAY: While productivity’s been rising.
PRÍNCIPE: While productivity has been rising. And this is complemented by two things, importantly. One is the introduction of the euro. So the introduction of a common currency was mainly in benefit of Germany, because all the currencies in the union were overvalorized in comparison to the German mark when they changed into the euro, so that German products would be very cheap and very competitive in the new European market, so that they would export even more. So of course this is one of the things. And the second thing is that there are actual public investment policies, industrial policies that the government of Merkel applies in Germany to boost the industrial production, which is something that she forbids, so to say, the Southern European countries to do. So it’s like–so there’s different criteria here and different morals for what we can do also in Europe. At the same time, I think most of the German working class feels that the crisis did not hit them as much as it did Southern Europe. And it is true in a way, like, because the German government has not applied the same sort of measures and austerity as have been applied in Saudi Arabia.
JAY: For example, there’s still free university in Germany.
PRÍNCIPE: There’s still free university. There’s–which–there’s still free university in Greece also. The problem is that there’s no money for education. So that’s another question, right? I mean, the structure of a free university still exists in Greece, but just there’s absolutely no state spending on education. So if you don’t have money to pay teachers and if your buildings are falling apart, even if you have free university it doesn’t mean much.
JAY: The comparison I was thinking of was Portugal, where you used to have free university and no longer.
PRÍNCIPE: And we don’t anymore. So–I forgot what I was going to say.
JAY: Well, you were talking about the role of Germany in creating the crisis.
PRÍNCIPE: Ah. No, the question of the working class. So normal people in Germany have not felt the crisis severely as people did in Southern Europe. And actually they think that–or this is the narrative in Germany is that they were protected from the crisis, which in a way it’s true, by Merkel and by the right-wing government. So that is why she’s a popular figure in Germany. So what they don’t see is or what they tendentially don’t see, or in a daily level, is that–also because trade unions have not played the best role ever in the last years, is that their wages have not grown, etc., so that there’s more and more precarity that the state–so that hospitals are closing, there’s not enough kindergartens, and so on and so forth. But in comparison to what has happened in Southern Europe, it seems they’re doing fine. Right? They’re even, like, exactly how you said, they were even considered, like, two years ago, the world export champion. And the narrative about what is happening in Southern Europe is–it has two ways or two levels. One is, like, people who think it’s good that we help, okay, the poor Southern Europeans. You know, they spent a little bit too much and they lived above their capacities. You know. But, okay, we–.
JAY: And they don’t work as hard as we do.
PRÍNCIPE: They don’t work as hard as–that’s part of the other narrative. So there’s a narrative that is based on a little bit of an idea of solidarity, and there is the one that is based on an idea of competitiveness–they don’t work is much as we do, they are lazy, they lived above their possibilities, they were spending our money; now we have to pay for them. Right? So there’s these two narratives in Germany. It’s not as blunt as just, like, they’re bad Southern Europeans. There’s these two narratives. The problem right now is that, as we knew from the beginning, austerity is unsustainable, both for Southern European countries, but for the European project itself, because what it means in the end is that one country will not be able to deal with this anymore, will default, will get out of the euro, and this will create an economical domino effect where the euro will–the euro that was created or was designed in the benefit of Germany will disappear, at least in the way that it is structured today. So austerity is not only unsustainable for Southern Europe, but it is unsustainable for the European project as it is. This is very clear today. So the question today, I think, the interesting question today is also why is Merkel and Schäuble and the German elites being so persuasive and so–they don’t want to negotiate with Greece, they refuse to step–to give any step back. And I think there’s only political explanation to it. They have been applying austerity and saying austerity is the only solution. They have convinced the German workers that this is what–that they had to pay for the others, when actually not one cent went to Portugal. They all went to the banks. Right? So they have convinced all the German workers that they were paying for the faults of the Southern European workers. And now they would have to say, okay, what we have been saying for the last seven years, nothing of this is true; actually, nothing of this helped; actually, this just destroyed their economy and will eventually create a situation of crisis in Germany; so, you know, yeah, we were wrong. It’s not possible. So they cannot say that they were wrong, because this will make them–it’s a question of survival. They will politically disappear. And at the same time, they are too afraid of a left-wing hurricane, you know, that SYRIZA can potentially–coming from Greece into Spain, eventually into Ireland, into Portugal, eventually into Italy, a political hurricane that would show in practice that only the left can solve the crisis. Right? So I think this is the reason why the negotiations, in one hand or the other, either Greece accepts the negotiations that are going on now and that–you know, so the European future, so to say, is at stake. Either they will fail in the sense of, like, SYRIZA will accept austerity, and so they will fail their own electoral program, or they will have to step out of the euro or they will have to default and so on. At the same time, there is a wave of strikes happening in Germany right now. There was a very big strike of the train drivers. There is a huge strike of, like, the kindergartners, the women that work in preschool. There’s more than 200,000 workers striking for more than two weeks now. This affects 1.8 million kids. And there is at the same–so the trade unions have finally started to organize some more offensive struggles. And at the same time, the anticrisis protests in Germany that is called Bloccupy, where I was also active, it was this year on 18 March, and it brought, I don’t know, but it was many thousands of people to the streets. It was the biggest protest of the last years. And so there is a change in the narrative in Germany.
JAY: And how much of that language is solidarity with southern Europe versus language of we need wage increases or so on?
PRÍNCIPE: It’s both. So the anticrisis protest tends to have a more, like, complete understanding of the crisis. So in the anticrisis protests, you say both. And also we say–and this is very important–solidarity with Southern Europe is wage raises here, because this will completely shift the balance of forces in Europe right now. So if German workers get better wages, Portuguese workers will eventually or the Portuguese economy will have to be restructured, because their products would not be so cheap, so they could not export them the same way, we could not import them. So this is all connected, right? So to fight for better wages in Germany is a way to show practical solidarity with Portugal or Greece or Spain today. So the anticrisis protest has this analysis or lays out this analysis in a more intertwined way. The trade unions, not as much in the practical struggle, but I think a part of its leadership does. And this is where the role of The Left Party is very important. So Die Linke has this role to play and needs to play this role stronger than it has to connect the movements and the trade unions with a party and be, again, as I said before, the bullhorn of this, both things that are happening that are a little bit–although in Bloccupy, the anticrisis protests, some unions are also present there and also supported and are also engaged. The movement and the unions have their own logics and their own ways of organizing and behaving and so on.
JAY: What kind of support does Die Linke have?
PRÍNCIPE: Right now Die Linke is the biggest opposition party in German parliament, because there is a grand coalition between–so let’s say the Democrats and the Republicans. So the SPD in the CDU. So CDU is Merkel’s party, and the SPD. So they’re in a grand coalition. And Die Linke is the biggest oppositional party.
JAY: What does that mean in terms of percentage?
PRÍNCIPE: I think it–I’m always very bad with numbers. The last–so I think it’s 10 to 12 percent nationally. Yeah, I think it’s something like this.
JAY: So they have a platform.
PRÍNCIPE: Yes. The question is, this is the moment where Die Linke needs to strongly connect the struggles better. So it needs to play a very important role, because if–once again, if there is a core-periphery relation economically in Europe, there’s also a core-periphery relation in terms of politics. What happens in Germany affects us all. So if politics change in Germany, there is a political space that opens up for the political change in southern Europe as–the other way around is not as clear, but if The Left manages to win strong support and broaden up the political space, this would completely shift the relation of forces in Europe.
JAY: Okay. Well, a final question which has nothing to do with what we were just talking about–well, maybe it has something, but not directly. What was the impact/perception of what happened in Ferguson and in Baltimore and the struggle in the United States? How important was that to Europeans? How much was it on their radar?
PRÍNCIPE: Not much, honestly, I have to say. I think for people who are engaged in politics and who search for things, I think it was something important or it was something that, like, okay, there’s something happening in the U.S., there’s something moving; we need to follow up with it, we need to see what’s going on there, and so on. But for the mainstream population–.
JAY: Well, I’m talking more amongst–
PRÍNCIPE: The left.
JAY: –amongst the left of Europe. Yeah.
PRÍNCIPE: I think, like, what we–amongst the left, I think for the–what we hope is that this is the beginning of something, so to say, so that these movements that are so important, that they start to lay the groundwork for a new political space to the left in the U.S. And so this is, like, the perception of, like, okay, they are more than just moments, they were more than just moments. It’s actually a movement. It’s happening in different cities. It’s creating new structures. It’s building activists. It’s connecting people under a central question, clearly, a central question in the U.S., which is the question of racism. And we need more of that. And that would be, like–of course, then again, like, if we’re talking about, like, core-periphery, then, you know, if we extend it to the U.S.–I used to say I went to Germany to fight in the belly of the beast, but the real belly of the real beast is actually here. So if people fight here and organize here, our conditions for the whole of us will be much better, or at least the opening of a political space that would give us space would be much bigger.
JAY: Alright. Well, thanks very much for joining us. And thank you for joining us on Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network.
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“Catarina Príncipe is a social movement activist from Portugal and a Jacobin contributing editor.”