Austerity in Europe is a huge mistake of historic proportions, and the poorest are being made to pay the highest price. Oxfam was set up in 1942 to speak out in favour of feeding starving people in Greece. To think we would be here over 70 years later bearing witness that in Greece, the UK and across the EU many poor are wondering today whether they can afford enough food to eat is a scandal.
The crisis in Europe was not caused by profligate governments, nor was it caused by poor and vulnerable people. It was caused by a reckless handful of men in the financial sector that caused the biggest financial crash since the Great Depression. Governments had to bail them out, at huge cost, and are now saddled with huge debts. It is amazing to me the willful amnesia on the part of politicians and the media that enables them to conveniently forget this critical fact. Instead we are told it is all down to and 'bloated' public sectors. This then underpins the brutal assault on the poorest across Europe. It is leading to cuts in nurses, policewomen, teachers- the public sector heroes that make our societies the envy of the rest of the world. It also means the financial sector gets off scott free whilst the top 10% have seen their incomes increase since the crash.
With inequality and poverty on the rise, Europe is facing a lost decade. Oxfam today is warning that up to 25 million more people across Europe could be living in poverty by the year 2025, if austerity measures continue as they are. That's the same number of people as the entire populations of the Netherlands and Austria combined.
Here, the government has been able to hail the victory of austerity policies, as growth returns to the UK. Figures published this week suggest that unemployment here may be falling, but so is the number of decent, full-time and permanent jobs. We're living in an age of zero-hours contracts, and temporary, unreliable work, which means families don't know how they'll get by from one week to the next. A property bubble driven economic recovery with plenty of jobs for estate agents is hardly a sustainable future for ordinary people in the UK.
The proponents of austerity across Europe are forgetting history's lesson on the long-term impact of austerity. The European austerity programmes bear a striking resemblance to the ruinous structural adjustment policies imposed on Latin America, South-East Asia, and sub-Saharan African in the 1980s and 1990s - policies that led to high levels of poverty and huge increases in inequality, which took decades to reverse. By ignoring mistakes from history, Europe risks repeating them. The IMF seriously proposed to Greece that they abolish the weekend and move to a six day working week. They didn't even try and do that in Indonesia or Brazil!
Just like structural adjustment, the current age of austerity being used to dismantle the reliable social safety nets that help the poorest overcome poverty. The result is a generation of widening inequality, of the kind that economists increasingly believe leads to economic crashes over the long-term.
Europe's aggressive plans to balance the books by slashing public spending have barely delivered on their own terms. Despite years of being told we need to tighten our belts, deficits are rising in Portugal, Greece and Spain, whilst debt levels have continued to rise in all countries implementing austerity. They are successfully killing the patient whilst failing to cure them. While we have not had the gains promised by austerity's advocates, the pain has been all too real.
The most vulnerable people in Europe are facing an "austerity winter" that could last a generation. Regrettably, we are just at the beginning. Cuts to social security and public services are combining with falling incomes and rising unemployment, such that millions are already struggling to make ends meet. Greece, Latvia, Portugal and Romania have all slashed their social security budgets by more than 5%. Across Europe, health spending last year dropped for the first time in decades, real wages fell and unemployment rates hit their highest levels in a decade. Almost one in 10 working households in Europe now live in poverty. In the UK one in seven workers is living below the poverty line. The damage will take two decades or more to reverse.
Advocates of austerity like to present this as the only viable route. This is simply not true. From the beginning political choices have been made, both as to the scale of cuts and tax rises, and on who the burden will fall. Consistently the richest have borne the lightest burden. Austerity in Europe has been described as suicidal and wrong by Nobel Prize winning economists such as Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz, the latter wrote an introduction to our paper.
There is another way, and there is still time. Even the IMF is now calling for a slowdown in cuts. We have to see more of a burden borne by the richest in society. We should have a financial transaction tax, or Robin Hood Tax to raise tens of billions from the financial sector that made this mess in the first place. We need to see a crack down on the tax avoidance and tax evasion that means the richest people and the biggest corporations get away with paying virtually no tax. We should use this money to invest in decent work and job creation for ordinary women and men in Europe, and to ensure that the weakest and most frail are looked after by society, not abandoned or left queuing at a food bank in the cold.
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