German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble was treated to an indignant welcome today as he arrived at the European University Institute in Florence to give a lecture on Europe’s future. Organized through the Collettivo Prezzemolo, some 60 PhD researchers and university workers confronted Schäuble — one of the key architects of the punitive austerity measures being imposed on Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain — before, during and after his speech.
After plastering the university with hundreds of posters denouncing the Orwellian rhetoric, inhumane policies and undemocratic posturing of Schäuble and the powerful private banks he serves, the protesters unfurled four large banners reading “Europe is not for sale!”, “We are all P.I.I.G.S.!”, “End austerity!”, and “Europe is not sudoku!” — the latter a reference to Schäuble’s puzzling choice to play a game of sudoku during the latest Greek bailout talks.
As Schäuble’s motorcade arrived, dozens of students gathered around the entrance and shouted “we are everywhere!”, a nod to the indignados/Occupy movement that has been shaking the world for the past year. In a statement, the Collettivo Prezzemolo declared that “we feel compelled to denounce what is happening and to exploit the privilege of personally facing one of Europe’s butchers in order to tell him what millions of Europeans would like to tell him.”
Upon his entrance, the protesters — coming from all over Europe and representing over a dozen nationalities — booed the minister and sang Bella Ciao, the anthem of the Italian resistance. During the lecture and subsequent debate, over thirty protesters quietly donned pig masks and made a series of interventions denouncing the undemocratic imposition of the inhumane and counterproductive neoliberal austerity measures of the EU and IMF.
Schäuble has been a particularly controversial figure throughout Europe’s crippling debt crisis. Displaying a brazen disregard for democratic values, the German Finance Minister recently called on Greece to postpone its elections in order to push through the latest EU/IMF-imposed austerity memorandum, leading the Financial Times to conclude that “the eurozone wants to impose its choice of government on Greece – the eurozone’s first colony.”
Greece is now entering its fifth straight year of recession (the economy contracted by 6.8 percent last year and is set to contract by another 4-6 percent this year) and a whopping 33 percent of the population has been thrown into poverty. Yet despite the staggering failure of austerity and reform to bring about recovery, Schäuble and his colleagues continue to force their extremely inhumane and anti-social shock therapy onto the peoples of Europe.
Schäuble disdainful remarks of Greece, in the meanwhile, have shaken the basic foundations of transnational solidarity supposed to underlie the project of European integration. In a total aberration of the facts (Greek public spending is actually below the EU average, and the Greeks work most of all people in the European Union), the Finance Minister blatantly stated that “ultimately, those to blame for the crisis are the Greek people themselves.”
Reuters reports: “‘We have shown a lot of solidarity with Greece,’ Schaeuble said in response to some hostile questions from his audience about Germany’s approach to Greece’s debt crisis. ‘Everyone knows the real problems of Greek society are in Greece and not to be found abroad.'” But perhaps, as the influential commentator Wolfgang Münchau recently observed, there is a hidden agenda behind Schäuble’s Orwellian ‘solidarity’:
The German strategy seems to be to make life so unbearable that the Greeks themselves will want to leave the eurozone. Ms Merkel certainly does not want to be caught with a smoking gun in her hand. It is a strategy of assisted suicide, and one that is extremely dangerous and irresponsible.
Still, throughout their action, the protesters emphasized that the demonstration was not a personal attack against Schäuble. In its statement, the Collettivo Prezzemolo emphasized that “Schäuble is one of the main protagonists of the neoliberal right that is imposing the logic of austerity and cuts on the whole of Europe,” but the assault on Europe’s citizens is infinitely greater than the actions carried out by a single butcher. The problem, in the end, is structural.
This is why the protesters emphasized the need to come up with constructive alternatives to the relentless logic of financial markets, and the responsibility of academics to actively participate in a European public debate on the alternatives to austerity:
We refuse the ‘TINA’ narrative and its increasingly breathless mantra that “There Is No Alternative!”, we denounce neoliberal austerity as not neutral, but socially, politically and nationally partisan, and we claim the right and duty, as part of an academic community of social scientists, to engage in the collective task of finding alternative routes to a future based on social justice, democracy and equality, and to participate in the global struggle against the zombie neoliberalism that seeks to turn crisis into its own opportunity.