On the 16th of October 2015 representatives from PERC attended the European Citizen’s Assembly on Debt in Brussels. The event, organised by CADTM and Attac, brought together activists, politicians and organisations from across Europe to challenge dominant discourses around debt (we spent too much, now we must pay) and to discuss democratic ways forward.

The event came at a very important moment. Europe faces an impasse. Greek voters were asked in June this year whether they accepted the bailout terms offered their nation, to which 61 per cent of the populous rejected the offer. Despite this decisive blow to the troika, the conditions set, including drastic cuts and privatisation, will be carried out by the Syriza government led by Alexis Tspiras.

That same month saw the publication of the preliminary report by the Truth Committee on Public Debt, which provided evidence for odious and illegitimate debts being sought by the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank.

The report makes clear that the IMF knew they were making loans to Greece with measures that were undemocratic, ineffective, and would lead to serious violations of socio-economic and human rights. Similarly, debts owed to the ECB were accrued only to serve the interests of the financial institutions, allowing the major European and Greek private banks to dispose of their Greek bonds. Big Finance was saved while the Greek people are made to suffer and told that they are the lazy ones.

Information on the protest

The event sought to look at odious debt and the importance of public scrutiny of debt across all of Europe, framed around the important work conducted by the Truth Committee in Greece.

Key themes of the day included: calling for democratic values and processes; the illegitimacy of institutional responses; and, false narratives around debt.

The presentations and conversation during the event showed the need for continued and extended citizen led debt audits as a means of education, awareness-raising and a tool for assessing what debts should be repaid and which ones should not.

More broadly, organisers of the event advocated the need for a public space to think, debate and debunk austerity and audit public debt. The secondary aim was to mobilise and coordinate the fight against the “debt system”.

The day was followed by a  protest against austerity and TTIP that assembled in front of the European Parliament.

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The speakers

In the morning panel we first heard from Thanos Contargyris from Attac Greece on the illegitimacy of Greece’s public debt and the unsustainability of subsequent austerity measures, in which cutbacks in public services is used to pay for debts accumulated and sustained also through high levels of military spending and interest payments. See his slides here.

Marco Bersani, ATTAC Italy, continued the discussion of illegitimate and odious public debt. Public debt in Italy is now at approximately 135 % of GDP – an increase from 119 % before the last three democratically questionable elections. Showing the odious nature of debt servicing, spending on interest rates is at 5 % of Italy’s GDP whilst public investment has decreased by 20 % over the last seven years, making it 5% lower than the EU average.

The next set of panellists turned to concrete strategies for collaboration and public education on debt and austerity. Aïcha Magha from ACiDe / FGTB Wallonne showed the potential of using visual tools and animation, with their video from the campaign ‘Who profits from debt?’ being viewed over 350,000 times in just two weeks. Michel Husson from CAC France presented the results from their citizen’s audit on public debt, suggesting that 59% of public debt is illegitimate as it has been accrued through excessive interest rates in the 1990s and fiscal gifts during the 2000s.

The case for auditing local authorities was made by Yago Alvarez Barba, PACD (Spanish Citizen Debt Audit Platform), and Ludovica Rogers, Debt Resistance UK. Barba discussed the work of PACD to date, explaining how working at the local level makes debt activism more accessible for the wider public as well as pointing toward their work on sectoral audits – focussing for example on cutbacks in the health sector.

Rogers outlined the crucial work by Debt Resistance on local government borrowing from private banks, the use of brokers, and the cost and conditions of LOBO loans.  See her presentation here.

The afternoon session continued on the theme of how debt audits and activism can, and need to, bridge across the European, national and local levels. .

Marie-Dominique Vernhes, Attac Germany, presented Conrald Schuhler’s text on the cancellation of German debt after World War II.

Economist Bruno Théret called for a shift in monetary regime to end the cycle of indebtedness and austerity, arguing for the use of local, alternative and complementary currencies.

Myriam Djegham, CSC and MOC Belgium, spoke about the need for labour movement strategies that provided education and politically reclaimed the value of public services.

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The afternoon panel also heard from prolific leaders in national and European party-political campaigns against odious and unjust debt.

Zoe Konstantopoulou, former President of the Greek Parliament, provided a passionate account of her experience in leading the truth commission on debt. See her talk in full here (in English).

Philippe Lamberts, MEP Groups of the Greens, spoke of how Greece had been purposely humiliated by European institutions as to act as a warning sign for other countries to not follow the route embarked upon by Tsipras.

Miguel Urban, Podemos, continued the critique of the role of the European institutions in using debt to blackmail national governments and called for grassroots movements and new forms of politics.

The day was concluded by Eric Toussaint, CADTM International, arguing that debt is a central issue for democratic movements today and one which needs to be addressed in order for progressive governments to have a future. Click here for a video of Eric’s speech (in French).