Over the last four decades, Greece’s leaders created a system of clientelism that transformed the country into the most unequal and socially unjust society in the European Union. Pasok, Greece’s traditional party of the left, is mired in scandal and seems to have reached the end of the line, receiving just 4.6% of the vote.
The trouble is that, in voting for change, Greek voters took a leap into the dark. The newly elected prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, advocates debt relief and the abandonment of austerity – goals that have broad popular support. And many on the European left are rejoicing at Tsipras’s outspoken rejection of German-imposed austerity as the only policy for Europe’s troubled economies. But, though Tsipras and his party may be new, the other ideas that they espouse are old – and far from ideal for Greece or Europe.
Neither Tsipras nor his party, Syriza, is tainted by their predecessors’ disastrous policies. This should be a good thing, as it could enable Europe’s leaders to understand at last that what is at stake in Greece is the fate of a people, not the survival of a failed political class. But Tsipras’s first decisions have antagonized the EU and created a climate of confrontation.
The problem is that Syriza is not truly an anti-austerity party. The true advocates of the end of austerity – including the economists Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman, and Simon Wren-Lewis – do so from a European perspective. Like To Potami, a ten-month-old Greek political party of which I am a member, they advocate correcting policy errors that threaten the survival of the eurozone, in order to create a stronger EU.
Syriza does not share this outlook; and, indeed, Tsipras did not seek out To Potami, which received 6% of the vote, as a potential coalition partner. Rather than criticizing austerity as a well-meant policy error, he condemns it as an assault on Greece, a neo-colonial imposition, or a hostile ideological project gone wrong. His language is one of resistance to conquest.
Thus, it is no accident that Tsipras chose the far-right Independent Greeks party as his coalition partner. Both parties speak the same language – that of virulent nationalism – used by Europe’s enemies, whether in Dresden or Moscow.
It is worth recalling Syriza’s recent history. During the controversy surrounding the Cypriot banking sector’s collapse in 2013, Tsipras referred to EU leaders as “gangsters” – the same sort of rhetoric used by far-right European populists like Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders. More recently, he accused EU leaders of crafting Greece’s bailout deal in a way that would enable them to “plunder” the country’s assets. In this respect, too, the European left’s new hero sounds like no one so much as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and other ultra-nationalists.
Likewise, Greece’s new foreign minister, Nikos Kotzias, believes that the EU is a new form of “empire,” one that has turned Greece into a “debt colony.” (This is the title of Kotzias’s most recent book.) Official Syriza documents regularly condemn the EU as an organization that undermines democracy and causes poverty and destitution throughout Europe.
For the past five years, Tsipras has built Syriza’s support by attacking the pro-euro Greek parties as “neo-liberal” puppets of Germany. Though Tsipras, too, claims to favor the euro, he never mentions the fiscal discipline that it requires, or that Greece got into trouble because it violated its treaty obligations. He even rejects the conclusions of Eurostat, the European statistical agency, that Greece provided misleading budget data in 2009. Instead, he argues that the revised figures that emerged in 2010 were the result of a conspiracy, and that the Greek officials who released the data should be prosecuted.
Syriza is hardly alone in Greece in blaming the EU for the country’s woes. New Democracy and Pasok do much the same, attacking the EU, “speculators,” and hedge funds – anyone who might divert the public’s attention from their own responsibility for the crisis. Greece’s largest private media, controlled by the country’s oligarchs, are happy to oblige.
Thus, most television channels speak of the bailout deal just as Tsipras does: as the proximate cause of austerity, a result of neoliberal dogma. As a result, for too many people in Greece, austerity reflects Germany’s deranged obsession with discipline, not their country’s profligacy. Despair over poverty and insecurity has turned into anger toward the European project – which, sadly, is becoming an EU-wide pathology.
Syriza’s main innovation has been to capitalize on the urgent need for change in Greece by portraying the parties it has ousted as somehow aligned with the county’s enemies, including the EU. That message suggests that what Syriza also stands for is the worst sort of change of all: nationalist isolation.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.
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