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Greece: Europe’s Wildcard

by Mark Hay

March 18, 2015
Alexis Tsipras. Photo by Lorenzo Gaudenzi via Wikimedia Commons

Ever since their election at the end of January, Greece’s new government, a coalition of the left-wing Syriza and right-wing Independent Greeks parties, led by Syriza Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, has been making waves in the European press. Most of this coverage concerns the new government’s stringent resistance to austerity measures imposed on them by lenders who bailed them out of the European Union’s worst financial crisis and floated them through six years of recession. The Tsipras regime’s hardline anti-austerity and novel financial plans have painted his cabinet as wildcards, threatening to upend Europe’s financial order and re-stoking fears of a Greek exit from the eurozone. Tsipras and his coalition abandoning the Euro and leaving the union would likely have detrimental, extremely stressful effects on the E.U., both economically and politically, and leaders like Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, have been aggressive about keeping Greece in the fold (on E.U. terms). Yet while it’s true that this new regime will shake things up on the European markets, what’s flown under the radar is the fact that this new government is stacked with mavericks and mavens in every sense, economic and beyond, and their intense popularity at home and abroad may alter the whole of European political culture and E.U. norms.

The new regime’s seemingly brash character may stem from the group’s combination of scant political experience and abundance of intellectual credibility. Tsipras himself was originally a student protest leader and now heads a young coalition of leftist, anti-austerity parties with no real in-office political experience. Rather than surround himself with wise old guard political maneuverers, Tsipras chose to name a series of academics with clever but untested theories to his cabinet, from political economist turned Economic Minister Georgios Stathakis to European studies researcher turned Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias. In order to form a majority in the parliament, where Syriza earned 36.3 percent of the vote and a 50-seat bonus as the plurality winner, Tsipras did have to give a few important posts to a more conventional political party, the Independent Greeks. But that faction is overshadowed by looming figures like new Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, a stylish economist and blogger who answers to “Dr. Doom.” Varoufakis doesn’t seem to give a damn about political decency or procedure and is currently fueling headlines on Greece’s financial debates with the E.U. through his brash, cocksure negotiations.

In a particularly bold move, Varoufakis and his team negotiated for a new Greek bailout program after reneging on pretty much every condition of the previous bailout. Tsipras and company have frozen privatization efforts, raised the minimum wage, rehired public servants, and restored welfare services previously slashed in accordance with their former lenders’ austerity plans. And Varoufakis doesn’t beat around the bush—as he argued Greece’s case, he compared the current austerity program to waterboarding, demanded that the European Central Bank pay up debts to Greece (Tsipras went even further, demanding Germany pay back WWII reparations owed to his people), and called for unconditional financial support for Greek banks. A bull-headed negotiator, Varoufakis stood by his guns, eking out concessions from his opponents at the last minute. But despite these concessions, the long-term resolutions of Greece’s economic beef with the E.U. are still up in the air, keeping the specter of eurozone crisis and collapse just around the bend.

Many read the negotiations and continued uncertainty as a game of chicken—Greece hopes the E.U. will blink before forcing the nation to withdraw from the shared Euro currency, while the E.U. tries to wear down the new government’s resolve. But given the grit shown by the administration up to this point, the country’s counterparties are beginning to fear that they can’t control these new Greek leaders. Tsipras’ government refuses to play the political tango of negotiations, risking the escalation of this dispute into the collapse of the Greek bailout program, breakoff of Greece from the Euro, and a functional crisis in the political system—all likely inspired by the academic idealism and principled political naïveté of these maverick politicos.

Yanis Varoufakis. Screenshot from YouTube User Alessandro Del Prete

Even given the popularity of their anti-austerity stance, if the new government was just boorish in the ways of politics and intransigent in negotiations, they’d likely be kicked out of power under a cloud of ineffectuality and international outrage. But instead, Tsipras and Varoufakis back up their stubborn resistance not just with a rejection of austerity, but the promotion of a new system entirely. Akin to a European New Deal, the Greeks are using their negotiations as a platform, selling Europeans on a new spending program to decrease unemployment and economic stagnation. And they’ve actually managed to win over a number of citizens and world leaders (including possibly President Barack Obama) to their side of the table. That Tsipras and his team have been able to interest and maintain these allies shows that collapse of Greek negotiations might not, in fact, mean a “Grexit” from the Euro. If the Greeks hold their ground, it could mean a total shift in the way European nations approach the post-financial crisis recovery process, veering away from the austerity that’s defined the last six stagnant years and making debt repayment contingent on growth. 

But the Greeks aren’t just shaking up Europe’s economic climate. In their first days in power, the government threatened to veto any European sanctions against Russia. As Greece is largely Christian Orthodox like Russia, and conducts most of their trade to the east, Tsipras and his cohorts believe in their potential as a cultural and economic bridge between Russia and Europe. Because they hold this veto power and these beliefs, and depend upon Russian economic cooperation, once they’re through their current fight they may challenge the entirety of European discourse on Russia (and Israel for that matter—many Syriza members are staunchly pro-Palestine, unlike recent Greek governments). If truly backed into a corner, they may leverage their economic connection with Russia to spook E.U. negotiators into hearing out their radical alternatives to austerity.

Tsipras and his cabinet have reportedly also flipped national policies on immigration as well, planning to grant Greek nationality to migrant children, upgrade migrant shelters, and end raids on undocumented migrants in the nation. Part of their immigration plan involves the highly unusual idea of redistributing their migrant population throughout Europe, according to who can take them and where their labor or skills are needed. Though elements of these policies are still unclear, and are still being debated within the government, Syriza’s call for a unified E.U. migration policy will likely make waves. Also making waves: using immigrants as a weapon against Greece’s political enemies, as recently threatened by Panos Kammenos, the country’s new defense minister. But there’s no denying that migration in Greece is a stagnant and worrying issue desperately in need of an injection of fresh ideas and debate.

The new Greek government is defying political norms and conventional wisdom left and right, and replacing it with interesting new ideas. While much of this is dense, procedural stuff, often happening behind closed doors,Tsipras and company have still managed to attain mass appeal in Greece, if only for their personal style.

Namely, they don’t really work with a “style” in the conventional political sense. The new government has followed Tsipras in shirking neckties, even when meeting foreign heads of state, while Varoufakis catches both flak and love for riding his motorcycle to meetings, popping his collar, and cultivating a more-than-casual personal affectation. The regime has sold off most of their state cars, promoted the use of public transit, even for top officials, and cancelled most security, saying that if someone throws yogurt at a politician in frustration, the politico should learn to dodge it or get out of politics.

Between their steadfast ideals and their everyman appeal, the new government is getting insanely popular. In Greece, at least 60 percent of the population expressed support for the government in its first weeks, allowing the removal of gates placed in front of parliament in 2010, intended to protect politicians from riots. February actually witnessed what may be the first modern pro-government rally in Greece. And factions in other nations are also getting in on the love with their own pan-European solidarity demonstrations, backing up Tsipras and his cabinet in their contrarian positions. 

The new Greek government is an evolving phenomenon. They may fail in their economic negotiations, scuttling their New Deal plans, their foreign policy aspirations, and their immigration reforms. But if they get even one or two major concessions, they’ll have proven the concept of the antinomial, everyman political party to European voters. There are already signs that they’re galvanizing support for related anti-Euro, anti-austerity parties in France and Spain, not to mention the massive, violent anti-austerity rally in Frankfurt, Germany this week. Not every anti-Euro party is as bright, cuddly, or interesting as the Tsipras regime, to say the least, so that’s certainly not an unmitigated change for the good. But it is a change in the European norm—towards more personable, laid-back politicians and against the grain of mainstream E.U. politics. Everything about this situation, from immigration, to fears of a Greek exit from the eurozone, to the potential to flip negotiations with Russia, is a wildcard. Over the next week, Tsipras will meet with E.U. leaders at a summit in Brussels, and later, with Angela Merkel, in likely tense attempts to reconcile his government’s positions with the interests of their European partners. How these meetings play out is dependent on the resolve, acumen, and temperaments of a few negotiators. And it’s sure to take a serious swipe at the foundations of the E.U. status quo—and that can only be interesting.

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Greece: Europe’s Wildcard