Tsipras chose the wrong allies and his negotiation tactics have shattered trust between the parties
When Alexis Tsipras won the elections in January this year, he and his left-wing coalition Syriza had two options before them. One was to consolidate the socialist PASOK and the reformist To Potami parties, both Europeanist forces, in a government that could cooperate with European institutions and other Eurozone governments to correct past mistakes and put the country on a path to economic and social recovery.
The setting could not have been more favourable. Working in its favour was the new European Commission’s shift in emphasis, now committed to investment plans led by Jean-Claude Juncker and critical of the Troika’s role in the previous two bailouts. It would also find support in Mario Draghi whose programme of asset purchases was finally aligning ECB practice with the US Federal Reserve’s. This allowed the Eurozone’s weaker economies, such as Spain, to hold off the debt markets and buy time for structural reforms to begin to generate growth.
Further allies were to be found in Paris and Rome where Hollande and Renzi eagerly hoped to use the Greek example to soften austerity policies with the argument that such policies not only failed when unaccompanied by stimulus and investment, but were politically unsustainable because, as Greece showed, they ended up destroying Europeanist parties on the left and right. Even the hardened German Social Democrats, led by the President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, were willing to lend a hand if requested.
In exchange for ANEL’s vote of investiture he conceded not only the Ministry of Defence, but one of the most embarrassing red lines Syriza has maintained throughout its negotiations with the Eurogroup these past six months: the refusal to cut defence spending
But instead of forming a Europeanist bloc, Tsipras opted for a sovereigntist one with the nationalist and Eurosceptic right-wing party the Independent Greeks (ANEL). In exchange for ANEL’s vote of investiture he conceded not only the Ministry of Defence, but one of the most embarrassing red lines Syriza has maintained throughout its negotiations with the Eurogroup these past six months: the refusal to cut defence spending, currently double the percentage of GDP allocated by Greece’s European partners, in a country submerged in social crisis.
Syriza’s political programme has been articulated around a narrative of sovereignty recovery, a sovereignty sullied by the Troika, and the recovery of democracy, giving voice to the people in a referendum to restore a dignity that had been quashed from the outside. Meanwhile, the economic programme has sought to expose the unfeasibility of the dominant economic policy in the Eurozone, based on deficit reduction through increased revenues, reduced costs and the adoption of liberalising structural reforms.
This strategy of confrontation, complete with incitements towards Germany at the expense of its Nazi past, geopolitical flirtations with Putin’s Russia and negotiating tactics that have shattered trust between the parties, has culminated in Tsipras’s political suicide and an even sharper decline in the Greek economy. With Tsipras forced to adopt everything he wished to negate from the outset, in one go and in greater severity, and the Greek economy forced to endure another economic adjustment to which is now added a banking crisis, the result of these six months of government could not be more disheartening.
This strategy of confrontation, complete with incitements towards Germany at the expense of its Nazi past, geopolitical flirtations with Putin’s Russia and negotiating tactics that have shattered trust between the parties, has culminated in Tsipras’s political suicide
It remains for historians to puzzle over how a man who came to power equipped with an enormous moral authority endowed by the cumulative errors committed by the Eurogroup and his predecesorrs on the left and right, could take the wrong path at every crossroad he encountered. Like Luther when fixing his 95 theses on the church door of Wittenberg castle giving rise to the Protestant Reformation, Tsipras and the ousted Varoufakis seem to have solely aimed at demonstrating a series of theses: that the euro is poorly designed, that austerity does not work, that the debt is unpayable and that the EU destroys democracy and social rights. Theses that are highly debatable, in the utmost sense of the word, and that profoundly divide Europeans of all ideologies. But as we have seen in these recent months, ideological debate and government action are very different things.
Some members of the Eurozone appear more than willing to fuel that sovereigntist populism on the left and right
Tsipras has ended up alone, and with him, sadly, Greece and the Greeks. Despite the homage paid to him by the sovereigntist front and the elevation of Tsipras to the status of hero of the anti-European Protestant Reformation, what Marine Le Pen in France, Putin in Russia, Farage in the United Kingdom or Victor Orban in Hungary need is a martyr. They do not seek a success but a humiliated people to uncomfortably remind their EU partners of. Beyond that, they will not lift a finger to help the Greeks. Unfortunately, as the high levels of mistrust and coldness surrounding the negotiations between Greece and its partners reveal, unprecedented in the Eurozone, some members of the Eurozone appear more than willing to fuel that sovereigntist populism on the left and right.
As a consequence of his mistakes and dogmas, Tsipras has been placed in an impossible position between accepting voluntary and temporary exit from the eurozone (though not the EU) suggested even in Germany, or accepting the relegation of the Syriza Government to administrator of a Eurozone protectorate, which is in essence the deal offered to Tsipras. The first option involves accepting the humiliation of being expelled from the Eurozone in exchange for the dignity of returning to govern themselves. The second, accepting being governed by external forces in exchange for the unquantified and rather remote possibility that the economy somewhat improves.
One can try to imagine what they’d do if they were Tsipras, but far more intriguing is why Tsipras will do what he will do. That is, if his acceptance of the conditions of the third rescue is sincere and he will be committed to implementing this astounding austerity and reform package, or if he merely accepts it because he knows the third programme, like the previous two, will fail. Tsipras has failed, but the failure is so complete and leaves such frustration in its wake that is commences a whole new phase of uncertainty.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.