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The key lesson from Syriza’s defeat? A different Europe requires both ideology and competence

To achieve anything in politics, including changing the rules, you have to master ‘the art of the possible,’ as conservative German statesman Otto von Bismarck famously said, rather than merely trumpet ‘the truth.’ 

A Syriza solidarity rally in Paris, France. Demotix/Samuel Boivin. All rights reserved.As Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is still trying to steer the almost universally disliked aGreekment through the parliament without destroying his own party, the increasingly misnamed Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza), disappointed (ex-)supporters of Syriza as well as relieved pro-EU elites have started to write the narrative of Syriza’s defeat. While the former continue to get stuck in externalizing guilt through toxic discourses of “blackmail” and “humiliation” or the broad variety of conspiracy theories surrounding #ThisIsACoup, the latter mainly argue that it was Syriza’s ‘radical left,’ ‘populist,’ or ‘ideological’ nature that led it to fail (implying that all similar ideological projects are destined to fail).

Obviously, there was no “coup” and, although many Greeks might feel genuinely “humiliated,” they are not the “victim” of “blackmail.” Blackmail means ‘an action, treated as a criminal offense, of demanding money from a person in return for not revealing compromising or injurious information about that person.’ Not only does Greece receive money from the alleged blackmailers, rather than being asked to pay them, but no ‘revealing compromising or injurious information’ about Greece or its leaders are being threatened to be revealed. What has happened in Brussels, as happens all over the world every day, is that a strong partner has proposed a rough deal to a weak partner and has been unwilling to seriously consider any of the weak partner’s arguments. The weak partner chose to accept that rough deal, however. There was an alternative, the Grexit, which the Greek government chose not to pursue. All of this was done openly, or at least as open as the opaque politics of the EU allow. One can hardly accuse German Minister of Finance Wolfgang Schäuble of being shy of expressing his preferences.

On the other side of the argument, there was little ‘radical left’ about Syriza’s proposals regarding the softening of austerity – which find basic support among mainstream economists and other experts alike. Second, while its populism created a toxic political environment, in which Syriza opponents are attacked as “fifth column of Germany” or “terrorists,” most established politicians are professionals, who will overcome their personal dislikes if the rewards are high enough – as was made clear by the pro-Memorandum parties signing Tsipras’ “Joint Statement” and consistently voting in favor of the aGreekment in parliament. Third, the Blairist dogma that left-wing politics can only be achieved through “pragmatism” has little empirical basis. Most notably, Blairism itself realized few left-wing goals either.

But while a radical left and populist ideology haven’t helped Syriza in its negotiations with the EU, they were an indirect rather than direct cause of its ultimate failure. In fact, in a recent interview one of the most prominent and vocal (former?) Tsipras supporters, Nobel Prize economist Paul Krugman, made his most accurate observation on the Greek crisis, saying rather euphemistically, “I may have overestimated the competence of the Greek government.” You did Paul, and so did most other international fellow travelers (I tend to believe that many Greek voters didn’t so much believe in Syriza’s abilities to achieve change, but rather didn’t see any better alternative).

Syriza failed, first and foremost, because the party and its leaders – not even speaking of its coalition partner Independent Greeks (ANEL) – were ill-prepared to govern. They were willful amateurs taken to the cleaners by rigid but experienced politicians like Schäuble. Blinded by their ideology, they were convinced that their argument was absolutely right and they only needed the support of the majority of the Greek people – hence the Greferendum – to convince the rest of the EU of their superior insight.

The best example of this righteous amateurism is undoubtedly the newest darling of Europe’s gauche caviar, Yanis Varoufakis, the now ex-Minister of Finance. In his first (of undoubtedly many) tell-all interview after resigning he complained about trying to ‘talk economics’ in the Eurogroup but being met by a ‘point blank refusal to engage in economic arguments.’ Most striking of his statements, however, is his follow-up: ‘And that’s startling, for somebody who’s used to academic debate.’ As most academics who have dealt occasionally with policy makers know, politicians are not interested in long, theoretical ‘lectures.’ Moreover, several Eurogroup members were particularly not interested in being ‘lectured to’ by the person who owed them money.

Obviously, the fundamental problem of Syriza is that it made up a ‘Third Way’ of bailouts without austerity, which it was able to sell to a plurality of desperate Greek voters, despite it being continuously and openly rejected by the other Eurozone members. Syriza politicians knew this at least since the 2012 elections, but chose to devote all of their time to criticizing the established parties and promoting their unrealistic alternative. They did not start to lay the groundwork for possible future negotiations with the Troika.

First of all, they did not develop at least a rudimentary plan for a fallback option, i.e. a Grexit. Varoufakis recently claimed that they only debated some alternative measures on the night of the Greferendum – oh the irony – but that he couldn’t convince his inner-circle colleagues of their feasibility. Even if it is true that Tsipras and others approached a slew of non-EU countries – China, Iran, and Russia – in 2014, to secure funding for a possible Grexit, this hardly counts as preparation of a fallback option. Rather, the fact that they seriously thought that, most notably, Russia would be able and willing to bankroll a Grexit – as it struggles through an economic crisis of its own as well as EU and US sanctions – is painful proof of their lack of understanding of the international political context.

Second, and even more important, Syriza failed to muster international support for its preferred alternative. As we learned from the recent negotiations, French and Italian social democrats were open to a softening of the austerity conditions. But rather than reaching out to possible mainstream allies, particularly in other hard-hit countries, Syriza politicians criticized several southern European countries for their handling of the crisis and debt. Its key strategy seems to have been to wait for other ‘radical left’ parties to come to power in southern Europe and then to collectively renegotiate the Memorandum. The obvious problem was one of sequencing. Greece had to negotiate its deals well before the other countries held elections – leaving aside the fact that there were few indications that other radical left parties would become the dominant party in a new government.

Consequently, when Tsipras met his counterparts in Brussels, he had no real allies or fallback option. It was only then, under extreme public and time pressure, that he tried to sell his alternative to the other European leaders. When they called his bluff, he couldn’t threaten with a Grexit, and instead went for “a democratic mandate.” But while the “no” vote in the Greferendum took most Eurogroup leaders by surprise, it obviously didn’t really affect their position. After all, their own democratic mandates come from their own voters, and in many countries the voters were far from sympathetic to the Greek plight. Note, for example, that Tsipras’ current approval rating of roughly 60% is more than matched by Schauble’s 70% -- not to speak of the fact that there are almost 8 times more Germans than Greeks.

Consequently, the most important broader lesson to learn is not that 'a different Europe' is necessarily impossible – although it is debatable that it is possible within the EU. But whether inside or outside of the EU, if a different Europe is indeed possible, it can only be achieved by competent, well-prepared politicians. This is not to say that they have to be mainstream or even professional politicians; in fact, several Syriza members are professional politicians and/or come from the mainstream (e.g. PASOK).

Politicians who want to create a different Europe have to accept, however reluctantly, that politics is a profession with specific rules and skills. To achieve anything in politics, including changing the rules, you have to master ‘the art of the possible,’ as conservative German statesman Otto von Bismarck famously said, rather than merely trumpet ‘the truth.’ 

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