Can Europe Make It?

Europe adjusting the noose around its neck

Steadfast, chins high, and completely oblivious to the momentous changes happening around it, the ossified political mainstream of Europe is marching towards the abyss.

Michael Tyrala
13 March 2015
Varoufakis and Schauble at renegotiations of Greek debt, Berlin 2015.

Varoufakis and Schauble at renegotiations of Greek debt, Berlin 2015. Demotix/ Bjorn Kietzmann. All rights reserved.Roughly a month and a half has passed since Syriza's Alexis Tsipras was sworn in as the new Prime Minister of Greece, but the vicious attacks from across the mainstream abated only after the last minute extension of the bailout programme on February 20. The agreement is a temporary measure however, staving off disaster by a mere four months. The scaremongerers' campaign to discredit, marginalize and isolate Syriza in advance of an inevitable new round of debt relief talks and upcoming elections in other European capitals is sure to resume.

The offensive trifecta

Three main lines of attack can be identified thus far. The first was to drill into our minds that Syriza is extremist, far left, and thus by definition dangerous, irresponsible, untrustworthy, naive, and downright childish in its utopian goals, doubtless marching towards the Stalinist horrors of the twentieth century.

The second focused on Syriza's coalition partner choice, the far right nationalist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, and Christian ultraorthodox Independent Greeks, which of course by association meant that Syriza subscribed to the same values, and thus belonged in the same category as the numerous far right parties of Europe. By contrast, when the previous pro-austerity government last year swore in Makis Voridis as the new Minister of Health, a man with a reputation for anti-Semitism who called France's Jean-Marie Le Pen a mentor and friend, this barely made the news in Europe.

From there it was only a short leap towards the third, feeding on the latest European fears, accusing Syriza of being Putin's trojan horse, dead set on undermining the European Union from within.

Let us take a closer look at each of these challenges with minds clear of the mainstream conspiratorial mythology they came to be imbued with. The best lies have elements of truth in them and we find that it is no different in this case.

While it is true that Syriza (short for ‘The Coalition of the Radical Left’) is an amalgam of numerous groups, some of which could justifiably be labeled extremist, its programme has consistently been that of a regular social democratic party - internationalist, pro-European, socially liberal, economically Keynesian, green, and considered sound policy by the likes of economics Nobel laureates Joseph Stiglitz, Christopher Pissarides, Paul Krugman, and a host of other respected names.

This is clear to anyone who is familiar with Syriza's Thessaloniki Programme, the European Left's Manifesto with which Tsipras sought the European Commission Presidency, or anyone who has actually been following the very reasonable public appearances of Tsipras and Yanis Varoufakis, charismatic minister of finance and coauthor of the "Modest Proposal for Resolving the Eurozone Crisis". There is nothing irresponsible or utopian here.

Familiarity with the programmes and leadership should also forever put to rest any alleged similarities in values between Syriza and the far right, Greek or otherwise. The European Left's Manifesto highlighted the importance of women's rights, LGBT rights and migrants' rights, and only three weeks into their term, Syriza pledged to close down the inhumane immigrant detention centers criticized by the UN and any number of rights groups.

So why go into coalition with the Independent Greeks? Simply because it was the best option out of an array of bad ones. Syriza received 149 out of the 300 seats (36.3%), necessitating a coalition partner. New Democracy (27.8%) and PASOK (4.7%) were obviously out, being the parties that signed off on the despised Memoranda with the Troika (European Commission, European Central Bank, International Monetary Fund), the failed austerity policies that in five years annihilated a quarter of the Greek economy, collapsed the health care system, saw unemployment rise to 25% (50% among the young), real wages decrease by 25% and the debt-to-GDP ratio increase by 35%. In other words, the policies which resulted in the humanitarian catastrophe that is Greece today.

Next in line was Golden Dawn (6.3%), a neo-Nazi party with a uniformed militia that is believed to have infiltrated segments of the Greek police and military, and whose 72 members (18 of which were or currently still are Members of Parliament) are awaiting trial on charges of participating in a criminal organization, conspiracy, and the planned murder of the left-wing rap artist Pavlos Fyssas. Pass.

Next up was To Potami (6.1%), a new centrist party that disqualified itself with its neoliberal economic agenda.

Then there was of course the Communist Party of Greece (5.5%), which declined a coalition with Syriza on the grounds of, shockingly, not being leftist enough. To quote MEP Konstantinos Papadakis: "Syriza has made very clear that it is not going to defy the EU or NATO.  We say: What kind of left is this? The term Left has concrete criteria: against the EU and NATO, fighting to exit them, to confront entrepreneurs and the oligarchy ... we cannot take part in a bourgeois capitalist government, under which this barbarity will continue."

What remained were the Independent Greeks (4.8%), of which Varoufakis himself said: "In terms of social issues, foreign affairs, civil liberties, we are chalk and cheese." Forming this coalition however gave Syriza something the other parties were unwilling to give - a carte blanche on economic policy, as well as a message to Berlin and Brussels that the new government means business and that the austerity status quo is unacceptable.

It is exactly in this pragmatic context that one should also view Syriza's too warm for comfort relations with Putin's Russia, the stance on sanctions against it, or the Ukrainian crisis in general. “You give us room to breathe in the question of debt restructuring and our way of running Greece, we'll back off on your policy towards Russia and Ukraine.”

The dearth of ideological overlaps speaks for itself. It is easy to understand what far right ideologues see in Putin's semi-autocratic, illiberal, quasi-fascist, crony-capitalist regime. Three of the four descriptors directly overlap with their own worldview and ideology. All four are antipoles to parties like Syriza, Podemos, or similar forces elsewhere.

Consider also Yanis Varoufakis' pragmatism, a characteristic which defined him well before he became a superstar finance minister. In a talk delivered at the 6th Subversive festival in May 2013, he spoke of the vital need for any "strategies that would minimize human suffering", including "opportunistic short term alliances", and even with "unreliable allies" if that's how the cards have been dealt. He referred to the IMF in that particular instance, but Putin's Russia fits the bill perfectly as well.

The lack of substantial overlaps aside, there is an ideological dimension to the relations with Russia and the wider world that could be said to play a role. It is the perceived need to counterbalance western neoliberal hegemony responsible for much of the malaise of the past 40 years. But it is doubtful that such an epic battle is anywhere close to the immediate priorities of a beleaguered Syriza faced with such bleeding at home.

In terms of a material dimension, economic ties between Greece and Russia are significant, especially agricultural exports and tourism, and such considerations are not to be taken lightly in Greece's current situation.

Furthermore, should Greece default and be forced out of the Euro area, Russia could turn out to be one of the few remaining lifelines for Greece, something the Russian Ministry of Finance has already hinted at.

Criticizing Greece rather than understanding the tenuous situation it finds itself in is reminiscent of the knee-jerk outrage at Edward Snowden settling down in Russia. If one is pushed towards the precipice, is it so wrong to grasp for straws? Is it surprising? Would those bursting with self-righteous anger really have done otherwise? Neither Snowden nor Syriza have been seduced by the Putin regime, these are ties born out of sheer self-preservation. It isn't pretty, but it makes for a good bargaining chip, and it's not as if western powers weren't familiar with nasty marriages of convenience.

A hostile environment

So why is it that Syriza's rise to power inspires such hysterical opposition? A large part of it is simply about the systemic antibodies kicking in. Syriza is challenging the established order, threatening a domino effect across Europe, and one needs to do much less against the neoliberal orthodoxy to be labeled 'extreme'.

Barack Obama's cautious half-attempts to ameliorate the worst excesses of the system have turned him into a Muslim Stalinist Hitler devil that did not even have the manners to be born in the country, and the UK Labour leader Ed Miliband is rudely brushed off as "Red Ed".

These are politicians of mainstream parties that have since Thatcher's and Reagan's neoliberal revolution already shifted further to the right of the political spectrum - recall Bill Clinton's "Third Way", Tony Blair's "New Labour", Gerhard Schröder’s "Neue Mitte", or the former Italian Communist Party, which having already changed to "Democratici di sinistra", changed once more, dropping the "di sinistra" part altogether.

With Obama and Miliband setting the bar so high, Syriza detractors will have a harder time coming up with more shocking labels than Benjamin Netanyahu has with new synonyms for anti-Semitism.

On a lower rung, we of course have Greece's creditors. Today, around 76% of the €323 billion Greek debt is held by the Eurozone, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank, whose successive bailouts have overwhelmingly benefited irresponsibly lending German and French banks, thereby transferring the debt to the European taxpayer. So much for European solidarity with the people of Greece.

The world's top economists are in an almost unanimous consensus that Greece simply cannot pay its debts under current conditions, and will need some kind of debt restructuring, with the remaining debt payments being tied to the country's economic growth. The creditors, led by Germany, remain stubbornly unyielding, citing the danger of moral hazard, an idea which seemed to matter much less when the banks were bailed out.

This hypocrisy is apparently lost on Germany, but it's hardly the only instance, given that Germany's very own postwar economic miracle was enabled thanks to a massive debt write-off, and the ironclad principle of paying one's debts does not extend to Nazi-era loan and war reparations repayments to Athens.

But Germany isn't the only problem. In an extraordinary show of pettiness, even Portugal and Ireland, having gone through painful reforms themselves though suffering far less than Greece, have decided to take a hard line against Syriza's aspirations.

Descending further, mainstream parties from the left and right alike are not exactly thrilled at the prospect of Syriza succeeding. After all, they were the ones that shepherded the European Union towards the tragedy that is euphemistically referred to as a recovery, and the losses on both sides of the aisle are already more than palpable.

PASOK's spectacular dive in voter support from 43.9% in the 2009 general elections to 4.7% in 2015 has inspired a new term - "Pasokification" - for a phenomenon which appears to have spread to Spain, with the mainstream Spanish Socialist Workers' Party's own nosedive from 43.9% in the 2008 general elections, to 28.8% in 2011, to 18.3% in the latest poll from February 2015.

The great paradox

Paradoxically, a Syriza success represents the best hope for alleviating the three greatest fears of mainstream forces today - the zombified but crumbling structures of neoliberal capitalism, the future of the Eurozone, and Russia's resurgent aggression on the European continent.

There is no vision. The dogged pursuit of failed policies combined with a hope that time will somehow mend the widening rifts is the current solution to the first two fears. Throwing resources and harsh language into an already explosive proxy conflict is the proffered solution to the third.

The best way to deter Russia is for the EU to once again become a model worthy of following, not just for its own citizens, but for the world. The necessary preconditions for that to happen are to end austerity and at the very least blunt the edges of capitalism. Instead, Germany is dragging Europe into the abyss, supposedly for the sake of a higher moral principle. In this, it is unwittingly more of an ally to Vladimir Putin than Europe's far right.

The ossified center is blind to what's happening, and too clueless to do anything about it either way. A new specter is once again haunting Europe, change is inevitable and upon us. Whether that change will come from the left or the right is the big question, and the difference between the two could not be starker.

If Syriza conforms and gets on with the script that has been written for it, or simply tries and fails in its ambitions, the mantle will be taken up by the far right, and not just in Greece.

Syriza's signature on the extension of the bailout agreement seems like an unfortunate step in this direction. That at least is the interpretation of Syriza's own iconic MEP, Manolis Glezos, who blasted the decision and apologized to the Greek electorate for assisting the illusion that things would change for them.

He is hardly alone in this interpretation, but I would once more invoke the cold pragmatism with which Syriza's leadership has conducted itself before and since taking power. They had little choice on February 20, so they made do with what was available rather than turning to drastic measures prematurely. Syriza may well just be biding its time, waiting for a more hospitable environment.

We'll see a number of important elections in 2015 (the United Kingdom in May, Portugal in October, Spain in December) that may fundamentally reshape the ideological landscape of Europe. Progressive forces have not displayed pragmatism and cunning for decades now, and the costs have been almost irreparable. Maybe that has finally changed. One thing is certain. It will not take long before the wheels of the smear campaign start turning again. Let's not fall prey to it. Not yet.

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