Logo of the movie, 1966. Wikicommons/MGM.Some rights reserved.Symbolism is an essential part of politics and it often matters more than reality. The key for political elites is to send the right message at the right time and that gains them support and popularity.
In Greece, SYRIZA took the first position in the January 2014 elections on the promise of “dignity and hope”, irrespective of whether the government had a realistic plan to handle one of the most difficult crises of modern Greece. As such, one of the pre-electoral promises of SYRIZA was to end the Troika in Greece.
Once in power, one of the first actions of the new government was renaming the “Troika” as “institutions”, a rather sensationalist way of removing a charged term from the Greek crisis vocabulary; this was indeed hugely symbolic for the majority of Greeks because the Troika has been associated with a perceived “colonial” presence of creditors’ techno(auto)crats, regularly monitoring and subsequently demanding more austerity measures and sacrifices by the Greek people.
“But it is not pure symbolism” SYRIZA would swiftly respond: renaming the creditors resulted in different rules of engagement, dealing with them separately and changing the locations of meetings in Athens. Moreover, renaming the Troika was thought to be a ‘Greek’ way of deconstructing the forceful Triumvirate of auditors representing the European Commission, European Central Bank and IMF who, since 2010, have been carrying out regular checks to see if Greece is sticking to its commitments under the bailout agreements.
While the change of labelling has been accepted by the creditors, this has not changed the reality of regular checks and the full expectation that the new government has to respect its obligations to them, irrespective. And what clearly unites all institutions is deep distrust towards what they see as a government which fails to convince on its will to proceed with reforms and stick to its agreements.
Since the election of the new government, it has become evident, in the various levels of bilateral and multilateral interaction, that Greece fights a lonely war against the three institutions - a solitary struggle vis a vis the rest of the Eurozone members, and it would appear vis a vis the members of the EU. So much so that even Greece’s ‘comrades’ in the hard-hit Eurozone periphery, have become, for their own domestic purposes, the most vociferous opponents of SYRIZA’s new claims.
Moreover, the revised and more promising forecasts for Europe’s economies are alienating Greece further from the wider European mainstream. They magnify the symbolism of ‘Greek exceptionalism’ and resurrect the rhetoric used in 2009 and 2012, when Greece was seen as a unique case of economic malaise threatening to spread its infection across Europe. Now, the creditors point to Spain’s export-led recovery, Portugal’s exit from the bailout, Ireland’s promising economic growth and Cyprus’ disciplined stance. This leaves Greece as the odd one out, the pariah country, the lonely ‘resistance fighter’ and the whole debate of a “Grexit” or “Graccident” returns with a vengeance. Greece has ‘partners’ in the EU, but not ‘allies’.
Yet, how united is the European bloc against Greece in this critical moment of looming Graccident? One of the unintended consequences of the unilateral abolition of the Troika, and its replacement by the institutions, is that in some ways it threatens to expose potential differences between the institutions. And while there is a generic unity among them on the grounds that Greece has to respect previous agreements and that it cannot get free funding, at the same time there are some subtle differences as to how to address the Greek problem. During the first difficult months of negotiations between Greece and the EU, the latter has shown three simultaneous faces to Greece: ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’, to use a cinematic metaphor, all of them with the same message but with a different delivery package.
The ‘good face of Europe’ is that of the European Commission - a traditional ally of the weaker and smaller states, but which during recent, more difficult years has placed itself in the back seat of the German car. The new President of the European Commission is trying to change this image of a weak Commission and aims at clawing power back to Brussels with a louder and more independent message in European and world politics. The fact that the President was elected by the European Parliament gives further legitimacy to his goals and his authority.
On the Greek crisis, President Juncker showed from the beginning his philhellenic face, receiving Prime Minister Tsipras in Brussels as a friend, and regularly expressing his determination that Greece stays in the Eurozone. He would certainly not like to go down in history as the leader of the Commission who presided over the disintegration of the Eurozone. Moreover, Juncker wants to show that he appreciates the severity of the humanitarian crisis, and has earmarked 2 billion in EU cash to address this grave social matter.
The ‘bad face of Europe’ is presented by those who decide how to disburse the funds - the European Central Bank and the Eurogroup - both of whom are adopting a hard stance vis a vis Greece. The leader of the ECB, Mario Draghi, refused to extend more credit to Greece without a programme, while the head of the Eurogroup, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, has hinted that Greece might have to impose controls on the movement of capital, which is what happened with Cyprus in 2013 and what induced them to sign their bailout agreement. The image of the ‘bad’ comes from those who take decisions on Greece’s liquidity and cash flow aimed at squeezing and blackmailing Greeks to stick to their programme. It also reflects a growing anger with Greeks for being unruly and wanting to get cash without strings attached.
The ‘ugly face of Europe’ is projected by those who do not fear a “Grexit” and are even considering this as a possibility. They are represented by Germany’s Economy Minister Schauble, a politician who speaks bluntly, who makes inflammatory and intrusive political statements and who has adopted a moralising discourse vis a vis Greece’s spendthrift past. Schauble represents those who are fed up with Greece’s shenanigans. Not moved by the social and humanitarian implications of Greece’s economic depression, he is convinced that austerity and reform is the ideal strategy for Greek recovery and is not moved by the outcomes of democratic elections, especially when these result in proposed amendments to the agreements. While no one doubts that he is a man of principle and European credentials, many criticise his obstinacy and ideological rigidity. The ugly face of Europe believes that the European economy is perfectly prepared to survive a “Grexit” and if it happens it will be Greece that will come off the worst from it.
These three narratives send three mixed messages of contained compassion, blackmail and outright negativity and come from a European Union which is itself struggling to find a common position on Greece, a struggle which only results in further cacophony and ambiguity.
The Greek version
The Greek government uses these three images for its internal consumption and public rhetoric. On the one hand, it refers to Juncker’s benign solicitude as the guarantee that Europeans would never allow Greece to exit from the Eurozone. Then, the Greek government refers to the ECB’s ‘bad’ narrative as a heartless strategy which is wringing the life out of Greece in its moment of need; Greece is, according to this, a victim of European blackmail. As for the ‘ugly’, it evokes patriotic and heroic reflexes, bringing back memories of the Nazi occupation and debts that were never paid by the Germans. To the good, bad and the ugly, SYRIZA is staging a threefold response - Europeanised with the Commission, victimised with the European Central Bank and adversarial and patriotic vis a vis Schauble’s Germany. Greek leaders are trapped between these three discourses, sending confusing messages, speaking multiple languages and addressing rather different audiences.
But the Greek government is not simply reacting to these three narratives. The SYRIZA-ANEL coalition reproduces them as a mirror image of Europe, used partially for internal consumption and at the same time as a strategy abroad. The ‘good face’ of the government is represented by those within SYRIZA who are committed europeanists: they seek a compromise and hold a more pragmatic approach to Greece’s ability to negotiate from a weak, even desperate, position. This stance is represented by such politicians as Deputy Prime Minister Yannis Dragasakis or Minister of Development Giorgos Stathakis, who avoid confrontational remarks and represent the moderate faction of SYRIZA. The ‘bad face’ of the Greek government is represented by the more rigid politicians within SYRIZA, the hardliners who are ideologically commited to their left wing roots, some of them even daring to speak of a plan B, exit from the euro and the return to the drachma. Finally, the ‘ugly face’ of the Greek government is borne by those who have adopted what they see as a heroic and ultra-patriotic discourse, represented by the leader of ANEL and Minister of Defence Panos Kamenos. They make incendiary statements against Germany, threatening that Greece will enter the Russian camp as a plan B, and that Greece will flood Germany with immigrants and Islamist Jihadists.
Each of these three discourses resonate with the various domestic audiences, but taken together they become incomprehensible to external audiences. Because these narratives come from both sides of the spectrum, Europe and Greece, they only contribute to further cacophony and ambiguity, either of a constructive or destructive nature. It is not clear which.
For there are three outcomes in this fight between Greece and the EU, three scenarios that can happen: one good, one bad and one ugly. The good scenario is that somehow Greece, through its reform list, will reassure the world that it has honourable and credible intentions and this will lead to a compromise that could be acceptable to both sides, allowing the Greek government to get the funding that it so desperately needs, and the creditors to claim that the Greek government has shown its will to cooperate.
The bad scenario is the one that brings Greece to the brink of economic asphyxia, a capital control a la Cyprus and a humiliating defeat for the Greek government, which could have longer term repercussions on the government’s external credibility and internal legitimacy. This is a bad scenario because it alienates Greece from its partners and the partners from Greece and paves the way for many bitter feelings in the future.
The ugly scenario is the one of “Grexit”, where Greece will have to manage a forced exit from the Eurozone leaving the Greek economy years behind and leading to political instability; this could also have wider repercussions for the coherence of Europe and the Eurozone. And this is neither the right moment, nor the right place for such an ugly turn of events. Let us hope in the often ugly real world of populism and antagonisms that the good scenario prevails, and that the ‘good guys’ from either side win the day. Let us hope that the bad guys are turned around and the ugly voices marginalised and disappeared. This would indeed bring back the symbolism of hope and dignity based on credible narratives for a country, its economy and its society, that deserves to be back on track.