Can Europe Make It?

Greece still has political life beyond austerity. But what kind of life is it?

As the Greek government cosies up to the church and right-wing forces become more extreme, human rights and national stability are coming under increasing threat.

Dimitris Christopoulos
17 November 2016

US President Barack Obama toasts with Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos, right, and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, during Obama's visit to Greece on 15 November 2016. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Press Association. All rights reserved.

On 7 November 2016, something unprecedented happened in Greek political affairs, but it went unreported by the international media. Among the few things written about the recent Greek cabinet reshuffle was an article in The Guardian, which put the proper emphasis on the fact that this reshuffle constituted a positive message to the country’s lenders. But there was no mention of the ideological stakes: the growing influence of religion and nationalism on a supposedly progressive government along with the undermining of the human rights agenda.

The hapless state budget in austerity-ridden Greece still pays without fail the salaries of more than 11,000 Orthodox priests.

Nikos Filis, the (now former) Greek minister of education and religion, a longtime member of the reformist Left and, until recently, the head of SYRIZA’s official party newspaper, was not included in the new cabinet that emerged after the government reshuffle. Three days earlier, Archbishop Ieronymos, the head of the Greek Church, had said in a TV interview that “Nikos Filis is a problematic person”, expressing his dissatisfaction with the former minister’s efforts to reform religious education in Greek schools, turning what had essentially been a catechism class into the study of comparative religion.

This idea is anathema to the Greek Church, as evidenced by the fact that its once moderate leader suddenly behaved like a fundamentalist Orthodox Christian, allying himself with extremist, right-wing members of the clergy who had until recently been blessing the offices of Golden Dawn. His TV interview constitutes an act of direct political intervention, during which the archbishop predicted that the government would fall in five or six months, and said openly that he himself could topple it with a word to the head of the Independent Greeks, the far-right, populist party that is Tsipras’ governing partner.

Church intervention is not particularly novel in Greek politics. What is new in this affair is that during the handing over ceremony, the deposed minister of education effectively charged prime minister Alexis Tsipras with executing a “contract of political death” drawn up against him by the TV journalist and the archbishop. Along with the minister of education, the minister of justice (a professor with a background of human rights activism) and the deputy minister of education (also disliked by the church) were left out of the new cabinet. Three days later, the secretary general for human rights, a well-known Greek human rights activist, also resigned from his position along with the secretary general for migration, protesting against the EU-Turkey deal on refugees. All this has shaken the already turbulent Greek political scene.

Austerity isn’t the only game in town

In Greece, there is still political life beyond austerity. There are crucial ideological battles that have historically divided the nation, battles that at times transcend the traditional left-right division and at times confirm it. The relationship between church and state is one of them. It is one of the most crucial on a symbolic level, but it is also financially significant, since the hapless state budget in austerity-ridden Greece still pays without fail the salaries of more than 11,000 Orthodox priests.

It is clear that the Greek government is no longer friendly toward reforms that have to do with promoting human rights and the rule of law.

It is clear that the Greek government is no longer friendly toward reforms that have to do with promoting human rights and the rule of law. SYRIZA’s conviction is that such things are unpopular, and that they attack rooted views against which we must not openly battle. Among the Independent Greeks, views that are hostile to human rights flourish anyway. It is a fact that this government, with the bright exception of literally only three measures – the decongestion of prisons, nationality for second-generation immigrants, and civil unions for same-sex couples – was not willing to wage battles for the traditional goals of the Greek Left – and of the Left in general. For its incapacity to utter a single word worthy of the emancipatory tradition and the ideological hegemony of the left that it supposedly expresses, it cannot only blame austerity. It must also blame itself.

For its part, the Greek Right has been incapable of adopting a normal, liberal political discourse, for reasons related to its history from the early twentieth century to the fall of the Greek junta in 1974. It relies, as a matter of course, on a conservative retreat vis-à-vis the Left. This is what it has always done. This is what it knows best. This is what it does now, capitalising on any political footing it finds – with the exception of Golden Dawn – to its right. A conviction of Golden Dawn as a criminal organisation will in fact make this path even swifter, as it will leave ample space for the Greek conservative party to make inroads into the right end of the Greek political spectrum.

As long as the discourse on rights and the rule of law in Greece remains politically homeless, the balance of power in the domestic ideological battle will become even more unfavourable to human rights. In this case, in a world led by Donald Trump, the possibility of a new Hungary or a Poland cropping up on Europe’s south-eastern corner, next to a peripheral power that is truly out of geopolitical control (Turkey), keeps coming closer.

Obama’s visit to Athens, as his diplomatic swan song, should be also read in the light of the above. Despite what had been solemnly said, what bothers the outgoing US administration is not austerity in Greece, as such. Let’s be clear on that. The major concern is the impact of austerity to Greece’s political stability and, further on, eventual geopolitical repercussions in an already fragile region. And that is why rights matter…

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