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Greece: Caught Between Nero and Catharsis

The Syriza government has done wonders to unify the rest of the Eurozone.

April 28, 2015

Credit: EU Council Eurozone -

Many European finance ministers have had an eerie feeling lately when they have another negotiating session scheduled with Yanis Varoufakis, their Greek counterpart.

His approach to working out a solution to Greece’s financial problems increasingly reminds them of Nero, the Roman Emperor all the way back in the first century AD. Nero (in)famously fiddled while much of Rome burned to the ground.

Varoufakis, for his part, seems concerned just about every issue under the sun — except for the one that matters, setting structures for the Greek economy that could put the badly listing state ship onto a sustainable path.

Enemies on all sides

That is why even politicians who were originally very much determined to stand by his side, such as European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and the French EU Commissioner Moscovici, are exasperated.

Syriza has indeed had an amazing effect on the rest of Europe. Just as Vladimir Putin managed to breathe fresh oxygen into NATO, so it is with Messrs. Tsipras and Varoufakis.

Their grandest strategic “achievement” to date is to unify basically all European governments against theirs. Given the ideological diversity of these governments, as well as the inclination by some (think France and Italy) to play the “Greek card” to soften up the Germans, that represents a stunning failure on the part of Greece’s leaders.

Varoufakis’s constant refrain of “no more austerity” is beside the point. It is not more austerity that his European colleagues are after, but a workable plan with real commitments to restructure the Greek economy.

There had been hopes that Syriza could deliver just that. In an ideal world, Syriza would have focused on breaking the curious Greek penchant under any government, irrespective of political stripe, to protect the economic interests of the elites.

Three months in, Syriza is promising that, sort of. But it is continuing in the vein of previous governments who let the elites have their (financial) peace, while the party in government – as quasi-compensation – loads up the state ship with clientelistic policies and hiring decisions.

A history of governmental failure

What the world has learned by now is this: Almost no matter what the political color or composition of the Greek government at any given time, it will often act irresponsibly, with only very brief moments of solid performance.

To be fair, the Samaras/Venizelos government eventually did muster the courage to launch many reforms that were as unpopular as they are unavoidable, whether Greece is in the Eurozone, the EU or on its own.

What Syriza did with its errant ways is to stop that reform path in its tracks. As a result, not only has the primary surplus disappeared. Greece has also cut itself off from the – however fledgling, but still noticeable – recovery in the Eurozone.

This is yet another case of politically induced, terrible timing on the part of a Greek government.

The consequence of all this is that the Greek people as a whole get literally screwed in the process. For the most part, they are but a hapless pawn that is moved around on the chessboard of domestic politics. Nea Democratia treated them that way. PASOK did. And now Syriza does.

Faced with so much political intransigence and self-centeredness in Athens, there is a rising sentiment in Europe that what Greece needs is a true catharsis. Hence the talk of “Grexit” and “Graccident.”

The only thing that keeps Europe’s leaders from pursuing that option – “Plan B” – more openly is that the Greek people (not the politicians) would suffer massively.

When democracy fails

What Greece’s crisis ultimately shows is what happens to a democracy when politicians end up acting responsibly only for brief periods of time.

For all the negative talk about “technocrats” and their presumed inherent illegitimacy, there are indeed times when such a period of governance is needed.

That is the case when politicians of any political stripe fail in the task of sound economic management. That is what Greece needs first and foremost.

Of course, given Greece’s past dynamics and penchant for radical political theater, one can already envision cars burning on the street if such an interlude were to occur again (after the brief Papademos government, which lasted from November 2011 to February 2012).

Even so, the question remains the same: How can the inclination of Greece’s political system to act in a manner that, for the most part, is disastrous for the people at large be overcome?


European finance ministers are reminded of the Roman Emperor Nero when meeting with Greece’s Yanis Varoufakis.

Like Rome’s Emperor Nero, Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis fiddles as Greece burns around him.

Just as Putin breathed fresh oxygen into NATO, Tsipras and Varoufakis have helped reignite Europe.

The grandest “achievement” to date by Tsipras and Co is to unify basically all EU governments against theirs.

How can Greece’s political system overcome its inability to serve the people?