Sign Up

Greece Versus Europe: Week One

Strategic reflections on the first week of Europe’s biggest drama.

February 2, 2015

Credit: Theophilos Papadopoulos-

A week is a long time in politics. After Syriza’s furious start, Europe is reeling from just seven days of the first government elected since the Euro was born that sounds and feels utterly different from any other EU government in the 21st century.

“Give the new government a chance” — that was the appeal of the former King of Greece, Constantine. He told the London Times that he had met Alexis Tsipras and found him an agreeable young man.

The former king, who left Greece in a hurry after his counter-coup against the military dictatorship installed by Greek colonels in 1967 failed, also warned Germany against being overly harsh.

Like most of Europe’s left-over royals, Constantine has some German blood in his family line. That notwithstanding, in Berlin his appeal fell on deaf ears. German ministers and now also the Chancellor, Angela Merkel, insist on using the word “blackmail” to describe the pleas from the Greek government for debt relief.

In Athens, meanwhile, they specialize in reciting every detail of the 1953 conference which wiped out German pre-war debt and was the real spring-board for its famous Wirtschaftswunder, the economic miracle. It helpfully replaced Junker militarism with economic performance as the driving force for German identity ever since.

The cancellation of Germany’s debt, of course, was extended to a government that was the key factor in the battle for continental Europe’s liberty at the time – and a government that, in the person of Ludwig Erhard, fully embraced deep structural reforms without question and on its own volition.

No doubt, the crude anti-German remarks of Syriza politicians, some now ministers, as exemplified by Yanis Varoufakis, set Berlin’s teeth on edge. But this story is not just about Germany and Greece – far from it.

Europe’s democratic forces do battle with each other

If Greece insists that all it wants is legitimized by the election win based on the 36% of the vote Syriza obtained (its total number of seats in the parliament is helped by the 50-seat bonus the bizarre Greek electoral system gives the party with the most votes), then other countries are politely saying that they, too, face elections.

And the message from their electorates is unequivocal: They aren’t up for handing more and more money to Athens. For example, Finland faces elections in a few weeks’ time and any Finnish politician who tells voters they have to provide more Euros for Athens is guaranteed to lose.

This week, Greece’s new Prime Minister Tspiras is going to Cyprus, Rome and Paris, where he will get a friendly hearing.

But what else will he get? Take Italy. It is a major Greek creditor. How does Italy’s center-left Prime Minister Matteo Renzi possibly explain to his working class voters, themselves complaining about austerity, that they have to tighten their belts still further by foregoing the money Italy is owed by Greece?

Syriza – mimicking Pasok and Nea Democratia?

In its electoral campaign, Syriza valiantly fought against clientelism – which is massive in Greece. However, no sooner than it won the elections, it did what Greek elections winners always do.

It promptly rewarded its own client base. In that sense, Syriza is really acting no differently from either Pasok or Nea Democratia.

In Syriza’s case, its clientelism takes the form of massive hikes in the minimum wage, expensive rehiring of civil servants (who were not doing much productive work) and pandering to trade unions in Piraeus by booting out Chinese investors and putting the port area notorious for “On the Waterfront” rackets back under state and trade union control.

Meanwhile, Syriza may be losing the – justified — focus on the real revolution needed in Greece. That requires, at long last, making sure that the country’s “haves” pay their fair share in taxes (instead of evading them, usually with the collusion of the authorities).

Syriza’s hiring of 5,000 civil servants could have been very well justified — if it had taken the form of hiring top tax inspectors and collectors from university graduates to ensure an equitable basis of society.

A more sober look at the cabinet

Any fascination with the new Greek government may wear off fast. Some of the new ministers Greece has named are not helping win friends and influence people.

For example, the new foreign minister, Nikos Kotzias, spent the 1980s justifying the Soviet ordained suppression of the Polish trade union, Solidarnosc by Poland’s General Jaruzelski.

The finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, was fired from an Australian radio station because his anti-Israeli rants were judged to have gone over the line into overt anti-Semitism.

Having campaigned on a far–left program, Tsipras promptly forged an alliance with a hard-right nationalist populist party called the Independent Greeks.

His top coalition partner, ANEL’s leader Panos Kammenos, said the problem with Greece was that “Jews did not pay taxes.” He placed family members on his parliamentary payroll and went on a trip to Crimea with his family as the guest of a Putin crony who is on the EU sanctions list.

The first act of Kammenos as Defense Minister was to fly in a helicopter over an uninhabited island, Imia, close to the Turkish coast and claimed by Turkey.

In 1996, Greece and Turkey nearly went to war over that island until, in a 180-degree foreign policy turn at the beginning of the century, the then-Greek foreign minister, Georges Papandreou, forged a rapprochement with Turkey.

To stage such a provocation in Week One of the Syriza government augurs badly for a cooperative approach to neighbors.

What next?

All these are peripheral to the main question of whether Greece can stay in the Eurozone, indeed in the EU, on its conditions without meeting the EU half-way.

Between the Greek rock of demands for debt cancellation and the EU’s hard place of “Sorry, we will delay payment, but total write-offs cannot happen,” there appears little room for maneuver.

Athens has appointed the ultra-smooth Lazard bank to advise on its debt problems. Turning to one of Wall Street’s aristocracy of bankers to dig itself out of a hole may not have been what Syriza leftist radicals imagined in their campaign against global capitalism, but it shows common sense that may yet keep Greece using the Euro and staying in the EU.

Week One of the new Greek drama was just a prologue. More acts will follow.


Other countries face elections, too, and they aren’t up for handing more and more money to Athens.

Greece’s new Prime Minister Tspiras will get a friendly hearing in Rome and Paris. But what else will he get?

Syriza did what Greek elections winners always do. It promptly rewarded its own client base.

Syriza is really acting no differently from either Pasok or Nea Democratia.

Greece’s new foreign minister spent the 1980s justifying the Soviet suppression of the Polish trade union, Solidarity.

Tsipras’ top coalition partner, Panos Kammenos, said the problem with Greece was that "Jews did not pay taxes."

Week one of the new Greek drama was just a prologue. More acts will follow.