A warning shot across the bows

The rise of Syriza in Greece also reflects the failure of the aforementioned policy to reverse the slowdown which has strangled the Greek economy

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

The emphatic victory secured by Greece’s left-wing Syriza party last weekend has sent a clear and unequivocal message to the power brokers of the European Union.  

Alexis Tsipras was sworn in as Greek Prime Minister on Monday, after winning over 36% of the national vote (by Greek standards, an unprecedented majority) on the basis of an anti-austerity platform. His government is committed to renegotiating the €240 billion bailout package with the Troika (the EU, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund).

Prior to his election on Sunday, the rest of the European Union – in particular Germany, which has insisted on a hugely unpopular austerity policy to mitigate the effects of the eurozone crisis – had eyed the prospect of a Syriza victory with trepidation and concern. As local economists have suggested, the election result has underscored the fragility of Europe’s neo-liberal policies: which have hitherto always been presented as a solution, rather than a cause, of the problems undermining the eurozone.

Yet in many respects, the rise of Syriza in Greece also reflects the failure of the aforementioned policy to reverse the slowdown which has strangled the Greek economy. Contrary to EU predictions, unemployment has doubled since the start of the crisis, and now stands at 22%. Among youths, this already alarming figure rises to over 55%. Moreover, an estimated one third of the entire population is at risk of poverty.

Offsetting these indications of failure are more promising signs of economic recovery. Last year, Greece’s economic growth outpaced Italy’s, and current forecasts predict this trend will continue. Yet it remains a fact that macroeconomic realities do not necessarily match the experience of the population at street level. Many Greeks simply could not see any light at the end of the tunnel; and there is increasing evidence that the same national frustration which propelled Syriza to power in Greece is also being felt in other adversely affected eurozone counties: such as Italy, Spain and Portugal.

For what lies at the heart of the contention is more than just disagreement over the current economic and fiscal direction of the European Union: there is also the uncomfortable impression that EU policy is often at odds with popular sentiment. From this perspective, the Greek election implies a rejection of a common policy agreed to by European governments – including the defeated centre right government of Greece – but not by the people. 

It further suggests that given a chance, more European nations would likewise rebel against an unpopular austerity regime that was presented as a ‘solution’ to a problem… by the same people many feel caused this problem in the first place.

Naturally this perception may be off-target. Few can deny that the root causes of the Greek crisis concerned internal corruption and tax evasion spanning decades. Yet it is also true that the free market economic model favoured by Brussels was only too willing to disregard such matters when accepting Greece into the eurozone in 2008, in pursuit of an aim that was ultimately political as much as economic. It is hard not to empathise with ordinary Greek voters, who argue that austerity meant that they had to pay for the collective failures of corrupt oligarchs, their own governments and the same troika that would later bail them out (on its own terms and conditions). 

This sort of message is not one that can lightly be disregarded. Nor is the first warning shot fired across the bows of an increasingly aloof EU by disgruntled European electorates. Discontent with European policy is by no means limited to Greece; nor does it concern only the eurozone crisis. Issues such as immigration, fiscal harmonisation and others have also fuelled widespread unrest across the Union. 

Last year’s MEP elections returned the lowest voter turnout in EU history, with the result that the European Parliament now represents only 44% of the total European electorate. Moreover, the results were characterised by a marked surge in Eurosceptic support, corresponding with a dip among parties perceived to favour EU policy. 

In all such cases, a pattern begins to emerge… and is now clearly visible to the man in every European street. The powers that currently dominate European politics and economic management – namely, the Troika – invariably seem hell-bent on pursuing an agenda that has (in most cases) never been ratified by the people most affected by its consequences. 

This is why the last response flung at the EU from the direction of Greece cannot be ignored any longer. Already the EU suffers from a perception of being disconnected from the people. And if, having so clearly expressed a rejection of austerity in the last election, the Greek people are once again denied the change they voted for, the consequences could be very serious indeed.

What emerges from the debacle is the overwhelming impression that the EU must perforce rethink not only its economic agenda, but also its uneasy relationship with the people it is supposed to represent. Many feel that Europe’s institutions are currently failing in their primary objective: i.e., to improve the standard of living of ordinary Europeans. And Europe must take stock of this situation before it is too late.

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