A European Dilemma. Austerity or Democracy for Greece?

A few months ago this author wrote that enforced austerity in Greece was undermining democracy. That, even if loans were repaid and debts exacted, the political cost of pushing people towards anti-European and anti-democratic radicals, would be so much greater in the long run for the future of Europe that no monetary sum was worth the risk. Instead, it argued, Europe should give Greece the economic space it needs to grow. In the heat of this latest crisis, it is necessary to examine first whether this prophecy has come true, that of greater radicalisation, and also whether the prescribed medicine is still the correct one.

Radicalisation amongst the Greeks is certain. Although we have had no election since Syriza’s assumption of power, the referendum of 5th July showed conclusively that Greeks of all persuasions are simply unprepared to live under ECB and IMF domination anymore. 61.31% of the population voted no to the creditors’ offer; as The Guardian’s Paul Mason points out, this is important because even the conservative heartlands, the centre-right and rightist areas, voted firmly against the terms. Not one district supported the offer. On the surface of things this immediately signals greater radicalization – sixty percent of a formerly conservative country has backed a Marxist government to defend their interests. However, it is more complicated than that, and, in some senses more worrying.

The reason for this is that, clearly, it is unlikely that the voters who used to vote for centre-right parties like New Democracy have converted to Marxism, no matter how charming Yanis Varoufakis may be. They support the government in action, but probably not in ideology. It is similarly obvious that they have not swung gently leftwards towards the centre, for then they would have backed the deal. Therefore, what the vote really represents in these instances, in which formerly rightist areas have backed the government, is likely a move more against Europe, and to the rightist strain of anti-European feeling, rather than a move towards radical leftism. A polarization therefore, appears to be taking place.

If this support stays with Syriza, a known, semi-pro European, firmly pro-democracy party, then presumably there is no issue. The danger lies, however, in the ‘last’ round of ‘final’ talks between the Eurozone countries. Firstly, there is the obvious possibility of moving towards extremist elements if the deal falls through and Greece has to leave the Eurozone. The state would essentially have to start again with a parallel currency, and there is a great potential for extremist, anti-democratic elements to flourish in that situation. This needs to be avoided.

Equally, there is also a more subtle, potentially slow-burning problem. As we saw on the 6th July, Syriza has now entered a kind of informal government of national unity, getting all the other main parties behind its reform proposals with a joint statement. They seem now, despite their rhetoric about having a better negotiating position after their referendum win, to be more willing to cross their ‘red lines’ in the face of increased German intransigence. As Euclid Tsakalotos, the new Greek Finance Minister has said, they are now willing to discuss pensions within a new deal with the Eurozone, as well as possible tax increases. If Syriza is made to agree to this, the danger is that they, the democratic radical left, will suffer the same fate as the centre-left and centre-right in Greece before them.

Syriza was able, as Varoufakis said, to come to power, and fundamentally, to appear something different, because they had always opposed the 2010 and 2012 bailouts, protesting on the streets and at rallies, as well as speaking against them in the Greek parliament. In 2009, Syriza had 4% of the vote, by 2012 26%, and by January 36%. This meteoric rise occurred because of a basic and continued opposition to austerity and the bailouts arguing continually that they would never have taken the money, for they would not have paid it back. At the same time, the centre-left destroyed itself by going into grand coalition with New Democracy. Whomever the Greek electorate voted for, it ended with the same result, until Syriza. If Syriza is forced into the same fate of a last-minute deal, reinforcing austerity and possibly without a debt ‘haircut’, it is difficult to see anything else but further radicalisation of the Greek population. If Syriza will not oppose opposition, must they go further to the left and right to find this? The danger here, and this has been made more obvious by the unity between the main Greek parties, is that the final haven for anti-austerity Greeks may become the only two parties not backing whatever deal Tsipras comes up with – the Greek Communists, and the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn.

If these two essentially anti-democratic, certainly anti-European parties were allowed to become the only anti-austerity parties in Greece, a country that voted last week 60% against current austerity programmes, and which may now be forced into further cuts, this will pose a far, far greater potential problem to the EU and the Eurozone than a debt haircut or a grace period for Greece’s bailout debts. Merkel and other centre-right parties across Europe must remember that if they truly believe in this EU, and not just their own electoral records, that democracy is a far more important component to security than the pseudo-accountancy of this current crisis. As this author recommended a few months ago, the only way to avoid the rise of anti-democratic parties is to give the Greek economy space to grow through a debt cut, a grace period, and no more cuts to key public spending areas, and to allow Syriza, as a democratic party, to actually present an electable alternative. If they do not, the Greeks will radicalise further, and Europe will be far more in danger than it is now.

George Houghton

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