Bad romance?

By Alex Katsomitros23.01.2015Economics, Europe

This Sunday the Greek electorate will cast its vote hoping to elect a government that will take the country out of a crisis that has lasted too long, has cut too deep and has spread too far. The radical leftist party Syriza stands a good chance to win – in part because it is riding on the populist wave in Europe.

This would be a watershed election, even if Greece was not under the limelight. It is the first time in Greece’s postwar history that a radical left party such as Syriza, which has never disowned its Marxist roots, has a good chance to win the election and form a government. The last time this was politically feasible, exactly 70 years ago, “Winston Churchill intervened”: and bloodshed ensued, leading to a civil war that scarred Greece’s political life and social fabric for several decades.

The root of Europe’s problem

For the EU, it may be an equally crucial election. If Syriza wins, it will be the first time since the beginning of the crisis, and perhaps in the entire history of the Union, that the government of a member state may question the EU’s holy grail. Syriza is a diverse coalition whose cohesion has been woven around anti-austerity policies, but many of its cadres, particularly those of Marxist origins, do not exclude Greece’s exit from the eurozone and a fierce clash with the EU’s policies. If Syriza’s government does not reach an agreement with Greece’s lenders, a ‘Grexit’ may not be avoided, marking the first time that the transfer of powers from national governments to European institutions will be reversed.

This is the root of Europe’s problems. Its notorious democratic deficit is not a procedural one, but goes much deeper. Europe’s founding fathers built a supranational entity, but rarely asked Europeans their opinions about it. In the aftermath of WWII, and with the spectre of authoritarianism looming large both historically and geographically in the form of Fascism and Communism, this was not an irrational decision. But in the long term, it proved deeply flawed; aiming to make Europe more democratic, they did exactly the opposite.

Noone could put spell out this aberration better than Francois Hollande, a master of contradictions himself. The President of the French Republic encapsulated Europe’s problematic relationship with democracy in an “interview”: with the French radio station France Inter in early January. Referring to the forthcoming Greek election, he said: ’’Greeks are free to choose their own government. Greece is a democracy. Citizens must vote as they wish. But the government they will choose will have to respect commitments made by their country.’’

Fanning the flames of euroscepticism

It is of course true that governments need to adhere to predecessors’ commitments. But deeply ingrained in Hollande’s worldview is the belief that no member state is allowed to go astray, and thus what electorates think is somehow trivial. This is not uncommon; Eurocrats systematically negate all alternatives to their own way of doing things, and thus fan the flames of euroscepticism. When a former Greek Prime Minister, George Papandreou, announced in 2011 a referendum that would give the Greek people an opportunity to have a say on their country’s future, it was Francois Hollande’s predecessor, Nicola Sarcozy, who decried this as madness. In the midst of extreme volatility in the markets and protests within Greece’s ruling party back then, the referendum was promptly cancelled.

This is what has invigorated protest parties across Europe. Their success cannot be attributed to their reasonable policies, for these are scarce, but to their ability to convince electorates that their opinions still matter, and that an alternative path exists, even if this is a preposterously anachronistic one, as is the case with extreme-right parties. This is the wave that Syriza has been riding on, and quite successfully so.

Syriza’s demand

In Southern Europe, protest has taken a Leftist hue in the form of Podemos in Spain and the Five Star Movement in Italy. In the North, the Right has dominated the anti-European agenda, as testified by the precipitous rise of Front National in France, UKIP in Britain and AfD in Germany. These parties, however different their agendas are, share one common feature: the belief that Europe in its current form does not work, and the underlying axiom that national sovereignty is not to be taken away anytime soon.

Syriza will put this demand at the heart of Europe’s political agenda over the next few months, but will not be alone in this endeavour; it is not a coincidence that Marie Le Pen publicly endorsed Syriza this week. The latter’s victory may prove painful for Greece, but, at the same time, it may mark the beginning of the end of the dangerous illusion that there can be a Europe without Europeans.



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