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The Greek snap election of January 25th swept into power SYRIZA—the “Coalition of the Radical Left,” a party that held only 13 seats in 2009, compared to 149 now. SYRIZA entered into coalition with a small right-wing nationalist party, the Independent Greeks (ANEL) to form a government. These odd partners are brought together most of all by an implacable hostility to the bailout and austerity programs imposed on Greece by the Troika (the European Commission, European Central Bank, and International Monetary Fund). The new Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras now enters a complicated political context, one made increasingly turbulent by his own party’s confrontational positions in the realms of economics, geopolitics, and foreign policy.
The main drama continues to play out in the fiscal realm. The new Greek government has a wish-list that includes cancelling a third of the current reform agreement, issuing new short-term debt, and restructuring existing debt obligations; some of these goals are plausible and some are deeply improbable. Tsipras’s government has also kept up the fiery tone of the campaign trail, stating, for example, that it will refuse to deal with the Troika, even though it will clearly have to deal with each of the Troika’s three constituent parts. Unsurprisingly, the Troika and the creditor nations within the EU (especially Germany) are largely opposed to SYRIZA’s demands.
Without the Troika’s support, the Greek government will soon run out of money. Even the ostensibly apolitical European Central Bank (ECB) has utilized certain powers—for example its authority over Emergency Lending Assistance for banks—to exert considerable influence over national governments in the past. At the same time, few want to risk the chaos that would ensue if Greece were to exit the single currency.
Social Democrats across Europe have expressed sympathies with SYRIZA’s aims but appear wary about what the new government might do. The Social Democratic group in the European Parliament (EP) praised progress toward “more social justice and an end to the Troika and austerity” but expressed concern about SYRIZA’s coalition with the ANEL. Leading Social Democrats in Germany, meanwhile, reiterated Greece’s responsibilities to stick to its agreements and implement structural reforms. Martin Schulz, the Social Democrat President of the EP, struck an uncompromising tone: “If Tsipras thinks he can send the Troika home, and the Europeans will finance him despite his election promises, then he’s mistaken.”
Parties of the Radical Left were, understandably, more enthusiastic. Spain’s new left-wing protest party Podemos explicitly models itself after SYRIZA. Having shot past the established parties in Spain’s political polls, it obviously hopes to duplicate SYRIZA’s feat of displacing the traditional center-left. SYRIZA also excited antisystem parties of the right: Marine Le Pen of France’s National Front surprised some by “endorsing” Mr. Tsipras and hailing his victory as a “monstrous democratic slap” against the EU. Greece’s trajectory is seen as a precursor of what could happen in other countries; it is also true that if SYRIZA spectacularly fails, this could prove to be a major embarrassment and handicap for its admirers.
Much as SYRIZA’s agenda excites the EU’s periphery protest parties, it raises the hackles of the region’s fiscal conservatives. Portugal and Ireland have already completed sovereign bailout programs, and Spain has also implemented structural reforms. The political credibility of the governing parties in these countries is tied up with the idea that austerity was tough but necessary and is going to pay off; to allow Greece to renegotiate its bailout could undermine this entire narrative.
The Greek government’s foreign policy views have also set off alarm bells across Europe. The new Defense Minister, ANEL’s Panos Kammenos, and Foreign Minister, the independent leftist Nikos Kotzias, favor friendlier relations with Moscow, raising fears that Greece could wield its veto power within the European Council to prevent further sanctions against Russia. That Greece could try to use its foreign policy leverage to achieve its economic goals is not out of the question; as Hans Kundnani of the European Council on Foreign Relations deftly put it, “Germany and Greece seem to be playing two interconnected two-level games—one centered on the euro, another on Russia.”
The complexity of European political reactions to the SYRIZA win was on display at the February 5th “Towards a New Pact for Europe” conference in Budapest. A panel of Members of the European Parliament representing a range of political groupings commented on SYRIZA with a mixture of sympathy and skepticism. Greens Benedek Jávor and Tamás Meszerics suggested that the EU’s exaggerated focus on economics and its neglect of social justice issues had provoked the rise of protest parties like SYRIZA and Podemos, a diagnosis that evinced support from even György Schöpflin of the European Peoples’ Party. Nevertheless, despite a certain degree of understanding for Greek voters’ motivations, the MEPs doubted SYRIZA’s ability to implement meaningful political change. Social Democrat Péter Niedermüller said that although his party had always been critical of the Troika’s approach, he considered SYRIZA’s campaign promises exaggerated and implausible, and criticized their populism and their choice of coalition partners. Mr. Meszerics argued that the appeal of Syriza and Podemos was a regional phenomenon, stemming from the experiences of Southern Europe, and did not represent a greater political realignment within the EU.
With so many factors in play, it is indeed difficult to tell whether SYRIZA’s victory is a one-off event or a harbinger of things to come. Certainly, the party’s new leadership role—nationally and within EU institutions—will force other political forces to better define their own positions within European politics.
–Joshua Dill is a Pannonius Fellow of the Common Sense Society. He holds a degree in German and European Studies from Georgetown University School of Foreign Service.