Why Syriza Hasn’t Threatened to Leave the European Union—Yet

Greece’s newly elected radical left coalition is playing the long game.

Alexandros Orphanides

Syriza's Alexis Tsipras, who is now the Prime Minister of Greece. (FrangiscoDer / Wikimedia Commons)

These are des­per­ate times for the peo­ple of Greece.

Syriza sees a way out of the Eurozone paradox.

Head­ing into a fren­zy of meet­ings with Eurogroup finance min­is­ters and heads of state this week, the Syriza gov­ern­ment is prepar­ing for all sce­nar­ios and devel­op­ments. On Tues­day, Greek finance min­is­ter Yanis Varo­ufakis told the mem­bers of par­lia­ment that Greece is enter­ing the post-bailout era. Mean­while, his Ger­man coun­ter­part, Fed­er­al Min­is­ter of Finance Wolf­gang Schäu­ble, com­ment­ed lat­er in the day that no nego­ti­a­tion would hap­pen. The future is still indiscernible.

With an emer­gency meet­ing of Eurogroup finance min­is­ters this past Wednes­day, a full sum­mit yes­ter­day, and a sched­uled meet­ing of finance min­is­ters on Mon­day that coin­cides with the dead­line for extend­ing the bailout, what isn’t being said by Greece’s Syriza gov­ern­ment may be more impor­tant than what is. The out­come of the talks will deter­mine which is real­ized: the will of the Greek peo­ple or the Troika.

State of Affairs

On Sun­day, Prime Min­is­ter Alex­is Tsipras vowed to con­tin­ue fight­ing for debt rene­go­ti­a­tions while pri­or­i­tiz­ing the human­i­tar­i­an cri­sis” brought on by years of harsh aus­ter­i­ty. He also sig­naled that fru­gal­i­ty would be best exem­pli­fied on the gov­ern­men­tal lev­el by sell­ing off half of the government’s lim­ou­sines and a jet. He did not, how­ev­er, men­tion any plans to lead Greece out of the Eurozone.

With all the talk of a Grex­it,” it’s impor­tant to note that Syriza has yet to threat­en a Greek depar­ture from either the Euro­pean Union or the Euro­zone. Yet Euro­pean offi­cials, and even the defrocked high priest of free mar­kets, Alan Greenspan, have been warn­ing of Greek exit from the Euro­pean Union.

So why isn’t Syriza cur­rent­ly threat­en­ing to leave the Eurozone?

Well, first there is the ques­tion of pub­lic opin­ion. Recent opin­ion polls indi­cate that as many as 70% of Greeks hope to remain with­in the cur­ren­cy union. The under­tak­ing of any rad­i­cal steps by Syriza will require build­ing long-term polit­i­cal sup­port on the home front by stick­ing to the demo­c­ra­t­ic will. That means a Euro­zone exit while the coun­try over­whelm­ing­ly oppos­es such an exit must be off the table — at least for the time being.

Syriza, lead­ing a frag­ile coali­tion gov­ern­ment, appears to be plan­ning for all con­tin­gen­cies. The rad­i­cal left coali­tion under­stands that nego­ti­a­tions with the Troi­ka (the Euro­pean Cen­tral Bank, the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion and the Inter­na­tion­al Mon­e­tary Fund) have broad impli­ca­tions on the long-term health of the E.U. as well as glob­al trade treaties favored by the Unit­ed States.

Syriza holds two man­dates. First, it must end the social cat­a­stro­phe that many Greeks blame on E.U.-imposed aus­ter­i­ty. Sec­ond, it must appear com­mit­ted to keep­ing Greece with­in the Euro­pean Union. In some ways the two seem anti­thet­i­cal, but Syriza believes they aren’t.

To achieve the first, Syriza needs debt restruc­tur­ing or for­give­ness, a reformed tax­a­tion scheme and con­tin­ued fund­ing for social pro­grams. In short, it needs the Euro­pean Union, as such tasks prob­a­bly can­not be car­ried out with­out it. But the Troi­ka holds that no restruc­tur­ing is pos­si­ble and that Greece must stick to its com­mit­ments or leave the cur­ren­cy union.

If the polls are to be believed, had Syriza begun nego­ti­a­tions with Euro­pean offi­cials by threat­en­ing to leave the E.U., it would have faced a polit­i­cal dis­as­ter on the home front.

That may be why last week, the gov­ern­ment sent its eco­nom­ics pro­fes­sor-turned-finance min­is­ter Yanis Varo­ufakis on a mul­ti-nation tour in hopes of win­ning sup­port for his mod­est pro­pos­al to save Europe.” Varo­ufakis’ pro­pos­al includes a bridge agree­ment that would hold Greece over for a few months until a new agree­ment can be worked out.

The night before his meet­ing with Schäu­ble, the Ger­man finance min­is­ter, the Euro­pean Cen­tral Bank announced it would no longer accept Greek gov­ern­ment bonds as col­lat­er­al for loans to Greek banks. And as expect­ed, Schäu­ble reject­ed any talk of restruc­tur­ing the Greek debt.

Despite warm recep­tions for Syriza offi­cials in Italy and France last week, those gov­ern­ments held the E.U. par­ty line and backed the Ger­man and Troi­ka offi­cials’ insis­tence that Greece remain on the pro­gram of bailout, aus­ter­i­ty and debt payments.

But this, too, is polit­i­cal­ly unten­able in Greece, where the aus­ter­i­ty-crip­pled pop­u­la­tion strong­ly favors end­ing a pro­gram that has seen sui­cides, home­less­ness and pover­ty skyrocket.

A Way Out By Stay­ing In

Syriza sees a way out of this paradox.

Con­sid­er the state­ments by the party’s oth­er promi­nent econ­o­mist, Costas Lapavit­sas, in the Guardian: First, the forces of aus­ter­i­ty cur­rent­ly stran­gling Europe should not be allowed to crush the Syriza exper­i­ment, or turn it into a moth-eat­en com­pro­mise; sec­ond, Syriza should make sol­id and metic­u­lous prepa­ra­tions for all even­tu­al­i­ties, a point that is well under­stood by many with­in it.”

Hav­ing expect­ed harsh resis­tance and an onslaught of veiled threats from the finan­cial com­mu­ni­ty, it would be naïve to imag­ine Syriza hasn’t pre­pared for this exact sce­nario. If Varo­ufakis’ pro­pos­als, which are viewed as rea­son­able by most Greeks, are reject­ed by E.U. offi­cials, more Greeks will con­sid­er leav­ing the Euro­pean Union a nec­es­sary evil.

At that point, if a Syriza gov­ern­ment still exists, Greece can threat­en to leave the union. (It should be not­ed that in his book Cri­sis in the Euro­zone, Lapavit­sas has sup­port­ed a Greek exit from the Euro­zone and has argued that aus­ter­i­ty through­out Europe has been coun­ter­pro­duc­tive.) That’s when the Ger­man government’s met­tle will be test­ed. Can the Euro­pean Union afford a Grex­it” and its poten­tial impli­ca­tions for Spain and oth­er aus­ter­i­ty-rav­aged countries?

A Syriza gov­ern­ment that remains in the union pos­es a prob­lem for Ger­many and the Unit­ed States on anoth­er front. Syriza has made it clear that it will veto any attempt to rat­i­fy the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Invest­ment Part­ner­ship, an inter­na­tion­al trade agree­ment that both Ger­many and the U.S. want rat­i­fied urgently.

At that point, does the E.U. want Syriza to capit­u­late on a debt if it means the loss of the TTIP? Per­haps a Greek exit ben­e­fits the E.U. on that front. But can the E.U. afford to let Greece out if it means desta­bi­liz­ing the cur­ren­cy union further?

The future of Greece and that of oth­er aus­ter­i­ty-sacked coun­tries in the E.U. is affixed to the demo­c­ra­t­ic will of the peo­ple, the ratio­nale of finance, and the geopo­lit­i­cal aims of U.S. hege­mo­ny. A way out — or a way to remain in — will rely on alter­na­tive solu­tions and com­mit­ment on the part of Syriza.

The ancient trage­di­an Euripi­des tells us, I have been versed in the rea­son­ings of men; but Fate is stronger than any­thing I have known.” To the ancients, fate was always a thing of mys­tery, unknow­able to mor­tals, but per­haps alter­able by our actions. Faced with a bleak future of aus­ter­i­ty and debt pay­ments, Syriza rep­re­sents the will of the Greek peo­ple to take fate into their own hands.

Alexan­dros Orphanides is a New York City-based free­lance jour­nal­ist, researcher and teacher of Greek-Cypri­ot and Hon­duran descent. He writes on polit­i­cal, social and cul­tur­al issues with an empha­sis on mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ties. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @subsentences.
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