Everyone is having their say about the Greek elections. Most commentators fall into two camps. For one group, Syriza’s victory is the end of civilization as we know it, for the other it is the end of Greece as we know it.
However the left-wing, anti-austerity party’s triumph provides an opportunity the whole of Europe would be wise to take. Finally the increasingly redundant “accepted culture” can reconfigure itself before it is too late for us all. The opportunity may not be there long, but if taken, Syriza will end up serving Europe, rather than Greece, more than it would ever want to do.
One man’s progress is another’s man’s poison
When Greece joined the EU in 1981 it did not have a common border with any other EU country. It had however recently shaken off a military dictatorship. It had been prevented from joining the EU during the regime of “the Colonels”, and was thus able to effectively blackmail its way into the club when a democracy. It is this action which began the gradual politicisation of the EU which has taken it far from its original aim of integrating economies to prevent war.
When new countries join the EU there is usually a reaction from some significant political forces. In the first direct elections to the European Parliament in 1979 Denmark’s People’s Movement Against the EU achieved 20 percent of its national vote and came a very close second to the Social Democrats.
Denmark was one of the newer members, acceding in 1973. As usual, reaction to the EU came from the Left, who saw it is a means of economic dominance by an even greater establishment, rather than a revolutionary means of undermining existing economic dependencies. For many years this was the pattern: the EU was an extension of existing authority, therefore the ideological Left must oppose it.
In Greece the situation was somewhat different. The reintroduction of liberal democracy, as opposed to dictatorship, was welcomed by the Left, and the EU was seen as a standard bearer of such democracy. The banned and persecuted leftists could not only return to Greece but gain international protection under its banner.
For most of the Greek Right the EU was also a sensible option, is it ended the country’s previous international isolation and showed the world that the new Greece was at the same level as its trading partners. Although in all countries fringe far-right groups often officially opposed the EU, doing so in Greece would imply that that group sympathised with the deposed and imprisoned junta, and that would never do. The EU was progressive, and welcome, for domestic political as well as economic reasons.
As the years have gone by this vector has changed radically. Opposition to the EU is now largely the preserve of the Right. The old leftist arguments have been undermined by the difficulty of pulling out, the higher standard of living the poorest European citizens are thought to enjoy under the EU and, most of all, the EU’s enduring negative value.
The EU institutions are where you dump the people you don’t want and give them very high salaries for being failures, without having to admit you promoted failures to begin with. Who doesn’t want such an option readily available, given the constant pressure to present effective teams which will win votes? This option is as attractive to the Left as to the Right, and is also a backhanded means of presenting the Leftists you don’t want as traitors, who never really cared about the common man because they have accepted big jobs in Europe, selling their souls to the devil.
Greece did initially go in the same direction as the rest of Europe. The Golden Dawn movement, which is believed to have direct links with jailed members of the old military dictatorship, was an initially popular right-wing anti-EU movement, promising a nationalist solution to the mess the faceless Eurocrats had got the country into.
Now Greece has struck out in the opposite direction, electing an avowedly far-left party espousing the same logic largely abandoned in other countries. As you would expect, the party is opposed to the austerity forced on the country by EU policymakers Greeks didn’t elect, whose bailouts and terms would not have been necessary if they had ever known what they are doing. But it comes with a very different baggage to Golden Dawn and its fellow travellers in the rest of Europe, and putting the two baggages together could, in the end, rescue Europe itself.
Human error corrected by human error
The rising tide of anti-EU feeling, whether embraced by Left or Right, shares the characteristics of the independence movements which have always existed and created most of modern Europe’s states. People feel they are being governed by people far away who they have no connection with. If this makes them better off, they put up with it. If they don’t feel they are gaining anything from the arrangement, rightly or wrongly, they feel that governing themselves is a better solution.
On a human level, we know that there is a substantive difference between tolerance and intolerance. If people are sure of their opinions, they can tolerate other people having different ones, even those they have a great personal objection to. If people are less certain, they become increasingly intolerant, determined to impose their opinions on others by any means. This is done in the name of virtue, but in fact arises from fear.
The EU should have realised long ago that its citizens would get increasingly disenchanted with their economic lot for one simple reason. Professional economists are a very intolerant lot. Many shades of economic theory have always existed, and in other academic disciplines this would not be a problem.
But dissent has been increasingly suppressed in economics. If you do not accept certain ideas, such as deregulation, and reject others, such as Keynesianism, you are not simply wrong but have no credibility. Nowadays you are not allowed to graduate, work as an economist or express an opinion or be consulted if you have alternative views, even though the political and social corollaries of such views are still considered acceptable. For example, Marxism is still taught in the same universities where the economics faculties weeded out their state capitalists long ago.
Like all international bodies, the EU is governed by the most accepted ideas of the day. It is very difficult for a body with so many stakeholders, representing so many different constituencies, to take any radical steps which will undermine those who hold the real power, the people who run the schools and trade associations who defend and promote such ideas.
The EU has to continue promoting the economic ideas which have created the present global crisis because its structure leaves it nowhere else to turn. It is hardly surprising therefore that increasing numbers of people in all corners of it want to get off, any way they can, before it crashes and burns them without trace.
Until now the EU has had an excuse. First its opponents had all the baggage of the Left: atheism, tax and spend, central control, class warfare. Most people do not accept these ideas, so do not want to introduce them by the back door by electing anti-EU parties. Then they had the baggage of the Right: xenophobia, authoritarianism, support for elites, flag-waving nationalism and anti-intellectualism. Most people don’t support such ideas either, so again the anti-EU case was fatally flawed.
Now the anti-EU Right, which has not yet been elected on its own, has been joined by an anti-EU Left which has. Like it or not, EU members will have to deal with a government offering a radical alternative which Greeks themselves have consistently both rejected and even demonised in years gone by. Now the enemy is in the camp, but can’t be treated as the enemy because the EU’s own membership rules will not allow such things as boycotts and discrimination against other members on political grounds.
The EU can no longer dismiss opposition to it as belonging to excluded extremes when it has to treat those opponents as part of its own institutions. It can no longer say that opposing the EU means bringing in unacceptable things when those things are part of it. It can no longer claim that the EU is the moderating force when its own policies have created, not the peace and harmony they were supposed to, but a radical government elected to restore the peace the EU has taken away.
Cleaning the stables with the muck
Increasingly, EU-supporting politicians have addressed the rising opposition to it by pointing out that their own members have worked in the EU, and seen its faults at first hand, and therefore must be inside of it to fix them. This implies that the biggest Eurosceptics of all can be found within the EU staff and politicians themselves, not protestors on the outside looking in. If this is so, Syriza’s victory in Greece is the ideal opportunity for the EU to reform itself from within.
No longer will insiders disenchanted with what they see have to position themselves on the far right or far left, and adopt other views they find abhorrent, to do so. They can merely support a member government on a particular issue. This would still make them part of the establishment, and protect them from job discrimination.
Insiders can appeal to the very things Syriza despises – the traditional liberal consensus, internationalism, fiscal rectitude, inclusivity – to promote tolerance of different approaches as an antidote to the intolerant economics which created the Syriza victory. Politicians can’t do that, because they have to take the accepted course to get where they are. EU insiders can, because they are obliged to take the views of a member government into account even when economics says they can’t.
If we are lucky, the EU might finally ask itself why it has lectured everyone on sovereign debt for so many years from the vantage point it has. The economics of today says that countries must always pay their own way and not make claims on their neighbours. This sounds sensible until you realise that those who say this don’t produce anything themselves. Governments don’t exist to make money but to take it from those who do, and if the EU can demand perpetual tax subsidy to do what it likes, so can Syriza’s Greece.
One member is not going to destroy the whole EU. If Greece stops playing by the EU’s rules, but remains a member, so will all the other members if it suits them. Then the EU will have to really become all the things Syriza hates it for pretending to be, and function as a liberal democracy where solutions are found which suit the optimum number, or it will cease to exist, and too many more important reputations with it.
These solutions would not be anti-EU, Left or Right solutions, but ones deriving from the EU itself which the structure which now cripples the EU will facilitate, not mitigate against. The EU will be able to control its own destiny, not be led along by intolerance of others disguised as necessity. Whatever the politics of Syriza, the EU would be wise to take this opportunity while it can, because this may be its last chance.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.