Speculation and expert comments are thrown around once more – or still – like candy on Halloween. Let me therefore retrace what I’ve said before. Because I think it’s really awfully simple, once you got the underlying factors in place.
But first, if one thing has become obvious after Syriza was elected to form a Greek government on January 25, it’s that the party is not ‘radical’ or ‘extremist’. Those monikers can now be swept off all editorial desks across the world, and whoever keeps using them risks looking like an awful fool.
All Syriza has done to date, when you look from an objective point of view, is to throw out feelers, trying to figure out what the rest of the eurozone would do. And to make sure that whatever responses it got are well documented.
Because of course Greece (through Syriza) is preparing to leave the eurozone. Of course the effects and consequences of such a step are being discussed, non-stop. They would be fools if they didn’t have these discussions. And of course there will be a referendum at some point.
There’s just that one big caveat: Syriza insists on needing a mandate from its voters for everything it does, whether that may be kowtowing to Greece’s EU overlords or walking away from them. At present, however, it doesn’t have a mandate for either of these actions.
The best it can do is to drag out negotiations as much as it can, and let Europe openly assert its perceived superior power over the Greek population as much as it wants to, complete with more iron-fisted demands for austerity, more budget cuts, more asset sales. Tsipras and his people will let this go on until the Greeks are even more fed up with Brussels than they already were when they elected Syriza in the first place.
It’s a subtle game, but it’s the only one open to Tsipras and his crew. Even if they’ve long concluded that trying to negotiate a deal with Germany et al was a lost cause way before talks started, Syriza has to go through the motions until it is confident the people of Greece are ready to vote in a referendum on eurozone membership.
A risky game, since it could bring back ‘the old guard’ of the handful of families that have governed the country for decades and that were willing co-operators with the Troika, but at the same time it’s the only game in town at the moment.
Tsipras needs to explain to the Greek people that the double mandate of staying inside the eurozone and at the same time ending austerity is in fact an empty mandate, because the eurozone refuses to allow it.
He needs to explain that this means the eurozone refuses to recognize the democratic values of one of its member states, voting to change policy. Brussels is in effect telling the Greek people on a daily basis that they don’t matter. That’s what Tsipras has to make clear, and then he can call the referendum.
It should be obvious that this whole mandate question changes potential actions by Athens to a huge degree. But from what I read every day, it doesn’t seem to be. Even within Tsipras’ own support base, perhaps some don’t understand what is going on. Either that or they’re part of the strategy. Judge for yourself:
Stathis Kouvelakis, who teaches political theory at King’s College in London and is a member of Syriza’s central committee, says the party has to face up to the reality of its recent retreat on its election pledges and the nature of the forces arrayed against it. In particular, Kouvelakis notes the successive steps taken by the ECB to restrict the flow of liquidity to the Greek economy, shutting down or limiting Greek access to various types of ECB financing.
“It should be clear, however, that these moves would bring about a dynamic that would breach fundamental constraints of the monetary union and would inevitably lead to the exit from it,” Kouvelakis wrote in his latest post at Jacobin. “In any case, the ECB’s relentless blackmail with its provision of liquidity places onto the agenda every day the issue of regaining sovereignty over monetary policy.” It was the stranglehold that prompted Tsipras in a recent interview with Der Spiegel to refer to the ECB “still holding onto the rope that is around our necks.”
But Kouvelakis argues that covering over the issues by renaming the troika “the institutions” or by using weasel words like “creative ambiguity” is not going to solve the problem. The initial euphoria over Syriza’s victory has quickly faded, but it can be revived, he says, if the party faces reality. “In order for this to happen, however, the horns of battle have to blow again, and the ensuing struggle has to be waged with all due seriousness and determination, not with PR stunts and rhetorical contortions.”
He cited the widely quoted words from Interior Minister Nikos Voutsis earlier this month before the Greek Parliament, when he said “the country is at war, a social and a class war with the lenders” and that in this war “we will not go like cheerful scouts willing to continue the policies of the memorandum.” This is the kind of talk the world needs to hear from Greek officials, Kouvelakis says, “not the language of facile optimism that creates illusions and causes confusion that tomorrow may prove costly.”
Kouvelakis reasons from a standpoint that is not covered by Syriza’s present mandate. He at least should know this. Tsipras cannot afford to be seen by the Greek population as the man who hasn’t done all he could to keep the country in the eurozone while negotiating an end to austerity. It makes no difference at this point what his personal ideas are on the issue.
Kouvelakis does choose to let his personal opinions prevail. If Tsipras would do the same, a referendum would be much riskier for Syriza. The party was elected to represent its austerity-weary voters, not the subjective opinions of its leaders.
If Tsipras and Varoufakis should elect to give in to Brussels and Berlin, that decision would still need to be put before the people to vote on, because it would mean a prolongation of austerity. And that is not the mandate.
By the same token, if the leadership decides an exit is the only option, and that further negotiations are hopeless because Europe won’t accept anything else than strapping the proud Greek people in a straitjacket, that too will have to be put before a vote.
Of course Syriza, like any other government, keeps track of opinion polls, but they know there will come a moment when a referendum can no longer be postponed no matter what the polls say. In that, Greece is living up to its glorious past as the cradle of democracy.
And that makes it all the more cruel that the country has been ruled for such a long time by anything but a democratic system. Maybe we can say the circle is round. But the connection that closes the circle is still very fragile, and nobody knows that better than Alexis Tsipras.
Still, make no mistake: of course they’re preparing to leave.