One of the most widely prevalent themes in reporting on Syriza’s victory in Greece is a vaguely defined sense that this marks the beginning of something important. Varying from article to article, we are told that this could indicate the birth of new and fairer Europe or a period of extreme instability – perhaps both.
However, while a vast amount has been written about the rise of Syriza, its election campaign, victory and the immediate choices it faces, those same writers have been reticent to actually sketch out the monumental change the phenomenon of Syriza may mean for the future. Instead, we’ve had a lot of discussion of the implications, because it’s not only difficult to make accurate predictions about rapidly changing political situations but also because making statements that turn out to be widely inaccurate is something most journalists try to avoid. Student journalists have more leeway in trying to figure out what the future could be. In the aftermath of the election not just of the most left wing government in Europe since the fall of the Soviet Union, but also the first government led by one of the series of new and populist political parties.
The coalition and the troika
To put things in context the immediate situation in Greece is deadlock between the coalition government consisting of Syriza and the anti-austerity, right wing Independent Greeks, and the powers that be who have, up to now, dictated Greek economic policy: the troika of the ECB, IMF and EU (primarily Germany). The deadlock is over Greek desires to either write down their national debt, which at the time of writing stands at €420,467,205,362 – 216.11% of their GDP, or to trade in some of that debt for long term government bonds with interest tied to growth. The troika opposes this to varying degrees depending on who in particular we are talking about, with Germany especially strongly opposing a debt ‘haircut’. The immediate possible outcomes of this deadlock are relatively simple, in that either one side concedes or a compromise is reached. The complexities arise from the unwillingness of either side to back down – Syriza have a mandate from the Greek population for debt reduction, and Germany is devoted to preventing it.
The political aspects of German reluctance
The reporting on German reluctance to allow for a Greek debt write-down needs to take into account the political aspects of the situation, which is where the ‘Syriza effect’ really takes on an international dimension. Germany, namely Angela Merkel and her ‘grand coalition’ government of the Christian Democratic Union and Social Democrats (very similar to our own Labour/Fine Gael government), are worried about the political contagion that a successful Syriza government could mean for Europe.
If Syriza manages to have their debt written down and run the country without the austerity that has been sold to the Greek population under the mantra of ‘There Is No Alternative’ (TINA), similar political parties across Europe could and probably would receive greater popular support from populations tired of harsh budgets. What I’ll refer to as ‘insurgent parties’ have been progressively more successful across Europe over the past number of years. These parties come from both the right and left, but share three primary features: they utilise populist political rhetoric to rally those left disenchanted by the establishment political system (positioning themselves as ‘outsiders’ seeking to topple the status quo), they seek to challenge the European Union on economics or immigration (framing this as returning sovereignty) and have all drawn huge gains in support as a result of the economic crisis and the failure of traditional politics to resolve the fallout thereof.
There are examples in almost all European countries, from UKIP in the UK, to the Front National in France, Podemos in Spain and the Five Star Movement of Italy. Like Syriza, all these parties present a challenge to the EU’s traditional way of operating. Charting their rise, it seems relatively certain that we will see a Europe of greater and greater political extremes if there is no return to economic prosperity for the majority of the European population.
The insurgent parties present a big problem for Merkel and the European Union as a whole, which is founded implicitly upon political understanding and common ground between centre right and centre left political parties. However, the failure of these traditional parties to deliver jobs and growth has resulted in their decline, which has also seen them entering ‘grand coalitions’ across Europe to maintain majorities and stability. Such coalitions further fuel insurgent parties whose claims on there being little or no difference between mainstream parties appear to be proved correct.
The European question
In Ireland we’ve seen a steady decline of establishment parties as well, and the rise of Sinn Fein threatens to create our very own insurgent party. But in many respects the individual elections in European states are no longer an important an element of the EU, whose large bureaucracy and extensive regulation prevents rapid or sweeping change. Instead, the question has become one that Syriza poses very well: in a period of growing polarisation between a wealthy interior and a debt-ridden periphery, can Europe as we know it survive?
A huge amount of time, political capital and money has been poured into building the EU and maintaining it, so it’s unlikely at this point that as a whole it will fail or collapse. But if the systems of the EU are unable to accommodate Syriza and similar political parties coming to power, then we face not only the prospect a Greek exit from the EU but also a reality in which other European populations, angry that their futures are not in their own hands but those of bureaucrats in Europe, vote for insurgent parties. Either way, insurgent parties are strengthened, either by the anger of populations deprived of real political choice or by the knowledge that their own insurgent parties could achieve similar things to Syriza.
The future of politics in Europe looks likely to be one of both growing instability and polarization, where issues like immigration get caught up in a growing disconnect between the majority of the public and the politicians they elect. This disconnect and the resulting insurgent parties pose the prospect of a sea change in what Europe is, and Syriza’s victory could mark the beginning of the ‘new Europe’, or the beginning of the end of the European Project.