Gerassimos Moschonas: Syriza and the EU after the first long battle—the balance sheet of the negotiations

Gerassimos Moschonas, author of In the Name of Social Democracy, reflects on Syriza's strategy over the course of the negotiations, including what its achievements and failures reveal about possibilities for challenging European austerity. This piece was originally published in Telos22 May 2015.

The Deutsche Grammophon or the EU’s offer of suicide

In the wake of the May 2014 European Elections, all economic actors in Greece—from the poorest household to the biggest multinational—were, for the most part, frozen in economic inactivity as they faced the prospect of Syriza’s victory. This led to an artificial collapse in tax receipts, the freezing of all kinds of investment, capital flight and the cancelling-out of the weak dynamic toward economic recovery that had appeared before the last quarter of 2014.

As such, if Syriza had conformed to the established procedures, as the German government and its allies demanded in February 2015—"respect for the rules"—then the Troika (or "the Institutions") would have formulated a particularly unfavourable and extremely static evaluation of Greece’s economy and public accounts—indeed, a largely superficial one. The consequence? The new Syriza government would have been forced to renounce applying not only the entire economic policy that it had promised prior to the elections, but even the policy of the New Democracy (ND)-PASOK coalition government that preceded it. What policy would Syriza have carried out if it had agreed to the extension of the previous programme, as was suggested to it? A policy even more restrictive than that of the ND-PASOK government, with a dose of even harsher austerity!

In this first crucial phase the Germans proposed to the Greek government—which had just been elected, triumphantly—that it commit political suicide. Analyses like that produced by Bloomberg, which adjudged that "Europe and Greece Are at War over Nothing" or indeed Paul Krugman’s commentary entitled "Athenae Delenda Est"—which showed a great deal of goodwill toward Syriza—underestimated the initial inflexibility of the countries that make up the hard core of the Eurogroup, in my view because they had failed to take full account of the technical aspects of how the Memorandum operates. Syriza rejected this proposal—and it was totally right to do so.

Syriza: the three pillars of a useful negotiating corridor

In the negotiations the Greek government has—on the whole—adopted an appropriate orientation. The central pillar of this strategic approach has a name: moderation. Ultimately, what Syriza was asking for in early February was a very gradual and very controlled transition from the Troika regime and brutal austerity to a greater economic autonomy and a reasoned growth policy. It had already (without doubt temporarily or tactically) abandoned its objectives concerning the restructuring of the debt (but also the goal of an international conference on debt) practically right from the moment that the negotiations officially began. So after five years of sharp recession, it was proposing an extremely prudent political turn. By the standards of its pre-electoral promises, Syriza could not have been any more moderate. All the rest is just ideological chatter—or ignorance.

The second pillar of Syriza’s strategic orientation was determination. A powerful accompaniment to this pillar called "determination", particularly evident and active when the negotiations between Greece and the other Eurozone governments ground to a halt, was the fact that it remained vague as to its ultimate objectives. The formulation used by Euclides Tsakalotos—currently the lead Greek negotiator—can hardly be understood otherwise. "We deliberately create uncertainty among our partners as to what our intentions are. Otherwise we can’t negotiate. Rupture? Well, it’s a possibility!" (TV Star, 27 March 2015). Moderation + determination + maintaining the uncertainty over whether there might be a rupture: that is the organising triptych that defines the Greek government’s strategic orientation.

In fact, it is essentially this dimension of "determination" that represents the great difference separating these negotiations from the previous ones: in the past, particularly in the 2010-12 period, it was the European side (above all Germany) that was vague about whether or not it was determined to carry out a rupture. Generally, before each occasion that a loan payment was made, the psychodrama over whether Greece would remain in the Eurozone or not was fed by incessant declarations from European officials. Obviously, today as beforehand, the strategy that plays on uncertainty does the greatest damage to the Greek economy, aggravating the impact of the long recession. Be that as it may, at the level of the negotiations, strictly speaking—and independently of any negative economic effects—the two camps are now asking themselves "how far" the "adversary" camp can go. In the past only the Greek side had to ask itself this question, which allowed the Troika unilaterally to deal in threats, compulsion and blackmail.

In reality the present Greek government has—in large measure—copied the German strategy. Syriza has made the unusual choice of giving its European partners a taste of their own medicine [in French, literally, "paying them their own currency"]. This choice is not without a degree of intelligence, and indeed boldness. But faced with the institutions’ "tactical memory", and also faced with the other side’s superior power, the deployment of Syriza’s tactic lacks depth (building up its strength in stages, step-by-step) or subtlety in its implementation and central coordination.

Syriza: a lack of preparation, grave errors in handling the situation

So if the Greek government’s negotiating corridor was the right one, even so it has shown itself poorly prepared to handle this unique historical moment in an effective way. The Greek negotiators have incontestably been let down by their lack of experience in government. Which was predictable. But that alone does not entirely elucidate Syriza’s weaknesses. Two other factors explain its lack of professionalism: i) its economic high command was not sufficiently prepared to face up to the battle of the negotiations. The nature of Syriza’s programme, which blended an overall economic vision and generally costed objectives, without however passing by way of the crucial intermediary process of detailed elaborations, made its whole programmatic approach difficult to operate in a framework which, rightly or wrongly, considers costed details to be the alpha and omega of economic wisdom; ii) the government’s high command (including both political cadres and economists) were not well-versed in the functioning of the European institutions or the culture of certain major European countries. Certain leading cadres’ lack of any consequential experience living abroad (which is rare in the history of the Greek executive), together with certain others’ narrowly Anglo-Saxon training, created—at the very heart of the central governing nucleus—a void of culture and knowledge of European questions. Syriza’s very naïve pre-election theory as to the possibility of an alliance of the countries of Southern Europe—a theory that was rapidly exploded by the attitude taken by Spain and Portugal—as well as its excessive initial optimism over how the negotiations might play out, resulted from a grave lack of understanding of Europe’s development, its subtleties and the power relations therein [1]. Moreover, the multiplication of the arenas of negotiation (the Brussels Group, the Athens Group, the Eurogroup…), which was motivated by internal political concerns—but involuntarily multiplied the possible vetoes against it [2]—was connected to this same lack of understanding of EU mechanisms. These are much more serious factors than Syriza’s lack of experience in government.

In consequence, the Greek team failed to convert a well chosen general strategy into clear, prioritised objectives that would be easy for it to defend—and not only because it was speaking a different economic and ideological language to the rest of Europe. The discussions that I have had with government officials close to the negotiators (for both Greece and Europe) have convinced me that the serious doubts over Syriza’s lack of preparation were magnified by the different ideological grammars that were apparent during the negotiation. Even so, the doubts in question were in large part well-founded and justified. Indeed, the two reorganisations of the Greek negotiating team, as well as the weakening of Varoufakis’s role, brought proof of this.

An assessment: Syriza, the EU, populism

1. The notion that the effectiveness of a negotiator is directly proportional to his technocratic capacity is an over-simplistic one. On the contrary, it is often a lack of competence, rationality and knowledge that constitutes an advantage in a negotiation—however paradoxical this may seem—because it introduces doubts among the opposing camp and confuses its approach [3]. So, paradoxically—or more precisely, not paradoxically at all—in certain regards the Greeks’ aptitude for negotiation was sustained by a combination of considered determination and an involuntary "amateurism", and not only in a temporary sense. After all, this created a critically important uncertainty as to the Greek negotiators’ intentions and their ultimate goal.

2. However, across the last three-month period, this initial "amateurism" (recently there has been a sharp improvement in the effectiveness of the Greek team, on account of the apprenticeship it has undergone and its internal rearrangement) has created the image of a lack of seriousness, sapping the confidence of Syriza’s European interlocutors. It has also meant a retreat in terms of what Syriza had won at the outset, namely the aura of prestige it enjoyed among European public opinion and part of the European elites. More profoundly, however, and most importantly, it has denied Syriza the moral advantage that it could and should have hoped to achieve, and which would have represented a powerful strategic lever in the negotiation, changing the balance of forces. After all, in a democracy the third estate (European public opinion, progressive people, intellectuals, journalists, and even in certain cases social movements) are indirect actors in the negotiation, exercising powerful pressure on the morally "inferior" side. All this reduced Syriza’s capacity to construct solid alliances, the sine qua non condition of any effective institutional strategy.

3. Was Syriza’s margin of manoeuvre very limited, or even zero, right from the outset? In fact, the desire to avoid a political contagion effect (such as the dynamic that Syriza unleashed could have produced) was a factor radically restricting its margin of manoeuvre, even before it had got started. Nonetheless, as Nicolas Jabko wrote in his excellent book on the European Union, "when the conditions are favourable, a carefully elaborated political strategy can … impose its own dynamic over the chaotic magma of interests, ideas and institutions" [4]. But Syriza lacked any "carefully elaborated" economic strategy, and it was unable to generate the "favourable conditions" outside of the institutions that could have maximised the impact of its institutional strategy.

4. Should Syriza have been more committed to the confrontation? In my view, if the Tsipras leadership had been well prepared, it ought not have feared—during the crucial first phase, in February—the prolongation of the crisis; that is, a new round of conflict with a view to securing a global agreement (the absence of any general agreement, perpetuating the economic uncertainty, in fact serves as a dangerous recessionary factor). It could have refused to sign the 20 February agreement (at least so long as it had not received any liquidity).  Acting within its means, a well-prepared Syriza could have been non-conventional and more aggressive, given that it was already moderate in its objectives. Nonetheless, its lack of sufficient preparation, its imperfect knowledge of the European institutions and, above all, its lack of concrete and easily-communicable negotiating "keys" ruined such a perspective in advance.

5. Syriza, which is moving and manoeuvring on a tightrope, testing the limits of the European Union but also the limits of its own strategy and identity, has suffered a first defeat in making very important concessions as compared to its pre-election promises. The results, to this day, do not allow for the slightest doubt in our diagnosis of this point. The appropriateness of its three axes of negotiation, and also its innovative economic ideas, have been let down by its insufficient preparation and by its disorder, its cacophony and, in certain cases, the fanfares coming from cadres and ministers who have not yet understood that work that gets down to the bottom of things and intelligent, radical action have to take primacy over discursive radicalism. In fact, some of these lovers of easy words—who did not at all see Greece’s economic horrors coming, yet today give lessons in economics—are suffering real difficulty adapting to the immense responsibilities that are incumbent on the Left in power. In short, a past in protest politics, together with the ideological stereotypes of a radical Left programmatically traumatised and intellectually destabilised by the collapse of communism, has borne significant influence on the choices and the style of today.

6. The long negotiation has shown that expansionary austerity—to use Paul Krugman’s very pertinent term—remains the European Union’s dogma. This is its in-house culture; in a sense, the EU’s marker of notoriety. This in spite of the fact that a significant section of the European elites—but also of the German government, which is today, after its first fundamentalist reaction, more moderate than the myth surrounding it would suggest—wants to soften the harsh austerity of the recent past. This dogma has been further reinforced by the petty partisan calculations of certain European governments, which for their own domestic reasons are seeking Syriza’s—almost—total defeat.

7. A striking feature of the negotiation was the incapacity of the European "technical" bodies to innovate even a little, faced with a new phenomenon like Syriza. This was compounded by the fact that the EU’s technical teams are constantly putting on different hats, according to the ebb and flow of what subjects are being dealt with—they are "partners", then "lenders" and then "partners" again. Curiously, the relative improvement of the Greek team’s effectiveness in the last two weeks has made the limits of the EU’s intermediate bureaucratic structures all the more obvious. Paraphrasing Jocelyn Pixley a little, we could say that its rigidness "expresses a behaviour, and not any kind of expertise". The EU, founded—among other things—on the high quality of its bureaucracy, is now transforming into a machine that is largely the prisoner of its own automatisms.

8. The EU has constituted itself economically and institutionally as an unfavourable terrain for the Left, be it radical or social-democratic. Certainly, France (above all), Italy and, in part, the family of social democracy have differentiated themselves from the model of expansionary austerity upheld by the Northern and Eastern bloc built around Germany. The same is doubtless also true of the new Commission president, who is now asserting himself as a more autonomous authority, drawing strength from the legitimacy that he has taken from the results of the last European elections. But if we are to call things by their proper name, we have to say that the subtleties of these slight differentiations are, in the last analysis, profoundly ineffective. If no major country or coalition of countries or important family of parties—or, indeed, in an extreme case, an institution belonging to the EU institutional triangle—bangs its fist on the table, then the EU will not correct its course. Syriza’s reformism is caught in the trap of deeply anchored structures that are slow to budge. Just as in the past the moderate reformism of European social democracy was caught in the trap of these same structures and by the divisions among socialists.

9. Greece today is less important for the Eurozone than people think. But this strange and contradictory country, with its well-known enormous weaknesses and pathologies, is more modern than it might appear. Syriza does not represent an "oriental" phenomenon or a Left populism in Greek colours, despite the fact that in opposition it was strongly tempted by demagogy and some of the statements from the cadres of the current government also indulge in populism. In reality—simultaneously both despite and because of its contradictions—Syriza is resolutely situated on the side of the macro-historical agenda of the European-style Left. A classically European one. Not on the side of some far-away, unexplored populism, of the Latin-American variety. In its organisational structure and fundamental ideology, it even represents an ideal-type version—almost as if modelled and produced by the Weberian laboratory—of today’s radical Left. That is the big difference separating Syriza from Podemos.

10. Moreover, Syriza’s economic policy is far more imaginative and rational—despite its serious flaws—than that proposed by "the Institutions". It is more "modern". If Syriza’s policy is rejected, then the thing being rejected will not be its supposed populism, but something more subtle: a very moderate social democratic policy. So yes, if Syriza is defeated—and even more so if it is humiliated—then its current, essentially non-populist policy will probably give way to subterranean currents who are effectively evolving toward a more national and populist agenda and style, even within Syriza (however little organised they may be, and even if they are still too ideologically diffuse). The crisis, which has turned Greek society upside down across the last five years, has created an ideal environment for a national-populist strategy.

11. It is because of the "bizarre" modernity of what is taking place in Greece—which is captivating at the same time as it is abhorrent, but modernity all the same—that it will have an impact on the European Union, particularly in the medium term. Throughout history Greece has often functioned as a social and geopolitical laboratory—that’s what the economists don’t know. It is in this regard that a defeat for Syriza inflicted by the lenders—here I’m not talking about a defeat connected to the wear and tear of remaining in power—will be of real significance for Europe. If it is defeated, the post-defeat period will not be the same as the pre-defeat period. Neither for Greece nor for the EU.

This article is dedicated to the memory of Stavros Konstantakopoulos, a friend from my student years in Paris, a colleague at the Department of Political Science and History and a member of Syriza’s Central Committee

[1] This first part of my analysis is a reworked version of my ‘ΣΥΡΙΖΑ versus EE: Η μακρά διαπραγμάτευση’

[2] George Tsebelis, ‘Το εκλογικό χαρτί του Αλ. Τσίπρα’,

[3] Thomas C. Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict, Harvard, Harvard University Press, 1981. p.19.

[4] Nicolas Jabko, L’Europe par le marché, Histoire d’une stratégie improbable, Paris, Presses de Sciences Po, 2009, p. 270.]

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