Fate of the Greeks: Why Syriza Hasn’t Asked To Leave The EU—Yet

Protesters clash with riot police during a demonstration in Athens, Greece, 1 May 2010. (Creative Commons image: Joana http://goo.gl/LZOr0v )

“…and the weaker, having a just cause, prevail over the great.”- Euripides, The Suppliants

These are desperate times for the people of Greece.

Heading into a frenzy of meetings, the Syriza government is preparing for all scenarios and developments. 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.

Yesterday, Greek finance minister Yannis Varoufakis told the members of parliament that Greece is entering the post-bailout era. Meanwhile, his German counterpart Wolfgang Schäuble’s comments later in the day asserted that no negotiation would happen. The future is still indiscernible.

With an emergency meeting of Eurogroup finance ministers today, and a full summit scheduled for Thursday, 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 of that of the Troika.

In one of Aesop’s fables, a pigeon driven to desperation by thirst flew toward what appeared to be a pitcher of water, only to find itself crashing into a painting. Severely wounded, the bird is captured by a bystander and taken as food. Zeal, Aesop warns, should not outrun discretion.

Knowing that Greece’s course has substantial consequences for the Eurozone and the United States, Syriza is being cautious about its language.

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.

With all the talk of a “Grexit,” it’s important to note that Greece’s Syriza government has yet to threaten leaving the European Union or the Eurozone.

On the other side of this equation, 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 threatening to leave the Eurozone?

Well, first there is the question of public opinion. As recent opinion polls indicate that as many as 70% of Greeks hope to remain within the currency union. The undertaking of any radical steps will require building long-term political support on the home front by sticking to the democratic will.

A nuanced analysis indicates that Syriza, leading a fragile coalition government, is planning for all contingencies. It understands that negotiations with the Troika (the European Central Bank, the European Commision, and the International Monetary Fund) have broad implications on the long-term health of the EU as well as global trade treaties favored by the United States.

Balancing Mandates

Syriza holds two mandates. First, it must end the social catastrophe that many blame on 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.

But the Troika holds that no restructuring is possible and that Greece must stick to their commitments or leave the currency union.

The Negotiations

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

Last week, the government sent its economics-professor-turned-finance-minister Yannis 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 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 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 naive to imagine Syriza hasn’t prepared for this exact scenario.

If Varoufakis’ proposals, which are are viewed as reasonable by most Greeks, are rejected by EU 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. That’s when the German government’s mettle will be tested. Can the European Union afford a “Grexit” and the potential implications for Spain and other austerity-ravaged countries?

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.

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 they will veto any attempt to ratify the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, an international trade agreement that both Germany and the United States want urgently.

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

There are, of course, many contingencies and a slew of potential scenarios that affect the various players. This is more than a game of brinksmanship; for the people of Greece, this isn’t a game.

In weighing the best course of action, Syriza must do for the people of Greece and Europe what is necessary—not what the hegemons desire. We arrive again at the words of Euripides: “there is nothing more hostile to a city that a tyrant, under whom in the first and chiefest place, there are not laws in common, but one man, keeping the law himself to himself, has the sway, and this is no longer equal…but laws being written, the rich and the weak have equal justice…and the weaker, having a just cause, prevail over the great.”

February 11th, 2015

Alexandros Orphanides is NYC-based freelance journalist, researcher, and teacher. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in History, Master of Science in Education, and is completing a Master of Arts in Political Science from the CUNY- Graduate Center. He writes about political, cultural and social issues. His work has appeared in CounterPunch and Popular Resistance.