From sweet to sour: Euroscepticism in Greece
A love-hate relationship.
Photos: A. Christofilopoulos / FOS PHOTOS
In 2009 “love” of Greeks for the EU project went downhill, going from sweet to sour, and turning Greece from the most pro-European country in Europe to the most eurosceptic country. Giannis Balabanidis studies the phenomenon and explains why: “It was a shallow bond,” he says, and notes that the history, the crisis, and populist discourse are relevant to understand the Greek–EU relationship.
Following the British referendum and the vote for a Brexit in June earlier this year, increasing euroscepticism is a phenomenon not only rising in Britain, but in most European countries.
This spring, statistics showed that Britain had the second lowest score when it came to trusting the EU institutions. Only 29 percent answered yes to that question.
Below Britain was Greece, with only 25 percent tending to trust the EU institutions.
Nevertheless, euroscepticism differs a lot from country to country. And indeed the same is true of euroscepticism in Britain and Greece.
“Euroscepticism as we saw it with Brexit, is not the case in Greece. The Greek right is traditionally pro-European,” explains Giannis Balabanidis, a political scientist at the Panteion University currently doing a study on the changes in the Greek-EU relationship.
“There is a small faction inside the Greek right, that is oriented toward sovereignty and rather pro nation-state, but the very tradition of the right-wing party indicates that our country belongs to the western civilization and to the European community,” he continues.
“From 1987 up until 2009, Greece was the most pro-European country in the EU.”
Balabanidis uses the terms “hard” and “soft euroscepticism” to distinguish differences between the relations of countries and political parties to the EU.
Hard euroscepticism means questioning the very idea of European integration, while soft euroscepticism, simply put, means questioning the institutions of the EU and their policies.
“It is only KKE, the Greek Communist party, that expresses a hard euroscepticism, but even they say that the EU must be resolved through a popular movement. They don’t even take a stand for returning to the drachma or for returning to a national political framework,” he says.
“So you mostly find soft euroscepticism throughout the whole political spectrum,” he concludes, explaining the very different positions of the Greek and the British euroscepticism, although Greece has the lowest rank of trust.
“Seven out of ten Greeks believe the EU has strayed down the wrong path.”
The soft euroscepticism in Greece can be understood from a historical perspective.
Greece entered the European community in 1979. Then, there were two parties supporting the European community: New Democracy, the mainstream center-right party, and a small communist party belonging to the euro-communists, which is the origin of today’s SYRIZA.
The rest of the left at that time, KKE (the pro-Soviet Greek Communist party) and PASOK (the socialist-populist party) were against Greece entering the European community.
However, in the ’80s, as PASOK became a governmental party, they made a U-turn in their stand against the European Union and subsequently Greece saw a high level of acceptance of European integration. In fact, more than the European average at the time.
The statistics show that from 1987 up until 2009, Greece was the most pro-European country in the EU.
“However, it was not a deep relationship,” Balabanidis remarks on the pro-European tendency.
“It was a shallow and superficial bond. In Greece both the people and the political elites welcomed the benefits from the European structural funds and especially from the common agricultural policy, but when we had to implement a reform that was not very popular, the politicians put the blame on Brussels. That is the story of Greek pro-Europeanism, and when the crisis arrived this image totally changed,” he says.
A natural explanation of Greek euroscepticism is the crisis, the memorandums, and austerity measures put forward by Greece’s EU lenders, but Balabanidis also highlights the public debate in Greece and other European countries.
“The debate was polarized. There was a discourse, pretty much orientalist, saying ‘you are lazy, you are corrupted, the party is over,’ and on the contrary, the Greeks took the position of the victim saying: ‘This is an experiment, they want to turn our country into a guinea pig for their neoliberal experiments.’ So on the whole, we don’t have a healthy reflexive relationship with our European identity right now.”
This polarization, combined with a populist strategy and the simple solution “NO” vote to a third memorandum in a referendum put forward by SYRIZA, also had an impact on the Greek–EU relationship.
“Populism clashes with the EU institutional reality. It proposes that there are simple solutions to our problems; for example, through a referendum, the reality of the memorandum will be over. But the EU integration institutions and the relations of power inside the EU are a complex reality. So you cannot have simple solutions in such a framework,” says Balabanidis.
“That is the clash. And that is where SYRIZA hit the wall of the EU institutional framework,” he continues.
Some scholars use terms other than hard and soft euroscepticisim. A study on euroscepticism and trust-building by the International Institute of Prague uses a more descriptive approach and outlines three types of euroscepticism.
The first is a policy-oriented euroscepticism, which does not undermine the European political order as such, but works as a domestic opposition; disagreeing with policies that come out of the executive kitchen. These sceptics typically oppose specific austerity measures or agreements like the TTIP.
The second can be called anti-establishment euroscepticism. It contests mainstream politics — including European politics — head on. Attacks from this point of view tend to be more personal but also more paradoxical, because once these movements get into mainstream politics themselves, the rhetoric often changes.
The third type is anti-systemic euroscepticism, what we could call hard euroscepticism. It is described as the most notorious, but also most abstract form, rallying around phrases such as “national sovereignty” and “federalist superstate”. It advocates for solutions such as state exit from the EU or dismantling the European project as a whole.
In this context, the political parties in Greece are characterized as displaying the first and second types of euroscepticism. Following Balabanidis’ argument, it could be suggested that the euroscepticism of SYRIZA was and is especially characterised by the second type; the more simplistic anti-establishment kind of scepticism that changes when a party becomes mainstream and gets into office.
The Greek-EU relationship is going through hard times, and the Greeks are now also the most pessimistic concerning the EU’s future.
According to a Eurobarometer survey conducted in fall 2015, seven out of ten Greeks believe the EU has strayed down the wrong path.
Turning from sweet to sour within years, could the opposite be possibly too?
“Yes, that could be the case in some years,” he answers.
“But not right now, not as long as we are under the memorandum and austerity policies.”
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