"More and more people realise austerity is not viable. There is no other way but to radicalise further"

An interview with Alexis Tsipras of Syriza.

In the past few months, Alexis Tsipras, leader of the Greek left-wing movement Syriza and widely tipped as the country's next prime minister, has been on an international tour, trying to build a broad coalition of support for his party's anti-austerity policies - and, perhaps, to convince the world's political elite that a Syriza government is not such a terrifying prospect. Last week was London's turn. The New Statesman caught up with him at the end of a busy schedule of meetings and talks, en route to see Tottenham Hotspur play Fulham.

NS: You’ve just given two lectures in London: one at the LSE, and one at Friends House, a well-known venue for left-wing events. How did you find the audiences?

Tsipras: Both at LSE, where I expected the audience to be a bit colder but it turned out that most were friendly, and at the [Friends House] one organised by Syriza London, the participation was amazing. At the second one I was surprised to see that almost 600 hundred people turned up. And not just Greeks either, many were British.

And I think this means that Syriza is not just a party with interesting positions, but a force that can bring change to the political landscape of Europe – not just for Greece, but for all the people who now need to reclaim their right to a decent society, justice and hope; against those who want to see them subjugated to this austerity that doesn’t just kill wages and pensions, but democracy itself.

Would you say you have political allies in Britain?

I had the opportunity to meet with two teams from the Labour Party: an official one headed by [Jon] Cruddas, the party's head of policy-making, and another one with four to five Labour MPs. I got the impression that the Labour party today is in soul-searching mode, and the debate around austerity is on, so Greece is for them an interesting case study. Bearing in mind that in previous years they followed neoliberal policies, today Labour are deeply troubled about everything that has happened in Greece and especially by the collapse of PASOK [Labour's social-democratic Greek sister party]. They're following the situation closely and I dare say they are one of the few parties so close to power in Europe with whom we share a lot of positions and with whom we can be in constant communication.

So Syriza can find common ground with Labour?

It will depend upon how daring [Ed] Miliband intends to be and especially when it matters most: during the next elections when pressure from the mainstream media and oligarchs in Britain start speaking of the "red dragon" that has come to drive away the City and submerge us in inflation and poverty. Of course this will depend not only on Miliband's endurance but also on the circumstances under which this duel will take place. Because if elections are held in 2015, the two years in between will be apocalyptic as to the effects of neoliberalism in Europe. Britain is already in depression. Nothing is getting better. More and more people in Europe realise that austerity is not a viable prospect. I hope people realise that there is no other way but to radicalise even further.

Do you think there is potential for something similar to Syriza in Britain? A party emerging from outside the mainstream that will oppose austerity?

I can’t really know that. Every country has its own characteristics and in Britain there's a long tradition of a two-party system. If of course Labour wins the next elections and opts to continue along Cameron’s tracks, then it’s almost certain that they will lose every bond with the social classes that support them. The void left there will certainly be filled by something new. That’s the way it works in nature and that’s the way it works in politics.

At your lectures, you spoke of the need for a "European people" in order to find a way out of the crisis. Do you find the conditions are here for this to happen?

I think we are running a grave danger: to focus our thoughts on the Greek people, on the British people, on the Italians, like separate entities. The crisis threatens to drive us backwards, back to the idea of the nation-state, and to the antagonism between those states that will come about as an extension of neoliberalism, with false ideas of competitiveness and so on.

On the other hand, we need to see the actual solution: that in common problems, we need common answers. Europeans have nothing to fight over. This stand-off is not between the British and the French, the Greeks and the Germans. This is between the working class, the unemployed and part of the middle class against predatory capital.

This brings us to something current and highly relevant to what you were saying. What do you think about what’s happening in Cyprus?

I think it’s unbelievable and self-destructive.

I believe that in the next few days panic will spread to the rest of southern Europe. It is a very risky choice they [the troika] have made, and it proves they have no understanding of the objective dangers facing the eurozone. They've chosen to have a Eurozone operating under their rule, with the people subjugated, threatened with blackmail like this. I think the only chance Cyprus has, like other countries, is if the political system rejects this blackmail. If they accept it, then there is no way back. Cyprus's economy will be ruined, its banking system will bleed capital as depositors will fear a second haircut, and this will spread throughout Europe.

On the contrary, if Cyprus resists, and rejects this deal by protecting its banking system, it would send a strong message of trust and credibility to the rest of the southern European countries as well.

One of the first things your opponents in the government said when details of the Cyprus bank levy came up was to claim that one of your own MPs, Manolis Glezos, suggested something similar recently.

Their claims are ridiculous.

They're made, though.

They [the Greek government] can claim anything they want in their PR war. It’s the same team of people that has ruined the country and they can use what they want to attack us.

Of course Manolis [Glezos] never said anything like that. He spoke once about the possibility of a voluntary loan via bonds exchange. His idea has nothing to do with the proposed involuntary haircut imposed on Cypriot deposits.

Those who now govern us under the neoliberal dogma, under the dogma of subjugation, will go for anything, they’ll ask for no one's permission to take measures like that one. They will turn us into Argentina [circa 2001] while at the same time proclaiming that their target is to avoid exactly that. De la Rua [the former Argentine president] was their ideological cousin anyway, and it’s likely a helicopter will carry them away too, when the time comes for the Greek people to reclaim their rights and bring back balance to our society, economy and lives. There’s no other possible outcome.

But your opponents will claim you are no longer that radical, and that you now resemble a centre-left party.

Well, it’s ridiculous that the same people who claim that we aid terrorists, accuse us of becoming more timid at the same time. They just spin it any way they can and hope it catches on.

So are you still radicals or have you become a party of the centre-left?

Syriza is what it is: a radical, left-wing party that feels the pulse of the times, knows what’s at stake and is after a wide consensus and unity for political change in Greece. This is something that departs from the narrow limits of the radical left.

And what of the transformations Syriza is going through? Because there is certainly something changing.

We are going through a process, as democratic as ever, and with the people’s participation it can only get better. We already accomplished much. Last year no one would have thought that Syriza could achieve this. Instead of factions, we are now a solid democratic party, that operates with the same freedom of opinions as it used to. This will lead to the formation of a new shape for us that will come about after our next conference which is taking place soon.

Are you making moves in the European scene as well?

We are looking into the new conditions now forming. Our aim is for an international summit on the re-negotiation and the cancellation of the debt of peripheral European countries. For this, we are open to co-operation with forces outside the European left as well.

So you still claim you'll "tear up the memorandum" and not just repay Greece's lenders at any cost?

Our reasoning is that the memorandum has already failed. It’s a disaster. We’ll put an end to it and replace it when in parliament. We’ll proceed to renegotiate with our lenders with the prospect of a reasonable, viable agreement that won’t just concern Greece, because this is not just a Greek crisis. We’ve seen that the problem is systemic. This means that when negotiations take place it won’t be Greece against the world but rather, the European South against Ms Merkel.

Let's leave Europe for a moment; what about the rest of the world? What came out of your recent tour of South and North America, for instance?

This happened in the context of carrying a message to the outside world: That Greece is going through a humanitarian crisis and that it needs alliances with those powers that realise the danger austerity carries for the entire planet. It’s in their best interests to support Greece, not out of charity, but rather because they understand that this catastrophic tragedy needs to stop. Through these contacts we've had the chance to create such alliances, for today and for tomorrow.

Was something more specific discussed in terms of trade? Cheap oil from Venezuela, maybe?

Well, I don't think there is any point to get into so much detail. What matters is that a number of countries both in South and in North America understand the the Greek program is not working and a government of the left can provide a way out of it not just for Greece but also for Europe. It will give a prospect of balance for the world economy as well, because the real threat right now is the spreading of austerity and depression.

Is the rumour true, then, that the US is positive towards the possibility of Syriza coming to power?

That’s a comment I'd leave for you journalists to make. The point is that the US are following a policy line radically different from that which Angela Merkel follows and enforces throughout Europe. The US have printed money, they intend to tax the rich in order to avoid the fiscal cliff.

These are things that sees anyone who dares to propose them in Greece and Europe, labeled an extremist, when at the same time it's what Obama does. In that sense there are common elements, at least more than in the past, in the applied economic policy. Geopolitics are more complicated than that, I'm afraid.

One subject you seemed to leave out of your talks was immigration, an issue that the far right has exploited to frightening extent. What is Syriza's policy on this?

Immigration is one of the most important issues on our agenda. The European South is an entry point and we need to look into a wider solution. It's unfair for entrance countries to be forced into taking all the weight of the issue. Dublin II [the EU-wide agreement on asylum seekers] strips away the right of immigrants and refugees, to leave the country with proper documentation. They don't want to stay in a country where they can't get a job, but they are forced to.

So we need to examine what kind of Europe we want from now on: Do we want a Europe based on solidarity where hardships are equally distributed? Or do we want a Europe where the south is used as storage space for poor souls and the north lives on comfortably? We are approaching this both on an institutional level, trying to force a treaty change, but also through a humanitarian perspective. We can't treat those people who arrive to our country like second-class citizens.

And especially for those kids who are born in Greece, we say nothing different than what Britain does: they should be able to get Greek citizenship. They take part in Greek education, they speak Greek and they know no other home. We need to see the future in a multicultural Greece, much like the way Britain worked it out, successfully in my opinion.

So, for a last question: how important is your role as the face of Syriza?

Faces and personalities are important sometimes, but it's social conditions that create the context for them to act. I’ve been saying the same things for three to four years. The people accepted the message now, not because I changed it. I believe history will be written by those people, not leaders, despite the role leaders have to play in this.

Follow Yiannis Baboulias on Twitter @YiannisBab and Daniel Trilling @trillingual

Alexis Tsipras (centre), after a speech outside Athens University in June 2012. (Photo: Getty.)
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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.