What the Greek election tells us about Europe

A political consensus shattered.

Greece is infamous for its earthquakes and the political earthquake caused by yesterday’s elections will have far reaching consequences.

As the final results are coming through it is evident that the political consensus that ruled Greece for the past 35 years has been shattered. The bi-polar political system that enjoyed vast support in electoral contest after electoral contest has been defeated. No party has managed to secure as much as 20 per cent of the vote.

The two political parties that have dominated government and managed the county’s fortunes since the end of the junta in the mid-1970s have been obliterated. The Conservatives struggled to reach 19 per cent and the Socialists have been pushed to third place with some 14 per cent of the vote. As a result a radical Communist party has become the second biggest political force in the country and, put together, all communist parties have won about a third of the vote.

Seven parties in total will enter parliament, delivering a very fragmented political landscape. Worst of all, a fascist party -- regularly linked to racist attacks -- has been handed 21 seats.

The fallout is clear and immediate. The majority of Greeks have voted for parties that reject the terms of the bailout agreed only a few months ago. With it they reject the policy of austerity and the economic stagnation it is causing. As a result the lending arrangements that form part of the bail-ut and keep Greece afloat are put in question, together with the country’s ability to pay its way and remain within the Eurozone and the EU.

The fragmented and inconclusive verdict delivered at the polls yesterday makes it very hard for a government to be formed. The two main parties do not have the votes to create a stable coalition. Meanwhile, the anti-bailout parties range from the far right to the far left , rendering an anti-bailout coalition impossible.

Consequently the country faces 11 days of political haggling between seven very diverse political forces. The possibility of another round of elections cannot be ruled out. All this creates a sense of instability and uncertainty at a time when the country needs leadership.

But the fallout goes beyond the narrow borders of a country in the south-east corner of Europe. Its Eurozone partners and the markets alike are looking closely, fully aware that a possible Greek default will have devastating effects for the European banking sector and a Greek exit from the Eurozone will undermine the process of European integration.

But the repercussions of the Greek vote go further than that. This is a damning verdict for the policy of austerity that has become dogma across the EU. Greeks remain pro-European, the vast majority of the parties entering parliament support the country’s place at the heart of the process of European integration. What they reject is the political and economic orthodoxy that currently governs the EU.

They are not alone. The result of the Greek parliamentary elections should be seen in conjunction with the result of the French presidential election and the British local elections.

In every electoral contest voters opted for politicians and political parties that advocate a different kind of remedy for Europe’s economic malaise. There is a rejection of conservative political and the neo-liberal economic policies that have dominated the political discourse in the past few years and a preference towards growth-producing policies of public investment.

But there is also a rejection of an EU that seems more pre-occupied with bailing out the banking sector than creating jobs for its people. A healthy banking sector is imperative for a the health and wealth of the European economy but the sentiment as expressed by left-wing victories in Greece, France and Britain is that the EU should work for its people first.

Young Greeks and Spaniards locked in long-term unemployment, young Brits unable to afford their own home feel disappointed and disenfranchised, so much so that some of them are turning to extreme, nationalist and xenophobic parties.

But the victories of pro-European parties across Europe over the past few days show that the people of Europe have not abandoned the idea of European unity. They send a message though that they want an alternative political and economic model to govern the fortunes of their continent.

It is now imperative for European leaders to abandon short-sighted and fragmenting economic policies, based on national remedies of competitive austerity, and pursue pan-European solutions that will integrate the European economy further, invest more at the European level, creating economies of scale and providing the EU as a whole with the opportunity to pull its recourses together and invest in research and education, high-end technology, green energy, telecommunications infrastructure and all the elements of the economy of the future that will pull the continent out of the current state of economic stagnation.

The EU and its members are at cross-roads, they have the choice between breaking apart and going back to the pre-war model of nationalism and nation-state conflict or pushing forward together, creating a stronger, more unified EU that can provide collective solutions for the common problems faced by its peoples.

The magnitude of the challenges we face demands unity and common purpose. We have the vehicle to deliver the solutions that will benefit Europe as a whole. It is time we make the most of it.

 

A couple walk passed and election poster of the Democratic Alliance party in Athens, 3 May 2012. Credit: Getty Images

Petros Fassoulas is the chairman of European Movement UK

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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.