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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After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

Theresa May says Article 50 will be triggered on 29 March. The UK must prepare for years, if not decades, of negotiating. 

Back in June, when Europe woke to the news of Brexit, the response was muted. “When I first emerged from my haze to go to the European Parliament there was a big sign saying ‘We will miss you’, which was sweet,” Labour MEP Seb Dance remembered at a European Parliament event in London. “The German car industry said we don’t want any disruption of trade.”

But according to Dance – best known for holding up a “He’s Lying” sign behind Nigel Farage’s head – the mood has hardened with the passing months.

The UK is seen as demanding. The Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is viewed as toxic. The German car manufacturers now say the EU is more important than British trade. “I am afraid that bonhomie has evaporated,” Dance said. 

On Wednesday 29 March the UK will trigger Article 50. Doing so will end our period of national soul-searching and begin the formal process of divorce. So what next?

The European Parliament will have its say

In the EU, just as in the UK, the European Parliament will not be the lead negotiator. But it is nevertheless very powerful, because MEPs can vote on the final Brexit deal, and wield, in effect, a veto.

The Parliament’s chief negotiator is Guy Verhofstadt, a committed European who has previously given Remoaners hope with a plan to offer them EU passports. Expect them to tune in en masse to watch when this idea is revived in April (it’s unlikely to succeed, but MEPs want to discuss the principle). 

After Article 50 is triggered, Dance expects MEPs to draw up a resolution setting out its red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and present this to the European Commission.

The European Commission will spearhead negotiations

Although the Parliament may provide the most drama, it is the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, which will lead negotiations. The EU’s chief negotiator is Michel Barnier. 

Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has said of the negotiations: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

This will be a “deal” of two halves

The Brexit divorce is expected to take 16 to 18 months from March (although this is simply guesswork), which could mean Britain officially Brexits at the start of 2019.

But here’s the thing. The divorce is likely to focus on settling up bills and – hopefully – agreeing a transitional arrangement. This is because the real deal that will shape Britain’s future outside the EU is the trade deal. And there’s no deadline on that. 

As Dance put it: “The duration of that trade agreement will exceed the life of the current Parliament, and might exceed the life of the next as well.”

The trade agreement may look a bit like Ceta

The European Parliament has just approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada, a mammoth trade deal which has taken eight years to negotiate. 

One of the main stumbling points in trade deals is agreeing on similar regulatory standards. The UK currently shares regulations with the rest of the UK, so this should speed up the process.

But another obstacle is that national or regional parliaments can vote against a trade deal. In October, the rebellious Belgian region of Wallonia nearly destroyed Ceta. An EU-UK deal would be far more politically sensitive. 

The only way is forward

Lawyers working for the campaign group The People’s Challenge have argued that it will legally be possible for the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 if the choice is between a terrible deal and no deal at all. 

But other constitutional experts think this is highly unlikely to work – unless a penitent Britain can persuade the rest of the EU to agree to turn back the clock. 

Davor Jancic, who lectures on EU law at Queen Mary University of London, believes Article 50 is irrevocable. 

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, is also doubtful, but has this kernel of hope for all the Remainers out there:

“No EU law scholar has suggested that with the agreement of the other 27 member states you cannot allow a member state to withdraw its notice.”

Good luck chanting that at a march. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.