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

FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
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Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

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