Alexis Tsipras in Athens, January 2015. Photo: ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP/Getty Images
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Never mind the Euro: Syriza's win could threaten mainsteam politics across Europe

New Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras may be the man who consigns centrist politics to history.

When Syriza’s Alexis Tsipras first surged in the opinion polls in 2012, many in the eurozone feared that his election would destroy Europe’s economic order by forcing Greece to give up its currency. Three years on, the talk is of a political rather than an economic domino effect. Now that Tsipras has been inaugurated as Greek prime minister, it seems he could be the man to save the euro by allowing it to adjust its economic policies, upending the continent’s established political order in the process.

A couple of years ago I watched Tsipras introduce himself to the American foreign policy elite. “We are psychologically prepared for a clash,” he told a startled audience at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, “because in politics there is no such thing as tea and crumpets: there are interests that are conflicting with each other.”

The clash is now real: battle lines are drawn between Syriza and the eurozone. The party has set out a trifecta of goals: a €2bn welfare programme, an attack on “antisocial oligarchs” and a write-down of at least half of Greece’s public debt. At the same time, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, leader of the Eurogroup of finance ministers, is already warning about the dangers of not sticking to prior agreements.

There is a danger of miscalculation because both sides think they have the upper hand. When I saw Tsipras speak, he said: “If Greece was not in the eurozone, I have no doubt that nobody would care about Greece’s situation. [But] Greece is one of the links that make up the eurozone. And if one breaks, it won’t only be bad for the link, it’ll be bad for the entire chain. We know this, and our friends in Germany know this as well.”

On the other hand, the consensus in Berlin is that the fallout from a Grexit could be contained. There is now a bailout fund for sovereign nations and a European banking union. Private banks have divested themselves of Greek debt and the markets seem becalmed.

Most analysts think there is a deal to be made by extending the length of the debt, lowering interest rates and offering more flexibility on social spending. When I spoke to a political friend in Greece who strongly opposed Syriza, even he had to concede that Tsipras had a better chance of getting a good deal than Samaras and the mainstream parties. “If he gets some resources to alleviate poverty and a symbolic way to escape the clutches of the Troika, he will be able to sell an agreement. Berlin, on the other hand, has to be very careful. Imagine if there was a Greek exit as a result of confrontation with Germany. There would be uproar across Europe.”

The markets appear to agree. Economic commentators, from the Wall Street Journal to the Guardian, seem to think that Syriza could save the euro by tempering Berlin’s self-defeating austerity.

Mainstream social democrats – including the prime ministers of France and Italy – hope to use Tsipras’s victory to persuade Angela Merkel to agree a settlement that caters to Europe’s social problems and helps avoid deflation. For much of Europe, the biggest danger of the Syriza win is less the collapse of the euro than the collapse of mainstream politics.

Tsipras’s election – and the annihilation of the once-dominant PASOK, which scraped barely 5 per cent in the election – is part of a larger trend of political fragmentation in which Europe’s established parties have been crowded out by insurgents from the left and the right. The most immediate challenge will be in Spain, with the emergence of Podemos, the Latin American-inspired party founded in 2014 with a mission “to stop Spain being a colony of Germany and the Troika”.

José Ignacio Torreblanca, who is writing a book about Podemos, thinks it significant that Syriza immediately went into alliance with the right rather than exploring alliances with centrist forces. “It shows that their goal is to change the axis of political competition from left v right to one that pits Europe against the nation,” he says. Torreblanca fears that Tsipras’s victory opens the door to a clash of populisms, with the anti-solidarity right rising in Germany, Finland, Austria and Sweden to counter southern populists of the left.

Last year’s European elections pitted insurgent parties (Ukip, Syriza, the Front National) against the technocratic elite who have driven the EU for the past few decades. But if the mainstream parties fail to find a way of reinventing themselves, politics in Europe may soon move beyond a battle between populism and technocracy.

Alexis Tsipras may be the bearer of a new settlement that confronts populism with populism, leaving the established centrist parties on the scrapheap of history. 

This article first appeared in the 30 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Class Ceiling

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Britain needs more great science writers – particularly from backgrounds which have been traditionally under-represented in the media.

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